Now that it’s officially Fall, this week’s sheet music deep dive will explore the music of Autumn!
Golden Leaves of Autumn was published in Chicago, 1868. The lithographer, listed at the bottom left as “Chicago Lith Co,” achieved a gorgeous variety of colors and textures on the cover. Dedicated to performer Gustave Bideaux, the song is intended for a skilled singer that doesn’t require much piano support—whereas many popular songs have the melody duplicated in the piano to support the singer, this piano part here is strictly accompanimental. While making the song more difficult, it also allows a skilled performer to take more liberties with the tempo and rhythm. The rather dreary lyrics point out the deeper meaning behind the turning leaves: “Oh, when the golden leaves of autumn are fading, turning to decay, Oh should their teachings be forgotten That all in life must pass away? As fragrant roses in the summertime Bud and bloom from day to day, They give us warning from a power divine, that we, like them, must pass away.”
Not to be confused with the popular jazz standard of the same title, Autumn Leaves is one song from an opera (“The Village Coquettes”) written by John Hullah, with lyrics by Charles Dickens. The song also fixates on the death and decay of Fall: “Wither’d leaves, wither’d leaves, ye tell a mournful tale of love once true, and friends once kind, and happy moments fled.” The song isn’t dated, but the opera itself was written in 1836. While the opera’s original score was lost, it has been recreated several times.
On a slightly more optimistic note, When the Leaves Begin to Turn focuses more on the narrator’s hope of reunion with her love. However, the lyrics are not without lamentation: “When the leaves begin to turn, and the summer days have passed, when the roses droop and die Killed by winter’s chilling blast, Then the heart is often times sad… But I know he will return My love who loves but me.” Published in Boston, 1878, this lithograph cover also seems to advertise six other songs.
I was honestly surprised at how difficult it was to find a thoroughly optimistic or happy song about Autumn in the collection— Fall is by far my favorite season, but most of the songs instead favored the words “death,” “decay,” and “wilt.” Perhaps someday, someone will unearth that long forgotten Fall classic, the Pumpkin Spice Polka.
As the curator of the Lester Levy Sheet Music Collection, a phrase I hear often is “I didn’t know sheet music could be used to study…”
Levy collected 30,000 songs over 50+ years not to perform, but to use as a lens for studying history. To make this easier, Levy organized his collection by subject, rather than title or composer. As a result, there are hundreds of unique subjects that can be used to filter the collection. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to dive into some of the more fascinating, obscure, and strange subject headings in the collection. Every other week, I’ll focus on a different subject — stay tuned for more deep dives! You can view the entire digitized collection here.