Now The Leaves Are Falling Fast

1 IMG_5905_edited-1Now the leaves are falling fast,
Nurse’s flowers will not last;
Nurses to the graves are gone,
And the prams go rolling on.

—W. H. Auden, from Autumn Song

Now autumn is well past its peak, the ground littered in yellow, red, and brown. The oaks are last to shed their leaves, holding fast to some until the spring.

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Listening List

Benjamin Britten’s Temporal Variations (1936)

On December 15, 1936, after a “very rowdy & pleasant meal,’” twenty-somethings Benjamin Britten, W.H. Auden, and Louis MacNeice went to London’s Wigmore Hall to hear the premiere of 23-year-old Britten’s Temporal Variations and Two Ballads, one of which set “Underneath an abject willow,” Auden’s poem about and dedicated to Britten.  (For Britten’s diary quotation, see Neil Powell’s Benjamin Britten, A Life for Music at 124.) In the words of the Britten-Pears Foundation, “Auden appears to be encouraging his younger friend to break his natural reticence and abandon himself to an Albert Herring-like liberation.” Britten, however, “mocks the mocker . . . a rare example of composer and poet directly in musico-literary dialogue.” [citation]

Britten set several Auden poems, including Autumn Songs (Now the leaves are falling fast), which one commentator has described as “Hopkins crossed with Noël Coward.” The poem is from Auden’s book Look, Stranger!, first published in the UK in 1936, the same year as Britten’s Temporal Variations and 2 Ballads premiered. (T. S. Eliot chose the title for the UK edition. Auden despised it. “It sounds,” he wrote, “like the work of a vegetarian lady novelist.” The book was published in the US as On this Island, in 1937.)

On SpotifyUnderneath the abject willow, Now the leaves are falling fast, and two versions of Temporal Variations—the original for oboe and piano, and Colin Matthews’ arrangement. David Nice has written of Matthews’ arrangement of the Temporal Variations:

His arrangements of the piano parts for the Temporal Variations and A Charm of Lullabies are exactly the sort of things that Britten himself, had he lived to hear artists of the calibre of Nicholas Daniel and Catherine Wyn-Rogers, would willingly have undertaken (as he did with Lachrymae a few months before his death). Matthews respects the bald, epigrammatic dialogues with oboe in the quirky if not entirely successful earlier work [Temporal Variations].

On YouTube

Underneath the abject willow

Temporal Variations

Now the leaves are falling fast


Credits: Quotations are from the sources linked in the text. The photographs are of Buttercup Farm and, as always unless otherwise indicated on the blog, are mine.

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18 thoughts on “Now The Leaves Are Falling Fast

  1. wanderer

    It was North Conway if I recall correctly we set off to ‘follow’ the fall, something we just don’t get down here, upside down land, where Marianne Faithfull mused the trees lose their bark, not their leaves.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      wanderer: North Conway! Well, wanderer, your nom de plume is (once again) apt. A good place to go for following the fall, though I think the only time I’ve been there was in winter, trying out some cross-country skiing. I didn’t know you had no fall where you are; I had assumed it was simply, from the vantage point of where I am, “upside down.”

  2. David N

    Isn’t it a shame that Innisfree Gardens close before you can enjoy the full/late fall there. But you seem to have enough beauty immediately around you. I’d say our autumn is still in its prime, so much later than it used to be, and we had just such a day as the above at Kew on Sunday, where I snapped fallen Spanish chestnuts and fungi among the oak leaves, so when they pop up you can’t accuse me of copying you…isn’t a fallen leaf on green grass a wonderful thing? Lovely, lovely.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: A shame indeed. I don’t know why Innisfree doesn’t stay open until at least the end of October so the fall could be followed through its peak. In winter, the road in would be impassable in snow, so that it’s closed then is not surprising. Buttercup is lovely also, though a further drive, and, on the lower trail, it teaches one to pay attention to the small things. (The upper train has gorgeous views, which you may recall from previous posts.) I’m glad you appreciated that oak leaf in the grass. I particularly liked that too. I’ll look forward to your report on Kew. As for who copies whom, you are definitely the first when it comes to fungi, particularly, and if you see any from me, it’s me copying you!

      I must tell you also how I came upon your review of the Temporal Variations. I’m back down in NYC for three concerts, Monday Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (the Graham Vick production, and did I see that Vick is coming to your course soon?); Tuesday, a second performance of Klinghoffer; tonight, Contemporaneous’s first concert of the season, an excellent program, which I was delighted to see has made Time Out New York’s Critics Picks this week (all three of the concerts I attended did): But I digress. Between concerts, I’ve been listening to Britten, and pulled out my CD with the Colin Matthews arrangements, which I always enjoy. What I DIDN’T realize, until I started to search for a YouTube of the piece, was that it was written for oboe and piano. I was scratching my head, wondering why all these piano reductions of the piece and not the “original”?! Tells you what I know. . . So, off I went looking, and your review came right up. I couldn’t resist posting it, and of course was pleased to see you gave it such good marks.

      1. David N

        Rich pickings in New York indeed. I hope we’ll have full reports. Didn’t know that Graham Vick was directing LMoM at the Met – will ask him all about it on Monday, when he visits. Wish I had a better memory of reviewing the Temporal Variations…

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: It was quite a week. LMoM (love your shorthand) was fascinating, though I couldn’t begin to write about it for a post. Would be quite interesting to know what Vick has to say. Shostakovich’s Gogolian humor was richly on display, and it’s quite the window into his work in those times, that moment in the avant garde “sun” before Stalin’s fist came down for good and for all. More so, perhaps, than The Nose, and even the First and Fourth Symphonies, although listening to each one is, of course, informative for listening to the others. Don’t know where to begin on Klinghoffer, and so much ink has already been spilled, but I will do a post on one aspect this coming week.

