Autumn is in the air — you can just sense it. It's a feeling beyond just the evening chill, or noticing the calendar date (the autumnal equinox for the Northern Hemisphere officially takes place on Friday at 5:05 a.m.). No, something more enigmatic gets triggered and tells us, "It's fall now."
Music can have those mysterious triggers, too. Some pieces, such as the "Autumn" concerto from Vivaldi's Four Seasons, wear their fall titles proudly. But others, like late Brahms piano pieces, songs by Bon Iver and Elliott Smith, or the fifth symphony by Vaughan Williams, say fall — at least to me — but in less obvious ways. It's not easy to put your finger on why it is.
Then there's Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs, which does a little of both. The first song in the series might be titled "Spring," but it doesn't feel that way. Strauss' music rumbles in like a bank of gray fall clouds. The second song, "September," is more obvious, as autumn pushes summer out of the way. The first verse, written by Hermann Hesse, goes:
The garden grieves,
The cool rains sink into the flowers,
The summer shudders
And silently meets her end.
The entire set of songs is shaded with elegiac yearning. Listen to any of them and you're likely to fall under their melancholy spell.
Jessye Norman, who sings "September" in the video above — and who made a famous recording of the songs with conductor Kurt Masur — told me once that they are great to sing, but that she needs to get into a kind of unexplainable Strauss zone.
"It's wonderful vocal writing," she said. "And I think everybody who sings these songs, we go into a very special place within ourselves in order to do them, because I have the feeling that these songs meant a great deal to Strauss."
Strauss wrote these songs at what would turn out to be the autumn of his life, and you can hear the resignation in them — a sense of calm and peace and life slowing down.
It seems like the perfect autumn music to me. What about you? Tell us which music triggers your sense of autumn.