LIVES OF THE GREAT SONGS / Variegations on a theme: Melancholy, loss, regret. No song captures these feelings better, writes Marcel Berlins in the fifth part of our series; Autumn Leaves
Sunday 25 July 1993
But life separates those who love,
Quietly, without a sound,
And the sea effaces on the sand
The footprints of parted lovers.
The author of 'Les Feuilles Mortes' was Jacques Prevert, poet, screenwriter, dramatist, Left Bank intellectual and a pivotal figure in the fluctuating St-Germain-des-Pres set which included Sartre, de Beauvoir and a dramatically beautiful, smoky-voiced singer called Juliette Greco. Prevert had written the scripts for some of France's finest films of the late Thirties and Forties, including Marcel Carne's three masterpieces: Quai des Brumes, Le Jour se Leve and Les Enfants du Paradis.
In 1945, in the euphoria of the Liberation, Prevert turned his talent to writing the story for a ballet with a symbolic message, Le Rendezvous. Choreography was by Roland Petit, the backdrop tableau by Picasso and music by Joseph Kosma. The Hungarian-born composer, like Prevert, had been successful in the cinema; among his compositions, the music for the Jean Renoir classics La Grande Illusion and La Regle du Jeu. He also - clandestinely, because he was a Jew and it was 1943 in Nazi-occupied France - composed and arranged the music for Les Enfants du Paradis. He had worked with Prevert on other films too, and they wrote songs together.
Le Rendezvous was seen by Carne, who immediately was seduced into making a film of it. It was around that time that Kosma picked up 'Les Feuilles Mortes' and, so the story goes, sat down at the piano one day after lunch and idly started picking out the wistful melody for the verse.
Oh, je voudrais tant que tu te souviennes,
Des jours heureux ou nous etions amis
(I so much want you to remember
The happy days when we were friends).
The song's structure was unusual: 24 bars of introductory verse containing two changes of mood and melody, followed by a 16-bar refrain. It was a 'difficult' song; no one considered it as material for mass appeal.
Carne's film, Les Portes de la Nuit, was to star Jean Gabin and Marlene Dietrich. 'Les Feuilles Mortes' would appear in the film, but only hummed, wordlessly, by the two lovers, as background to the final scene. When the stars dropped out Carne, in desperation, hired a young popular singer called Yves Montand, best known to the French as Edith Piaf's lover but without acting experience, to take on the Gabin role. To Montand's disappointment, Carne decided that the song in the film should now be sung, still off-screen, by another singer, Fabien Loris. The film, an uneasy mix of pretentious political realism and fey fantasy, flopped; but Montand started including 'Les Feuilles Mortes' in his concert repertoire. Reaction was cool. It had no beat, a too sophisticated melodic structure and a sad message. Montand persevered; but it took several years for it to become his biggest hit and most requested song.
He recorded it often; but his most moving interpretations are the early versions, accompanied by a small, quiet group - piano, guitar, clarinet, drums and accordion. In one, he recites the first 16 bars as a poem, almost reluctantly breaking into song when he reflects on the north wind blowing away dead leaves and memories 'in the cold night of oblivion'. But he has not forgotten - 'tu vois, je n'ai pas oublie'.
Montand's voice was still a little rough then, redolent of too many Gitanes, too many glasses of cheap red wine, and with a quality of convincing vulnerability. They said, at the time, that he was singing to Edith Piaf, who had left him. Strangely, or perhaps understandably, Piaf's own over-mannered recordings of the song never quite reach the profundity of feeling achieved by many other French interpreters.
If 'Les Feuilles Mortes' belongs primarily to Montand, part of it should be remembered for Juliette Greco - Little Miss Existentialist - black-clad, black-maned, still in her early twenties but already a near-legendary figure around the cafes and dives of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Greco, too, is better in her earlier recordings, not least because some of the later ones are spoilt by insensitively intrusive string backings. At her best, she turns 'Les Feuilles Mortes' into an erotic hymn, a tribute to lost sexuality. She will never again, we know, love so intensely.
The conversion of 'Les Feuilles Mortes' into American, in the mid-Fifties, was dramatic. Only a part of the opening verse was retained and even that is rarely, if ever, played or sung. As performed and recorded, 'Autumn Leaves' is only the 16 bars of the refrain of the French original. Sixty per cent of the song has been jettisoned.
The English lyrics, by the fecund and occasionally inspired Johnny Mercer ('Moon River', 'That Old Black Magic', 'One For My Baby', 'Blues In The Night'), captured only a tiny whiff of the original. What they have in common is the memory of a past love, evoked by the season.
The falling leaves drift by the 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.
But where Prevert's words suggest a deep but doomed passion, the most consuming of the singer's life, Mercer's could be about a brief, possibly unconsummated, passing attachment over a summer holiday. We feel that the French performer - whoever it is - since the break-up, has lived a tormented emotional existence; his American counterpart married a nice girl (or boy) and has two lovely children and a secure suburban life. When Yves Montand thinks of his loss, he is in anguish; when Nat King Cole does, he suffers a mild sentimental pang.
That is not to say that the American versions are always inferior. The lush cascading strings that preface Nat King Cole's entrance have an atmosphere of uneasy nostalgia that never fails to entice. His satin voice makes you believe in his regret; but it is a shallow regret none the less.
'Autumn Leaves' has been sung by scores of excellent artists, Streisand, Sarah Vaughan, Bing Crosby, Eartha Kitt and Billy Daniels among them. I have not heard all the recordings, but of those I know, there is a Frank Sinatra which must, I think, be the slowest of them all. There is not even time for the customary repeat of the refrain. Yet it is a brilliant performance, Sinatra at his best three-o'clock-in-the-morning-and-I'm-all-alone mood, extracting heartache from every clearly and lengthily enunciated syllable.
The jazzmen, too, have taken to the song: Stan Getz, Erroll Garner, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett (with a wonderful coda), Oscar Peterson and dozens more. Yehudi Menuhin has attempted it, in one of his sessions with Stephane Grappelli. Most have turned it into an upbeat number, far from the mood of the original.
But it is Miles Davis who delivers the sorrow, especially in his 1958 recording with 'Cannonball' Adderley. This is Miles searching into his heart, blowing with quiet desperation. Every note penetrates the hidden emotions we do not want to surface. The track may be entitled 'Autumn Leaves', but Miles is playing and feeling 'Les Feuilles Mortes'. And that is how it should be; for Miles Davis first heard it in Paris, sung by the love of his life, Juliette Greco.
'It's a song that resembles us / You who loved me / I who loved you', the refrain begins. It ends with inevitable parting. Prevert could have written it for them. But then it could have been about anyone. 'Les Feuilles Mortes' is the truest anthem to loss and regret ever put to music.-
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