Jankélévitch, master commentator on late Fauré in particular, notes that the sad grandeur of this song draws attention to the ambiguity between old age (the autumn of life) and autumn (the ageing of the year). A touch of modal harmony (the cadence at ‘L’accueillent en pleurant, de même’, for instance) also ages the music, a distancing whereby certain passages suggest a sixteenth-century madrigal. The composer was only fifty-seven at the time of writing it; earlier autumnal songs like Chant d’automne
had been written by someone struggling to turn back the clocks, but this is already the older man’s philosophical acceptance of his mortality. It is one of only two settings of Catulle Mendès (the other is La fleur qui va sur l’eau
), a poet whose influence was very much on the wane when Fauré encountered him as a collaborator. Mendès had been one of the most relentlessly ambitious literati of an earlier age, but these two very different sensibilities came together at the right time to produce an unexpected masterpiece. (Alongside Chabrier’s Chanson pour Jeanne
this is the most eloquent musical legacy of a poet who had written more bad operatic libretti than most.) The key is G flat major, and the music glides resourcefully forward, always defying our tendency to second-guess the master’s infinitely subtle harmonic twists and turns, a companion piece to the equally enigmatic Soir
. This is the soft tread of the yellowing leaf, and the contemplation which comes from a future with a limited horizon. The melodic line is an extraordinary hybrid, tuneful in its way, but also near to a kind of recitative where the accentuations of the spoken word animate the music from within. If Fauré was far removed from being directly influenced by Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande
, this music definitely inhabits a post-Pelléas
world. There are some songs of Fauré’s late style that perplex the listener, but this one, on the very borders of the forest which forbids entry to all but the brave and determined, is one of the most immediately accessible.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2005