Autumn Leaves (Les Feuilles Mortes)


Here in Australia autumn is nearly over. As I type this cold winds are beginning to make their presence known, shaking the windows and blowing through the trees, scattering the occasional light shower upon the earth and our bodies. Winter is almost here, so what of autumn? Each year this sepia-hued season sends me into somewhat of a fugue state and I find myself returning to music that brings me great comfort. There are certain mid-century French songs that I hold dear, and within the lyrics of these songs  autumn often appears as a metaphor for both the passing of time and lost love.

A favourite of mine is Charles Trenet’s 1943 ode to nostalgia, “Que reste-t-il de nos amours ?” Trenet sings, “Ce soir c’est une chanson d’ automne/Dans la maison qui frissonne/Et je pense aux jours lointains” (“Tonight it is an autumn song/Which trembles in my home/And I think of days long gone”) as he considers the past, recalling old lovers and his youth in the countryside.

Perhaps the influence of the  ninteenth-century French symbolist poets upon twentieth-century lyricists could be responsible for the autumnal metaphor. The beloved French singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg was a fan of these poets, his song “Baudelaire” (1962) for example utilised Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Le Serpent qui danse” for its lyrics. Who better to compose music to accompany a poem that celebrates the female form than this notorious ladies’ man? “Le Serpent qui danse” appears in Baudelaire’s seminal work Les Fleurs du mal (1857), and in this volume another poem, “Chant d’automne,” evokes a dread of a death in winter that permeates the narrator’s autumn:

II me semble, bercé par ce choc monotone,
Qu’on cloue en grande hâte un cercueil quelque part.
Pour qui? — C’était hier l’été; voici l’automne!
Ce bruit mystérieux sonne comme un départ

(Translation by James McGowan: It seems to me, dull with this constant thud/ That someone nails a coffin, but for whom? Yesterday summer, now the [autumn]! something/With all this eerie pounding will be gone.)

Baudelaire’s successor Paul Verlaine’s poem from a few years later, Chanson d’automne (Autumn Song) (1866), is not quiet so bleak but still captures a feeling of autumnal malaise.  The poet laments:

Le sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon  coeur
D’une languer

Using Arthur Symon’s 1902 translation  and others as a guide, this roughly translates as: The long sobs/Of the violins/Of autumn/Wounds my heart/With a languorous monotone. Here the poet evokes a soundtrack for autumnal ennui.

The most famous of songs dedicated to autumnal sadness is the jazz standard “Les feuilles mortes” (The dead leaves) or, as it is less depressingly-titled for English-speakers, “Autumn Leaves.” The song, with music by the Hungarian composer Joseph Kosma and lyrics by French poet Jacques Prevért, first appeared in the  1946 Marcel Carné film, Les Portes de la nuit (Gates of the Night) (also written by Prevért).

As a mysterious man (Le Destin) performs the haunting tune on his harmonica, Yves Montand asks his friends, “Do you know that tune?…I’ve heard it before, but where and when?”and then proceeds to hum along.

Prevért’s melancholic lyrics capture the feeling of hopelessness felt over a lost love and he compares the amassing of painful memories and regrets to that of  fallen leaves piling up on the ground.

Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle.
Tu vois, je n’ai pas oublié…
Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle,
Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi.
 (Translation: “You see, I have not forgotten…/Fallen leaves can be picked up by the shovelful/So can memories and regrets.”)

Montand popularised “Les feuilles mortes” in France in the late 1950s, and performed the song again on screen in the French-Italian film Parigi è sempre Parigi (Paris is Always Paris) in 1951.

Around the time of the film, the French chanteuse Juliette Gréco also added the song to her repertoire. Gréco’s interpretation is my favourite, her strained singing accentuating the undeniable sadness of Prevért’s words.

In 1947 the song was introduced to English-speakers with lyrics written by Johnny Mercer, and “Autumn Leaves” become a hit. Mercer’s lyrics explicitly mention autumn here, both in the song’s title and in its lyrics.

But I miss you most of all
My darling
When autumn leaves
Start to fall

“Les feuilles mortes”/”Autumn Leaves” has since gone on to become a jazz standard in both its instrumental and vocal forms, and has been interpreted by hundreds of artists.

And back to Monsieur Gainsbourg. On his 1961 album, L’Étonnant Serge Gainsbourg, Gainsbourg featured the song “La Chanson de Prevért.” A beautiful tribute to “Les feuilles mortes,” Gainsbourg uses the first line of the song (“Oh je voudrais tant que tu te souviennes”) and discusses “Les feuilles mortes” in reference to his own lost love, whom he associates with the song.

Cette chanson, Les feuilles mortes
S’efface de mon souvenir
Et ce jour là
Mes amours mortes
En auront fini de mourir

(Translation: That song, Les feuilles mortes/Wipes itself from my memory/And on that day/My dead loves /Will have finished dying.)

Autumn, these songs and poems suggest, is a time of sadness; for reflecting upon the past and for immersing ourselves in nostalgia. The seasons’s ambivalence, in that it flits between summer and winter, mirrors the indecisiveness that comes about in love and it’s colour palette resembles that of a faded antique photograph, a memory of another time and place. Un souvenir qui me poursuit/Sans cesse. 




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