Autumn Leaves and the Red Army

| music

I recently listened to some old socialist music on YouTube (don't ask me why) and stumbled upon an Austrian song called Die Arbeiter von Wien. I didn't think I knew the song, but parts of it sounded weirdly familiar. After some time I figured out why: the chorus (So flieg, du flammende, du rote Fahne..., t=17) is very similar to a part of Autumn Leaves (Since you went away..., t=45), so similar that it can't be a coincidence.

Transcription of Russian song

The part that sounds familiar (transcribed from the Russian original with LilyPond*)

A bit of research (that is, checking Wikipedia) uncovered that the Austrian song by Fritz Brügel took the melody from an earlier Russian song called Красная Армия всех сильней (literally the Red Army is the strongest, better known in English as White Army, Black Baron, chorus at t=43), which was written by Pavel Gorinshtejn (lyrics) and Samuel Pokrass (music) in 1920, during the Russian Civil War, as a combat anthem for the Red Army. Interestingly, the English Wikipedia article for White Army, Black Baron (at the time of writing) does not mention Autumn Leaves, but the much shorter German article makes the connection, noting that the b-section of Les feuilles mortes is similar to the melody by Pokrass.

The music of Les feuilles mortes, the original French version of Autumn Leaves, was written by Joseph Kosma in 1945. Kosma was born into a Jewish family in Budapest in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He studied music in Budapest and Berlin, but emigrated to Paris in 1933. He must have heard Die Arbeiter von Wien in the streets of Vienna and later a fragment of it resurfaced in his own composition. The song got English lyrics in 1949 and was recorded in the US, where it developed into a jazz standard in the 1950s, but this part of the story is common knowledge.

I wasn't aware of all these historical connections behind Autumn Leaves, although I must have played it myself a hundred times. It's a beautiful example of how music transcends borders and ideologies: a Russian combat anthem becomes an Austrian protest song of the labor movement, which inspires a melancholic love song in Paris that turns into a jazz standard in the US. At the same time, it serves as a sad reminder of the damage modern copyright law does to music.

* LilyPond is like LaTeX for music. Check the source code of the transcription above if you're interested.

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