The First Five Leaves of Autumn
I really didn’t want to think about it just yet. I had been enjoying every last bit of summer.
Then a message arrived like a falling acorn in the middle of a daydream. It was from one of the producers of the NPR program Here and Now. Once again, I was invited to be co-host Jeremy Hobson’s guest on the “DJ Session” segment of the program. They asked me to bring along a handful of classical music pieces inspired by the end of summer and the beginning of autumn.
I put my summer thoughts on hold for a few moments. Several titles quickly came to mind. Actually, they’re selections I play year-round.
And how did it all turn out? In case you didn’t get a chance to listen to Here and Now back on September 12, here’s a link to the “DJ Session” that day.
I would have chosen one of Vivaldi’s violin concertos from “The Four Seasons” to celebrate any of the seasons. Not only are they fairly recognizable by many listeners. It seems that the more you hear them, guided by the accompanying sonnets that Vivaldi provided, the more you can appreciate how imaginative he was with the simplest of musical means.
I asked the folks at Here and Now to play an excerpt from the finale of the “Autumn” concerto, which depicts a hunting scene. His is the only autumn piece of those I selected that does so. And it’s such an exciting finale with suggestions of horses galloping, horns blowing, and dogs barking. The opening of the concerto, which celebrates the harvest and merrymaking, is also a lot of fun. Vivaldi specifies that the merrymaking gets a little out of hand from overindulging in the “fruits” (i.e. fermented) of the harvest. The violin soloist is in the center of all of that. And I’ve heard at least one recording in which the depiction gets overly theatrical.
Autumn isn’t all festive and merry. There’s a bit of sadness in the air and nostalgia for the spring and summer that have come to an end. “The Last Rose of Summer” was a natural choice for that aspect of the season. What there wasn’t time to mention on Here and Now is that famous tune of the song is a traditional one, known as “The Young Man’s Dream.” That tune had been transcribed or written down in 1792 and published in 1813 with the lyrics that the Irish poet Thomas Moore had written in 1805. The version I chose featured the orchestration from the song’s use in the opera Martha by Friedrich von Flotow.
My only regret with selecting the autum finale of Verdi’s “Four Seasons” ballet from the opera Les Vêspres siciliennes (I vespri siciliani) (The Sicilian Vespers) is that there wasn’t time to play excerpts from both summer and autumn. The pastoral tune of the summer episode of the ballet is every bit as lovely as the tune of “The Last Rose of Summer.” And just when you’ve gotten nostalgic about summer from the music, the festiveness of autumn arrives.
The tune that opens the autumn finale of Alexander Glazunov’s ballet The Seasons is probably the composer’s best known. And in that finale, he re-introduces tunes from the other three seasons. If there wasn’t enough celebrating in Verdi’s autumn, there’s more than enough to go around in Glazunov’s.
Stephen Reynolds’ “Chanson d’Automne” picks up where “The Last Rose of Summer” left off. And the tune is heartwarming enough that it just might last through even a long, cold winter.
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And here’s the full “playlist” of the recordings I selected for Here and Now:
Antonio Vivaldi: “Autumn” Concerto from “The Four Seasons” – Violin Concerto in F major, op. 8, no. 3 “L’Autunno” / Giuliano Carmignola [violin]; Venice Baroque Orchestra conducted by Andrea Marcon (Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons / Giuliano Carmingnola, Venice Baroque Orchestra, Andrea Marcon, Sony 51352)
Friedrich von Flotow: Martha: ‘Tis the last rose of summer / Renée Fleming, soprano; Osian Ellis, harp, English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jeffrey Tate (Renée Fleming: The Beautiful Voice / English Chamber Orchestra, Jeffrey Tate, London/Decca 458858)
Giuseppe Verdi: Les Vêspres siciliennes (I vespri siciliani) (The Sicilian Vespers): Le quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons – ballet): 4. L’autunno (Autumn) / Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna conducted by Riccardo Chailly (Verdi: Ballet Music / Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Riccardo Chailly, London/Decca 425108)
Alexander Glazunov: The Seasons: Autumn / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy (Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Glazunov: The Seasons / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy, London/Decca 433000)
Stephen Reynolds: Two Poems in Homage to Fauré: No.1 Chanson d’Automne / Stephen Hough, piano (Stephen Hough’s English Piano Album, Hyperion 67267)