It’s time to think autumn thoughts. And if you observe meteorological fall, we’re already two weeks into the season, so let's dig into the rich collection of classical music written specifically for autumn. 

To build a fall vibes classical playlist, we must start with the obvious...back to school! Percy Grainger wrote a jaunty little piece that always reminds me of kids happily walking to school or lining up for the bus. You can even catch snippets of the alphabet song in the main melody of this Children’s March

But yes, we’ll also feature the must-have Autumn from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Before you add this to your playlist, you must listen to the Classical Breakdown “Four Seasons” episode to learn about all the surprising details of this piece and the poetry that inspired it. In a nutshell: Autumn is about song and dance; drinking followed by drunken sleep; and then the hunt complete with the sound of guns and dogs. 

Here at WETA Classical, we love the brilliant and sometimes wild performance style of Fabio Biondi and his gang. FYI, in December, we’ll have the opportunity to see Biondi here in DC, conducting the National Symphony Orchestra in their annual presentation of Handel’s Messiah.  

For a different take on the Vivaldi, listen to this mesmerizing remix of the last movement of Autumn by composer Max Richter. He takes snippets of Vivaldi’s original and rearranges them with a new instrumentation. As the composer states about Autumn, “I've done sort of a production on 'Autumn,' but I've left the notes.”  

Autumn music appears in opera, most notably in a “Four Seasons” ballet segment within Verdi’s Sicilian Vespers from 1855. The rather long ballet portion is usually omitted from modern performances of the opera, but it stands alone as a concert piece and is sometimes presented by dance companies. The autumn section closes the ballet with a lively and raucous bacchanale.  

Jumping ahead a century, we can enjoy a gentler take on the season with the Autumn Concertino by American composer Virgil Thomson. He paints an evocative portrait of the countryside in fall with a colorful combo of harp, strings, and percussion. 

A more modest depiction of autumn can be found in many 19th-century piano solo works. Several composers wrote pieces for each month of the year. For September, Tchaikovsky wrote a hunt-themed piece in his Seasons; and for that same month, the prodigious German pianist and composer Fanny Mendelssohn portrayed a moment in time, “By the River,” as part of her cycle The Year

We could list dozens of other autumn pieces for piano, and we could do the same for art songs. One of the most compelling is Herbst (Autumn) by Franz Schubert. The opening lines: “The wind blows with an autumnal chill; the meadows are bare, the woods leafless...Thus do life’s blossoms wilt.” This is a beautiful song, but it introduces another category of autumnal music that expresses nostalgia, loss, and regret. There’s a vast array of compelling classical music in this genre, but today, we’ll keep things mostly upbeat and save the pensive autumnal sounds for another playlist. 

Wind instruments are wonderfully suited to imitating the rustling and falling of leaves and the crisp autumn air. Contemporary American composer Jennifer Higdon makes skillful use of these traits in her wind quintet Autumn Music. As she comments about the piece, “The musical lines are sometimes present with each instrument carrying a different rhythm, reminiscent of the way leaves float down from a tree in a very unsynchronized manner.” 

To wrap up in festive style, we head back to the 18th century. Autumn was the time for the all-important hunt, and Haydn portrays this with his trademark creativity and humor in his choral work, The Seasons. In this segment, listen to how the formal introduction by soloists leads to the authentically rustic and brash sound of the hunting horns while the chorus sings about the clamor that rings through the woods. After another refined recitation by the soloists (at 4:45), Haydn continues with that finest of all fall highlights: the wine festival. “Hurrah, hurrah!” the chorus sings. “The wine is safe, the barrels have been filled, now let us be merry, and shout hurrah, hurrah with might and main!”  

Fall vibes, indeed! Enjoy the music. 

Fall forest
Filed under: Fall, Playlist

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