          Contemporaneous’s opening concert was, as they would say, “a blast.” They chose four quite challenging pieces and surmounted them all. Yotam Haber, a composer to whom I’ve been paying attention, had a very attractive piece on the program which Contemporaneous recorded for inclusion on Haber’s upcoming debut CD on Naxos. I’m very much looking forward to that.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: Glad you enjoyed that arrangement, and I join in your amazement that Britten was so young when he composed it. I wonder whether there was any instrument for which he didn’t write well. The writing for oboe (not that I have extensive knowledge) seems so accomplished!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: So pleased that you, who is the consummate photographer, enjoyed these photos. I’m finding it very interesting to focus on small things. Re Auden: I’ve read very little and am also not always at ease. I, too, thought it was time to look him up again. (About reading, we are of like minds–with the shorter days, and likely snow ahead, I have been stockpiling books in hope of using the time better than I ordinarily do.)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: Such a nice compliment. You know, it’s funny, I was thinking there wasn’t as much to photograph as there had been, but then, if one looks closely at all those “patterns of plants,” things begin to emerge, don’t they?

  3. Friko

    Britten, Auden and the joys of autumn.
    You invariably get the mix right, whatever you do. Adding your own wonderful pictures makes this post into a very tasty morsel.

    I am sure you have seen Alan Bennett’s play about an imagined meeting between the former collaborators and friends, Auden and Britten, twenty five years after they last met: “The Habit of Art”, where they take off again, as rowdily as ever. On the other hand, perhaps it never crossed the pond?

    As for reading and listening to music, why wait for the snow? I am deeply immersed in both already. Long evenings have much to recommend them.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: So pleased to offer up a morsel considered tasty by you! It doesn’t look as if The Habit of Art came our way (except perhaps as a one-time live stream, which I didn’t spot). I’m definitely going to have to try and hunt that down. You’re right about the long evenings having things to commend them, and you inspire me to put them to better use. We’ve had a first snow here now, too (which I wasn’t happy to see, I must say), but it didn’t stay around, thank goodness. I have made a reasonable start of reading the first volume of Miklos Banffy’s Transylvania Trilogy, and, as I live in hope, I’ve picked up volumes 2 & 3. I’m beginning to think that, for any novel set in the Habsburg Empire pre-WWI, a dinner party lavishly described is de rigueur as a presentiment of what’s to come . . .

  4. shoreacres

    I’m glad you highlighted that photo of the leaf-strewn path at the end. I believe that might be my favorite of them all. The milkweed and cattail have the pleasure of familiarity, of course, but that tree — I take it a beaver did that?

    I came across a new word recently, and a reason that the leaves do fall fast from time to time. The botanical term for the process (which you may know) is abscission. There’s a short but complete description of the process here. Apparently, there are times when abscission begins, but conditions are such that it’s interrupted or slowed. Then, when a good wind or much colder temperatures arrive, a tree can lose every one of its leaves at the same time. I’ll never forget the day we buried my mother in Iowa. It was October, and the trees were utterly gorgeous. In less than 24 hours, every leaf had come down and all the trees were bare. It was so unbelievably appropriate there was nothing to do but laugh.

    There are bits of Auden I find deeply appealing, and some that leaves me as cold as a leafless November. “Underneath an Abject Willow” was new to me. I like the title very much, and the first stanza of the poem, but then I found myself losing interest. I did very much like the musical setting for “Now the Leaves Are Falling Fast,” and am about to listen to it again.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Ah, glad you liked that leaf-strewn path. It certainly was appealing in “real life,” but I wasn’t sure how well that would be conveyed by the photograph. Yes, a beaver is responsible for the chewed through tree. Beaver-felled trees are to be seen all along the way on Buttercup’s lower trail, though I’m not there at the right time of day to see them at work.

      As for abscission, certainly a new word for me, too. Amusing that there is a precise term for fast-falling leaves, with a lot of detail to it too. As for the Auden, “Abject” is not so deep, either text or music, I think, just two famous fellows, when young, cleverly ribbing one another. I enjoyed it for that, but I wouldn’t race back. There’s more to “Now the Leaves,” certainly, and the music follows suit. I wasn’t familiar with either poem (I know very little Auden). I stumbled on them following the trail from the Temporal Variations and, given the back story and literary-musical associations, couldn’t resist including them here.

  5. Steve Schwartzman

    Your photograph at the end struck me as a river of fallen leaves even though no water is present. Ah, the power of suggestion. You won’t be surprised to hear that central Texas, in spite of the cold spell that came upon us from the north the other day, still has some autumnal color (as much as we ever get down here, that is) and even some scattered wildflowers.

    Your mention of “a rare example of composer and poet directly in musico-literary dialogue” reminds me of Richard Strauss’s last opera, Capriccio, a synopsis of which you can find at

    in case you’re not familiar with the work.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: Capriccio might well be the epitome of such a dialogue (though there are others who stop by here who would know better than I). One of the saddest things, in being reminded of this opera once again, is that the idea for the opera came from Stefan Zweig, who was intended as its original librettist.

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