It's the most seductive point of the fall season: leaves are just starting to change, the pumpkin spice lattes and Octoberfest beers are coming out, and the days are crisp and bright without being actually chilly. "This is my favorite season!" everyone seems to be saying.
The weather will get a little more extreme soon enough, but while we're at this rosy moment, let's seize the inspiration to load up a playlist with autumn-appropriate classical music. Here are a few ideas of mine (excluding spooky Halloweenish music, which is really its own genre).
Leo Sowerby, Comes Autumn Time
This sparkling 1916 overture — originally for organ, later orchestrated — was inspired by a Bliss Carmen poem called "Autumn."
Antonio Vivaldi, L'autunno violin concerto from The Four Seasons
The quintessential fall composition, this music became familiar to me at a young age because my parents loved Alan Alda's 1981 film The Four Seasons, which was soundtracked with Vivaldi's music. In the film, this Baroque concerto plays while the characters hang out on a picturesque college campus that's depicted as being in New England — but which, I've just now discovered, was actually in Georgia! Clearly the northern half of the U.S. does not have a monopoly on autumn splendor.
Joseph Haydn, Autumn section of The Seasons
The second most-famous season-themed piece of classical music, this oratorio celebrates autumn on a somewhat grander scale than Vivaldi's concerto. While the spring and summer sections are mostly about the wonders of nature, autumn and winter celebrate the things that people do during those seasons—like harvesting, hunting, canoodling, and of course boozing ("joyful, joyful, the liquor flows").
Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky, September - November movements of The Seasons
Surprisingly seldom heard given the fame of its composer and how enjoyable it is to hear, The Seasons was published serially over the course of 1876 in the magazine Nouvellist: one solo piano piece per month. September's piece is called The Hunt, October's is Autumn Song, and November's is Troika.
Ralph Vaughan Williams, Autumn section of Folk Songs of the Four Seasons
First performed in 1950 but not recorded until 2009, Vaughan Williams's "folk song cantata" was composed for a women's choral festival; the composer was pleased to have the opportunity to write a piece specifically designed for amateur singers. The Autumn section of the cantata features the elegiac "Unquiet Grave" (in which, as the composer put it, "the young maiden meets her dead lover among the storms and cold winds of autumn") bookended by two harvest songs.
Joseph Joachim Raff, Symphony No. 10: "To Autumntime"
A great suggestion from reader Thomas Maresh, who writes that the German-Swiss Raff (1822-1882) "is a relatively unknown composer, but in his day he rivaled Brahms, and now has become my favorite composer."
Charles Ives, The Unanswered Question
I was telling American Public Media's Steve Staruch that I like to listen to Ives in the fall, in part because autumn reminds me of New England and Ives was such a quintessential New England composer. "The Unanswered Question," agreed Steve, "goes well in the fall."
John Adams, Shaker Loops
John Adams is another famous New England composer, raised in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The humming strings in this early masterpiece are meant to represent the Shakers' practice of vibrating violently during religious worship, but the sound also evokes leaves rustling in the autumn wind.
George Whitefield Chadwick, String Quartet No. 4
A felicitous suggestion from reader Trevor Woggon: a charming piece by a composer emblematic of the "New England School" of American composers.
Alexander Glazunov, Autumn from The Seasons
Breaking from the relentlessly reflective vibe of much other autumn-themed music, Glazunov's 1899 ballet score opens its post-summer section with an exuberant burst of fall color. Thanks to reader Michael Whealy for suggesting this musical Octoberfest.
Samuel Barber and Edgar Meyer, Violin Concertos
Blame the marketers: with a cover photo depicting violinist Hilary Hahn leaning on a tree against a backdrop of yellow leaves, Hahn's 2000 recording of these concerti with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has always been one of my go-to autumn listens. The compositions complement the season—and each other—as well, bright and lucid yet unmistakably melancholy.
Gustav Holst, St. Paul's Suite
A different St. Paul, this one in West London. Fall is back-to-school season, and this famous string suite written by Holst for his students at St. Paul's Girls' School makes going to school almost seem like fun.
George Winston, Autumn
Aaron Copland, Our Town
This music written by Copland for the 1940 film is contemplative yet majestic, capturing the feeling we'd all like to have at the end of a year that's had (as they do) its ups and downs. You can picture Grovers Corners, New Hampshire if you like, but this piece also works—moreso than some of Copland's other Americana—as pure music. Copland's own recording, with the London Symphony Orchestra (love the Grant Wood cover), is the gold standard.
Einojuhani Rautavaara, Autumn Gardens
This Finnish composer's distinctive floating, spiritual tone captures the season's magical promise, largely casting dark shadows aside.
Ludwig Van Beethoven, String Quartet No. 15
This quartet is commonly played in November because its third movement is often known as the Hymn of Thanksgiving: composed following Beethoven's recovery from a near-fatal illness, it carries the inscription "Holy Song of Thanksgiving by a Convalescent to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode."
Christopher Simpson, fall suite from The 4 Seasons
This Baroque composer is remembered for his lissome viola da gamba compositions, and his 4 Seasons suites put that instrument front and center. The autumn section is a quiet and dignified, yet warm, ode that evokes a feeling of cozy contentment. (He also wrote pieces dedicated to each month of the year, but unfortunately those works have become obscure and recordings are difficult to find.)
Johannes Brahms, Symphony No. 4
This is another piece Steve Staruch suggested for the fall. It has a persistently autumnal quality, he told me—"but with the sun still shining brightly." I don't hear as much sun in this symphony as Steve does, but I agree that it's an apt fit for fall—late fall, when the ground is bare, the leaves are stripped from the trees, and dusk is falling more and more quickly every day.
Arnold Bax, November Woods
The British composer wrote this tone poem in 1917, as his love affair with pianist Harriet Cohen was ending. That sad event certainly influenced the dark flavor of the piece, but it's also a gloriously cinematic composition with brilliant orchestral color that speaks to the splendor of nature in one of its most dramatic months.