[This article is a revised portion of a larger work that will be published as Encyclopedia of 2500 Jazz Tunes — A Thematic, Historical, Musicological, and Discographical Catalogue.]
“Autumn Leaves” is the most important non-American standard. It has been recorded about 1400 times by mainstream and modern jazz musicians alone and is the eighth most recorded tune by jazzmen, just before “All the Things You Are”.  It was a chart hit in both Europe and America and has made regular appearances in films over the years. The composition has an interesting history that can be traced through the various published versions, and its oft-studied musical structure has ties to classical compositions.
“Les feuilles mortes” (literally ‘The Dead Leaves’) was originally a melody composed by Joseph Kosma  as a pas de deux (choreographed duo) for the ballet Le Rendez-vous, with a plot by Jacques Prévert.  It was introduced by Roland Petit in 1945, without words. The copyright is dated February 27, 1946 and it was first published by Enoch (Paris, France) in 1947.
Figure 1. First sheet music with words.
Marcel Carné decided to use it in his film Les portes de la nuit and wanted it sung by Marlene Dietrich — who declined. In the movie, it is played by the whole orchestra, then by a harmonica, then hummed and sung briefly by Yves Montand, then sung by Irène Joachim (dubbed for actress Nathalie Nattier), and finishes as a waltz played by the whole orchestra. 
The memorable French lyrics (“C’est une chanson qui nous ressemble...”), written by Jacques Prévert, are those of a true poet. Singer Cora Vaucaire was the first to sing it in public. For four years, Yves Montand, whose name is invariably linked to the song, sang it with no success whatsoever; only in 1953 did he make it popular. Since then, the song has been adapted into countless languages and sung by a wide variety of artists, ranging from pop and rock singers to jazz musicians, while not being overlooked by classical performers such as Placido Domingo and trumpet virtuoso Maurice André. It took some time, however, for it to become a hit in America.
Figure 2. Dutch sheet music.
Michael Goldsen, who was in charge of Capitol’s music publishing department, fell in love with this song and, in 1950, asked the great Johnny Mercer to write the English lyric (“The falling leaves drift by the window...”). Mercer agreed — and soon forgot about it. Goldsen recalls:
I waited a couple of months. Finally it had, like, three weeks to go, and no lyric. I said, ‘Hey, John, I’ve only got three weeks to go and I lose the song.’ He said, ‘I’m going to New York on Friday. I’ll write it on the train and send it to you from New York. You’ll have it within a week. Pick me up and take me to the train station.’ They lived on De Longpre. I was delayed. I was fifteen minutes late, but we had time. I saw Johnny on the porch, and he’s nailing something to the door. I said, ‘Hey, John, I’m sorry I’m late, but we’ve got plenty of time.’ He said, ‘I thought maybe you had an emergency. While I was waiting, I wrote the lyrics.’ We got into the car and he read me the lyric. Tear came to my eyes. Everybody I played that song for flipped out. 
Mercer later told Michael Goldsen that he made more money from “Autumn Leaves” than from any other song that he wrote.  The sheet music (published by Ardmore Music, New York, N.Y. in 1950) and record sales kept “Autumn Leaves” in the first place slot of the television show Your Hit Parade for sixteen weeks in 1955.
Over the years since its first publication, the composition has undergone several adjustments. The verse is a 24-bar AA'B form, though originally it was written in twelve bars. The AA'BC form chorus was originally written in sixteen bars, but is now commonly seen as a 32-bar structure. The tune is usually played in 4/4 at a medium tempo in the key of G minor, although the original edition is in A minor.
The following analysis adopts the usual G minor key. The chorus melody spans a minor tenth and starts (A and A' sections) with a four-note ascending motif — three steps and a fourth (G A B♭ E♭). This pattern is then repeated three times, forming a descending sequence in stepwise motion.
The piece is built on exemplary harmonic progressions and is often analyzed and played in jazz schools. Verse and chorus use only two keys: G minor (the main key) and B-flat major.
The chorus is one of the rare themes starting in the relative major of the ending key which is in minor (the opposite is very common). In the A and A' sections, a ii — V — I in B-flat major is followed by a ii — V — i in the relative minor (G minor). In the B section, the process is reversed.
Below I have made a chord analysis showing the perfect harmonic balance in the first eight bars: the pivot chords help in getting a very smooth modulation on bars 4–5, and 8–9 (when coming back to the second A section).
Figure 3. “Autumn Leaves”, A section analysis.
A study of the earliest printings of “Les feuilles mortes” reveals some astonishing things:
The first sheet music, a large format one, features on the cover Yves Montand and Nathalie Nattier in Les portes de la nuit (fig. 1, above). The couplet (verse) and the chorus are in A minor. The 24-bar verse is in 6/8.
Note: This article uses interactive musical notation produced using Sibelius notation software. The Sibelius Scorch plug-in allows for musical notation to be displayed as well as heard. Transcriptions are notated at concert pitch. The play button starts playback from the beginning. Clicking on any point in the notation starts the playback from that point. Key and tempo can be changed by the user. If you do not see the score, get the Scorch plug-in here.
Example 4. “Les feuilles mortes”, verse.
The big surprise comes with the chorus: it does not start with a three note anacrusis, but instead the melody begins after the first beat of the first bar!
Example 5. “Les feuille mortes”, chorus.
So, to achieve a proper ending, the composer had to insert a 2/4 measure before the final four-bar section, thus extending the tune to sixteen and a half bars!
In the first four-bar section of this version we find this chord progression (here transposed to G minor):
| Gm — Cm | F7 — B♭ | E♭ — Ami7♭5 | D7 — Gm |
This is hardly a new progression as it can be found exactly in Händel’s Passacaille in G minor, originally the last movement from his Harpsichord Suite in G minor (HMW 432), published in 1720. Chord symbols have been added to the first two lines.
Example 6. “Passacaglia in G minor”.
As Kosma studied composition and conducting at the Budapest Liszt Academy, he likely knew Händel’s piece. A similar progression can also be found later in the first movement of Mozart’s Sonata in F (K 332), published in 1784.
Kosma no doubt realized that his first writing of the chorus melody was a shaky one, with its odd 2/4 appendage. For the next printing, of small-format sheet music (fig. 7), he changed it, displacing the first three notes, which now became the anacrusis (fig. 9). This change was kept and from then on it works perfectly.
For the purposes of swing, the jazz musicians double the number of bars, playing the chorus as a 32-bar AA'BC form, usually in G minor. 
Figure 7. Later French sheet music.
Example 8. “Les feuille mortes”, verse.
Example 9. “Les feuille mortes”, chorus. Notice that in the first measure the wrong chord is named: Ré min. (D minor) instead of Ré7 (D7).
In this later edition, the verse is no longer in 6/8 but in 4/4 (fig. 8), the chorus is 16 measures long, and the entire tune is in E minor.
The same features can be found in my copy of the American sheet music published by Ardmore Music, with Roger Williams on the cover (fig. 10), but the verse is not included, as Johnny Mercer wrote no words for it.
However, in the Australian version from J. Albert and Son (fig. 11), the verse does appear and its lyric is credited to Geoffrey Parsons.
Figure 10. American sheet music.
Figure 11. Australian sheet music.
In addition to its harmonic similarity to the earlier Händel and Mozart works, “Autumn Leaves” shares compositional characteristics with other later pieces. The chord structure of the first eight measures of the chorus is found in both “Are You Real?” (composed by Benny Golson in 1958) and “Alice In Wonderland” (composed by Sammy Fain in 1951) as played by Bill Evans in 1961. According to Marion Vidal and Isabelle Champion, “La Maritza”, a French song introduced by Sylvie Vartan, brought about a plagiarism suit based on its similarity to “Les feuilles mortes”; the plaintiffs won. 
Incidentally, the title “Autumn Leaves” is not unique. It is also the title of a 1856 painting by Sir John Everett Millais, now at the Manchester City Art Gallery, and a Danish death metal band (1994–2001) called themselves “Autumn Leaves.” There are also three earlier compositions that share this title: (Words and music by James E. Stewart © 1886; Music by Jacob Henry Ellis © 1905; Music by Charles Wakefield Cadman and words by Charles Dickens © 1925).
In 1962, French singer-author Serge Gainsbourg composed “La Chanson de Prévert” as an inspired tribute to “Les feuilles mortes”.
The song, originally written for the screen, was to be heard in almost a dozen films over the years.
The premier recording of “Les feuilles mortes” was by French singer Cora Vaucaire (January 1948, Chant-du-Monde) or perhaps by Jacques Douai in 1947, and the first jazz recording of “Autumn Leaves” was probably the one by Artie Shaw (October 5, 1950, Decca). An earlier recording of his (on September 13) was rejected. Two versions were hits in France, the first was in 1949 by Yves Montand, and the second was in 1950 by Juliette Gréco. In America, Roger Williams’s piano instrumental was a number one chart hit in 1955.
The piece was a favorite of jazz musicians Miles Davis,  Bill Evans, Harry James, Ahmad Jamal, Oscar Peterson, and Mel Torme. Among the many excellent jazz versions recorded over the years, some of the greatest are those by: Erroll Garner (1955), Cannonball Adderley, featuring Miles Davis (1958), Bill Evans (1959), Bobby Timmons (live in 1961), Miles Davis (live at Antibes in 1963), McCoy Tyner (1963), Eddie Louiss (1972), Wynton Marsalis (1986), Keith Jarrett (live in 1986). One oddity is a 1958 Duke Ellington live performance on which Ozzie Bailey sings the song in French.
The following list still does not approach completeness, as about 1400 different jazz versions exist.
Versions followed by an asterisk (*) are entitled “Les feuilles mortes”; all others are entitled “Autumn Leaves”.
 Composer Joseph Kosma (Kozma József, born October 22, 1905, Budapest; died August 7, 1969, La Roche-Guyon, France) went to Paris in 1933. He was successful as composer for the movies (Jean Renoir, Marcel Carné), and as popular songwriter, especially when associated with lyricist Jacques Prévert (this team was “la crème de la crème” of the “chanson rive gauche — St. Germain des Prés”). Kosma also composed several classical works.
 Jacques Prévert (born February 4, 1900, Neuilly-sur-Seine; died April 11, 1977, Omonville-la-Petite) was a famous French lyricist, poet, and scenario writer.
 It can be heard on the first volume of the Intégrale Yves Montand 1945-1949 FA 199, Frémeaux & Associés.
 Gene Lees, Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer, New York, Pantheon Books, 2004, 215–16.
 Ibid., 216.
 A jazz version (music and words) can be found in The New Real Book: Jazz Classics, Choice Standards, Pop Fusion Classics, Petaluma, CA: Sher Music, 1988.
 Marion Vidal and Isabelle Champion, Chansons du cinéma, Paris, M.A. Editions, 1990, 108.
 Davis had a love affair with Juliette Gréco (see fig. 7) in Paris in 1949, the very year when she recorded “Les feuilles mortes”. Could this explain why Davis favored the tune, and repeatedly played it between 1958 and 1966?
Philippe Baudoin is a French jazz pianist, arranger, author of historical and musicological works, record producer, and historian. Co-leader of the successful Anachronic Jazz Band, Baudoin is a teacher at CIM music school in Paris, in several Paris conservatories, and he was course director of “Histoire et techniques du jazz” at the Sorbonne and the Cité de la musique. He took part in Alain Resnais’s 1991 film on George Gershwin both on-screen and as music consultant. A member of the Académie du Jazz, he is an avid collector of sheet music and jazz documents and is a specialist on jazz repertoire.
Judging by the number of times it has been recorded, “Autumn Leaves” is the most important non-American standard in the jazz repertoire. This article traces the composition’s interesting history through the various published versions, and shows how its oft-studied musical structure has ties to classical compositions.
Autumn Leaves, Joseph Kosma, Jacques Prévert, Johnny Mercer
How to cite this article:
For further information, please contact:
Except where otherwise noted, content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License
This page last updated July 03, 2012, 18:44