Born as Lukas Fuchs in Berlin, Germany in 1922, Foss was soon recognized as a child prodigy. He began piano and theory lessons with Julius Goldstein [Herford] in Berlin at the age of six. His parents were Hilde (Schindler) and the philosopher and scholar Martin Fuchs. He moved with his family to Paris in 1933, where he studied piano with Lazare Lévy, composition with Noël Gallon, orchestration with Felix Wolfes, and flute with Louis Moyse. In 1937 he moved with his parents and brother to the United States, where his father (on advice from the Quakers who had taken the family in upon arrival in Philadelphia) changed the family name to Foss. He studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, with Isabelle Vengerova (piano), Rosario Scalero (composition) and Fritz Reiner (conducting).
At Curtis, Foss began a lifelong friendship with classmate Leonard Bernstein, who later described Foss as an "authentic genius." In 1961 Bernstein would conduct the premiere of Foss's Time Cycle, while Foss would conduct the premiere of Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.
Foss also studied with Sergei Koussevitzky during the summers from 1939 to 1943 at the Berkshire Music Center (now known as the Tanglewood Music Center) and, as a special student, composition with Paul Hindemith at Yale University from 1939 to 1940. He became an American citizen in 1942.
Foss was appointed professor of music at UCLA in 1953, replacing Arnold Schoenberg. While there he founded the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble, which made its Boston debut in 1962 for the Peabody Mason Concert series. He founded the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts in 1963 while at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Six different years from 1961 to 1987, Foss was the Music Director of the esteemed Ojai Music Festival. From 1963 to 1970 he was Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. From 1971-1988 he was Music Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic (formerly Brooklyn Philharmonia). From 1981 to 1986, he was conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. He was a Professor of Music, Theory, and Composition at Boston University beginning in 1991. His notable students include Faye-Ellen Silverman, Claire Polin and Rocco Di Pietro.
In 1951 Foss married Cornelia Brendel, an artist and painter who was born in Berlin in 1931, the daughter of art historian Otto Brendel. Lukas and Cornelia Foss had two children, Christopher Brendel Foss, who became a documentary filmmaker and corporate consultant on social and environmental engagement/sustainability communications, and Eliza Foss Topol, an actress. Lukas and Cornelia were separated for almost five years, from 1968 to 1972, while Cornelia was the lover of pianist Glenn Gould and moved, with the two children, to Toronto, an arrangement that she later called, "a perfect triangle".
- Rubin, Susan G: Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein (2011). Watertown, MA. Charlesbridge. ISBN 9781580893442. Page 142-3.
- "Obituary for Composer Lukas Foss". Opera News 74 (1). July 2009.
- Allan Kozinn (March 29, 1998). "Lukas Foss, Composer at Home in Many Stylistic Currents, Dies at 86". New York Times. Retrieved June 20, 2009.
- Christian Science Monitor, 23 March 1962, Louis Chapin, "Lukas Foss at Sanders", Boston
- Delta Omicron
- Passenger list of the S.S. Volendam, port of New York, 21 September 1939. Passenger list of the S.S. Mauretania, port of New York, 15 October 1951. Revisiting 'The Prairie', The New Yorker, July 23, 2007.
- Sarah Hampson, "Christopher Foss grew up with Glenn Gould, but never got to say goodbye", The Globe and Mail, November 29, 2009.
- Allmusic: Lukas Foss
- Humanities Web: Lukas Foss Index
- CDeMusic: Lukas Foss
- New Albion Artists: Lukas Foss
- Lukas Foss: A Twentieth-Century Composer's Confessions about the Creative Process
- Art of the States: Lukas Foss
- Lukas Foss interview by Gabrielle Zuckerman, from American Mavericks site
- Lukas Foss interview by Terry Gross, from Fresh Air program, originally broadcast October 7, 1987
- Interview with Lukas Foss by Bruce Duffie, February 2, 1987