Autumn is my favorite season, as the air cools and the trees put on their most colorful show just before going dormant for the winter. Although their leaves die, the trees themselves merely sleep until their spring reawakening. My favorite moments of fall occur when, as I walk or drive along, a gust of wind suddenly bursts upon a tree and “the wild leaves loosen,” as poet Rilke says in his “Day in Autumn” (trans. Mary Kinzie)—releasing a cascade of colored leaves, tumbling down en masse like a rain of jewels. The air seems alive as they spin and float their way to the ground, where they fertilize the earth.
These moments often call to mind the haunting love song, “Autumn Leaves.” With its minor key and emotional lyrics, it captures well the melancholy mood of autumn and the sense of loss it invokes. This popular classic—described by jazz historian Philippe Baudoin as “the most important non-American [jazz] standard, … [which] has been recorded about 1400 times by mainstream and modern jazz musicians”— has a long and interesting history.
The popular French torch song “Les Feuilles Mortes” (literally, ‘Dead Leaves”) was originally composed in 1945 by Hungarian-born Joseph Kosma for the ballet Le Rendezvous, with a plot by French poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert (1900-1977). When Marcel Carné decided to use the lovely melody in his film Les Portes de la Nuit (Gates of the Night), starring popular singer and heart-throb Yves Montand (1921-1991), Prévert added the soulful French lyrics. Although the film flopped, Montand liked the song and continued to sing it so often that by 1947 it had become his signature. It was also popularized by Edith Piaf. Treat yourself by listening to the Montand and/or Piaf versions on YouTube. In 1950, Capitol Records commissioned Johnny Mercer to write the English lyrics that we all know and love. He gave it the title “Autumn Leaves”—more palatable, but less evocative, than the “Dead Leaves” of the original. The rest is history: Nat King Cole took it to No. 1 on the hit parade in 1955, and it went on to be recorded by Juliette Greco, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Placido Domingo, Andrea Bocelli, Ed Sheeran, Eric Clapton, and even Bob Dylan!
But comparing the French and English lyrics, we discover that Mercer’s breezy, wistful lyrics create a completely different mood than the much darker, brooding French version—as you can see for yourself from my schoolgirl translation. Mercer’s sexy “summer kisses” and “sunburned hands” suggest a fleeting summer romance, and “old winter’s song” has a cozy, comforting feel as the singer looks forward more than back. Love is not actually mentioned; the singer misses her kisses, but not her soul. In fact, the wording implies that it is a man singing to/about a woman, whereas the French could just as easily involve a woman singing to a man. The English version, in my opinion, entirely misses the intense pain and sorrow of the original—which makes it less memorable. In the French, the speaker’s memory is alive with remembered passion; there are no sexual references, only repeated mentions of deep, mutual love between “tous les deux.” Fate plays a major role in the second verse, with “La vie sépare ceux qui s’aiment”—as if it is inevitable that all lovers will eventually be parted and their love erased as if it never happened. The line “sans faire de bruit” is especially poignant—we don’t even notice love’s withering until it is past and gone. “Les amants désunis” is far more devastating than “I miss you most, my darling.” The mood of the French song is elegiac, mournful, and full of despair. Their once vibrant love is, like the leaves, now dead.
Adding to its emotional effect, the haunting melody reenacts the falling of the leaves musically, by descending one full step in each of the first four phrases. When played in the key of E minor, for example, the music steps down in every other measure from E, to D, to C, to B—just like the falling of the leaves themselves. Along with the minor key (the original was composed in A minor), this sets the melancholy mood. The tune rises from there—soaring on “winter’s song” (or, ironically, on “faire de bruit”) as if recalling happier times—but tumbles again at the end to that sultry low B on “désunis” (or “start to fall”).
The lyrics we know—and the only part of the song that was translated into English—actually represent merely the chorus of the original French version. The full song includes a long, contextualizing reflection about the past, lost love, and regret—if interested, you can find the full version on YouTube recorded by Patricia Hammond. The singer laments that without her lover, the sun does not burn as brightly, and repeats that s/he has not forgotten their relationship and still loves him/her. Its last lines serve as an introduction to the familiar chorus, and explains the heretofore mysterious (to me) “this is a song” in the first line.
The dead leaves pile up in the shovel;
So also do memories and regrets,
And the north wind carries them away
Into the cold night of oblivion.
You see, I have not forgotten
The song you used to sing to me….
Always, always I will hear it!
This plaintive, sorrowful love song perfectly expresses the sense of loss we feel as the light of summer fades into the cold dark of winter. The “Autumn Leaves” become a powerful metaphor for lost love.
Les Feuilles Mortes (Dead Leaves)
by Jacques Prevert and Joseph Kosma
C’est une chanson qui nous ressemble
Toi tu m’aimais, et je t’aimais
Nous vivions tous les deux ensemble
Toi qui m’aimais, moi qui t’aimais
Mais la vie sépare ceux qui s’aiment
Tout doucement, sans faire de bruit
Et la mer efface sur le sable
Les pas des amants désunis
English (Literal) Translation
by Clover Carroll
This is a song that resembles us:
You, you loved me, and I loved you
We used to live, the two of us, both together
You who loved me, I who loved you
But life separates those who love each other
So gently and quietly, without making noise
And the sea erases from the sand
The footsteps of disunited lovers.
English lyrics by Johnny Mercer
The falling leaves drift by my window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sunburned hands I used to hold
Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song
But I miss you most of all, my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall