Autumn days when the grass is jewelled,
And the silk inside a chestnut shell.
Jet-planes meeting in the air to be refuelled,
All these things I love so well…
Many British people who grew up in the 80s and 90s will remember singing the lines above at primary school. Autumn Days was a jolly hymn that didn’t explicitly mention religion at all, but celebrated little aspects of life to be grateful for. I’ve never seen jet-planes refuelling in the air, and this incongruous turn caused consternation in church choirs when it was first published. But with its contentedly bouncing tune, I remember that I enjoyed singing it immensely.
In its own innocent way, the first two lines remind us that autumn is a time rich with poetic detail, poetry that has moved and inspired an enormous amount of creative expression. In classical music alone, there is much more autumnal music than I can do justice to in one post.
It was September 2001 when, watching the last night of the BBC Proms on TV, I first heard music by Gerald Finzi (1901-56). Conducted by the American Leonard Slatkin, it turned out to be a very poignant affair. The 9/11 attacks had shocked the world just four days previously, and the normally exultant programme was revised to be more reflective. Barber’s celebrated Adagio for Strings was included, but the Finzi, programmed for his centenary year, also happened to fit the newly solemn mood. The work was his elegy for orchestra The Fall of the Leaf – left incomplete at his death but orchestrated by Howard Ferguson. I was struck by the emotional eloquence of the music.
Elegies are a natural fit to autumn – it is a season of slow decay and growing darkness, and this inevitably reminds of us death, and loss. The title of this piece might suggest that Finzi, a lover of English poetry, was thinking of Robert Burns’ The Fall Of The Leaf, or Autumn Song by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which quotes this phrase repeatedly. Both use the season as a means to dwell on grief and death.
The forests are leafless, the meadows are brown,
And all the gay foppery of summer is flown:
Apart let me wander, apart let me muse,
How quick Time is flying, how keen Fate pursues!
But in fact, Finzi’s elegy echoes something that predates either of those poems. The Fall of the Leafe is one of four surviving keyboard works by Martin Peerson (c.1571-c.1650) and appears in the famous Fitzwilliam Virginal Book collection. It is a short minor-key work, with a gently descending tune that sets a mood of dreamy melancholy.
Peerson would never have dreamed that this title would ended up becoming the name of a Finnish heavy metal band, who even adopted his now-archaic spelling. But the inspiration doesn’t end there. In 1962 Imogen Holst (1907-84) took Peerson’s tune and used it as the starting point of a short suite for solo cello. In this atmospheric second movement, swiftly plucked notes drum like raindrops, contrasted with the ghostly wail of bowed harmonics.
If autumn is a time of introspection, it also causes unease. In England it generally heralds some of our most unsettled weather. The one life form who thrive at this time – fungi – are associated with death and decay, symbols of potential poison who belong neither to the plant nor animal kingdoms. As the nights draw in, marauding house spiders terrify the populace, while their garden counterparts hover in intricate webs. It’s notable that Halloween – that modern carnival of creepiness with its roots in the liturgy of remembering the dead – falls squarely in the middle of the season. Some scholars trace its origins to ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain, a time when the spirits of the Aos Sí could more easily enter the human world. In the hope to appease the spirits, offerings were given, that people and livestock might survive the approaching winter.
Two orchestral works, composed just one year apart, are born out of this idea of autumn as a time of disturbance. November Woods is a 1917 tone poem by Arnold Bax (1883-1953), and one of his most densely impressionistic scores, with a vivid sense of blustery chaos. It starts with strings, harp and woodwinds, creating a mesmerising vision of windswept trees, while a low theme jumps about impishly, a menace lurking in gloomy recesses. Throughout, woodwinds and brass flutter and career all over the place. As is often in the case with Bax, the stormy weather is a metaphor for a stormy emotional condition.
Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) wrote his Symphony No. 4, titled Løvfald (‘Leaf Fall’), in 1916, aged just 23 – though it was heavily abridged later. It’s a vibrant, brightly coloured work with the bracing energy of a stiff gust of wind. With sections labelled ‘despairing forest murmur’, ‘thunder’, and simply ‘despair’ again, it shares Bax’s vision of a restlessness in both nature and the human mind. It’s also interesting to note that these turbulent works were both written during the First World War – another resonance, whether intended or not.
Of course, autumn is not just about nature. It is about the traditions that we use to navigate the year. Autumn In Warsaw is a piano piece by Hungarian composer György Ligeti (1923-2006) from his first book of Études (studies) in 1985. The title refers to an annual contemporary music festival, and it is dedicated to his Polish friends. But it is interesting that like Peerson, Ligeti bases this piece on descending lines, in this case mostly descending chromatically. These are super-imposed across each other at different rhythmic speeds, adding a level of complexity that in places sounds surprisingly impressionistic, as if mirroring the random patterns of falling leaves.
While there are many more pieces I could mention, all these works share something: a response to how profoundly the changing seasons can affect us all, and in different ways. It’s as easy to see sadness and morbidity among the falling leaves as it is to see the beauty of their colouring.
Thankfully, winter is no longer a question of survival for most of us, and the idea of a Harvest Festival feels almost like a folk memory. But as the nights draw in, I still feel that autumn is a time for taking stock and acknowledging what you have. Maybe that’s why, unlike Burns and Rossetti, I tend to find this time of year strangely comforting.
There is a phenomenon called bletting, in which the first frosts help some fruit – such as quince, medlars and sloes – to improve their flavour. In much the same way, I like to think, autumn helps us to experience the sweetness in life’s simpler joys. My old school hymn may seem twee and childish now, but in its message of savouring life’s little details there is something worth remembering.
Read more by Simon Brackenborough: