12 Pieces of Classical Music Inspired by Autumn
While we might admire the vibrant colours that autumn brings, we also know it's a precursor to hunkering down. Winter is just around the corner and autumn can bring Indian summers and kitchens filled with the aromas of jam making, fruit puddings, and soups made with vegetables straight from the soil.
Keats wrote in his poem To Autumn that it was 'the seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness', but there are days when it's so clear you can see for miles. Autumn is a season of contrasts and plenty.
Classical Music Inspired by Autumn
- Glazunov, The Seasons, "Autumn"
- Takemitsu, Ceremonial. An Autumn Ode
- Tchaikovsky, The Seasons
- Massenet Pensée, D'Automne
- Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, Autumn
- Rautavaara, Autumn Gardens
- Piazzolla, The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, "Otono Porteño"
- Oliver Knussen, Autumnal
- Milhaud, Les Quatres Saisons, "Concertino D'Automne"
- Thea Musgrave, The Seasons, "Autumn"
- Edward McDowell, Woodland Sketches, "In Autumn"
- John Cage, The Four Seasons
1. Glazunov. The Seasons - "Autumn"
Joyous is the word that springs to mind when listening to Autumn. Glazunov's ballet The Seasons is so optimistic and life affirming. The upbeat rhythm jump-starting the fourth season in the cycle immediately switches on a smile, readying you for the expansive tune riding over it.
Autumn is in rondo form, the bacchanale theme alternating with contrasting traditional nineteenth graceful century ballet themes and moods for dancers to stretch and arabesque to. For added interest, the last resumé of the main melody widens rhythmically, and the finale opens out as if we have climbed to the top of the mountain and are rewarded with a panoramic view.
2. Takemitsu. Ceremonial. An Autumn Ode
Takemitsu opens his hand and from it diffuses music of the lightest density. The inclusion of the Japanese traditional shō, a type of mouth organ, high in the register, adds to the drone-like quality pervading the whole work. It is set to mesmerise.
You cannot help but be drawn in completely by the hypnotic misty aura. We are in the presence of a glowing ether, carefully choosing which of its many colours to reveal. It is music to cleanse our being, physically, mentally, even musically. There are no tunes to follow, rather it's an appreciation of aural vistas to contemplate and reflect upon.
Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
3. Tchaikovsky. The Seasons - 'Autumn Song'
Tchaikovsky's The Seasons, comprising 12 pieces for each month of the year, is a charming suite for solo piano. October is labelled "Autumn Song" and has at times an almost Chopinesque quality.
It is lyrically beautiful, a heartfelt love song mourning the passing of summer and better times, an exploration of the newly bare and misty landscape. Tchaikovsky knew all too well how to pull our sentimental strings—it has the effect of making us all misty eyed.
Jules Massenet 1842-1912
4. Massenet. Pensée d'automne
It's almost a companion piece to Tchaikovsky's. The words, penned by Armand Silvestre, tell of walking with a lover through the withering flora and wishing they were back in spring time with everything to look forward to.
An ambiguous chord from the piano, pulling on the ear, sets up the motion of the opening line of the song, the year 'slipping away like a flowing stream'. The restless quiet of the song builds towards the final line of the song, declaring, 'Woman, immortal summer! Woman, immortal spring.'
In China the 'Four Gentlemen' represent the seasons. Autumn is symbolised by chrysanthemums, which flowers in the cold. 1
5. Vivaldi. The Four Seasons - "Autumn"
Although we are not totally sure if it was Vivaldi who wrote the sonnets scribbled on the score, the general consensus is that it probably did come from his own pen. They are still sometimes read out as a prelude to the music itself in concerts.
Autumn is concerned, naturally, with the harvest and the celebrations that go hand in hand with it safely gathered in.
The first movement is very much in the style of a peasant dance. The simple tune soon gives way to the solo violin's florid passages, the wine flowing from Bacchus's cup which in turn causes a change in pace to depict the snooze after the booze. Abruptly awoken from the effects of the drink, the dancing resumes.
Everybody has fallen asleep again for the second movement. All is still, uncomplicated and slow moving as if not to disturb anyone.
A hunting scene is the setting for the last fast movement. Vivaldi paints images of chasing the fox by running passages and galloping arpeggios from the solo violin.
Einojuhani Rautavaara 1928-2016
6. Rautavaara. Autumn Gardens
Autumn Gardens is an orchestral work divided into three movements, not unlike a symphony.
I Poetico. Lush and full bodied, Poetico is heady with unending pastoral sonority. Hypnotic long drawn out melodies self-examine and circulate. These variations are wheels within wheels which would lull us to sleep if the occasional dissonances under rumbling percussion were absent. Only the climax wrests us from any trance we may have sunk into and falls away to be at one with the horizon.
II Tranquillo .Harmonically tightly written, splashed with the odd trinket sparkling in the dense pasture, the music meanders like slow moving water. Brush strokes of Sibelius, who was a mentor of Rautavaara, have been daubed here and there onto the canvas, as has the Danish composer Nielson, but the nostalgia and inner Finnish country garden is Rautavaara's own.
It encompasses the pastoral and great sheets of ice, vistas of snow and the endless taiga forests. It is as far as you can see on the horizon and draws it into your very being. This is a musical version of Scandinavian sagas borne out of hard living and the extreme beauty of the north stretching on up to the arctic.
III Giocoso et leggiero. Like the murmuration of starlings, the music sways and swirls with an organic swell of energy. While it may be loud in parts the music, nevertheless, gives away the private realisation of what the country means to the Finnish composer, inwardly nostalgic and utterly atmospheric, tinged with a certain sad reminder that nothing lasts for ever.
"I have often compared composing to gardening. In both processes, one observes and controls organic growth rather than constructing or assembling existing components and elements."
7. Piazzolla. The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires - "Otono Porteño"
Otono Porteño is the last of Piazzolla's Four Seasons—"Autumn". Each of the seasons is a tango, a dance form Piazzolla returns time and time again. It was written for his five piece ensemble of violin (doubling up as with viola), piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandonéon (a type of accordian).
Otono Porteño is hard of edge and spiky. The music is thrown around just like the dancers would be, yet it also has the nonchalance of indifference. The bandonéon has pride of place—it was Piazzolla's own instrument - with sultry, seductive solos for the remaining instruments further into the piece. Then the pace picks up and the bandonéon sashays into the limelight once again and finishes with a chord of dismissive flippancy.
You can hear Otono Portneñas on the video below at 14:38.
Leaves turn brown as chlorophyll, the pigment associated with photosynthesis, can no longer function due to lack of sunlight and stops being active. Other pigments in the leaves, the oranges and yellows are then allowed to be dominant. 2
8. Oliver Knussen. Autumnal
Oliver Knussen described Autumnal as the first panel of a triptych, the other two depicting Sonya's Lullaby and Cantata. Benjamin Britten is the dedicatee.
Autumnal is divided into two sections which Knussen named after two of Britten's song cycles, Nocturnes and Serenade.3
Written for violin and piano, it sounds meticulously designed, every note carefully placed as a Michelin-starred chef might arrange an award winning plate of food. Nocturnes is as dark as night, mysterious sounds pervade the airspace, the players feeling their way in the pitch black.
The mood lifts in Serenade, as if the night is moving towards dawn and creatures start to busy themselves, singing, calling, grunting. We can hear animals scratching and uttering all the snatched sounds of awakening, cut off abruptly, thoughts interrupted.
9. Milhaud. Les Quatres Saisons - "Concertino d'automne"
Milhaud used the subject of the four seasons to write a concertino for various instruments and with equally diverse accompanying instrumentation. Surprisingly, they weren't conceived as a collection all at once, but spread over a long period of time but all are unified by the opening theme, entering in different guises.
As with La création du monde, Milhaud opens his Concertino d'automne for two pianos and eight instruments to a muted palette lending itself well to the searching, exploratory nature associated with this subject. It is not long before a tangled wilderness, sometimes dense and dissonant, sometimes more open and spritely melodic, counterpoints its way through this one movement work.
I imagine being in a forest, struggling to overcome taut thorny brambles and heavily coppiced trees, then stumbling into a welcome clearing.
10. Thea Musgrave. The Seasons - "Autumn"
Born in Scotland in 1928, there is something wild and raw about Thea Musgrave's music.
Autumn shows off Musgrave's deft handling of the orchestra. At first, there appears to be a struggle between the strings who fight to be lyrical but are overlorded by the brass and woodwind. The string brigade wins out, and the music gives way to delicately beautiful touches, worthy of Paul Dukas and his Sorcerer's Apprentice, delving into a fairy tale world. The strings find their hard fought tussle overcome and the battle with overbearing brass and a lively percussion section. But as each side tires it is the Dies Irae - the Day of Wrath - gonged by tubular bells which has the last word as the orchestra fragments and falls away at the final bar.
11. Edward McDowell. Woodland Sketches - "In Autumn"
This miniature is over in a trifle. Almost certainly written with the amateur pianist in mind. Its quaint, almost wispy first theme reminds us of some squirrel hurriedly burying a cache of nuts, keeping alert for any predator waiting to carry it off. The middle section is steadier and wistful, a little respite before the scurrying starts all over again. There are many more classical pieces inspired by trees.
12. John Cage. The Four Seasons
Don't expect it to be conventional. This is John Cage after all. The wild card in the pack. Cage took the notion of the season from the indigenous North American Indians, each assuming a concept. Fall, or autumn, denotes destruction.
The piece, music written for a ballet, is very short. Its marching beat strides with unvarying gait, relatively quietly to begin with, becoming more strident and uncompromising. The metronomic rhythm breaks up, as if caused by the crashing dissonant piano chords over a sustained C - then nothing, the piece simply stops as if time has stood still.
2 Science Made Simple
3 Faber Music
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© 2018 Frances Metcalfe