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The thoroughly original, largely self-taught composer Warren Benson (1924-2005) began his musical life as a percussionist.  He was playing professionally by age 14, and became the timpanist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra by age 22.  With his performance career well underway, he studied music theory at the University of Michigan (BM 1949, MM 1950).  Upon graduating, he received two successive Fulbright grants (two more would come later) to teach in Salonika, Greece, where he set up a co-ed choir at Anatolia College (the first of its kind the country) and developed a bi-lingual music curriculum.  Upon his return to the US, in 1953, he accepted a post as composer-in-residence and professor of music at Ithaca College, where he stayed for 14 years.  He spent the remainder of his career (1967-1993) as a professor of composition at the Eastman School of Music, where he received numerous awards for his music and his teaching.  He had a pioneer spirit in many respects: not only did he start the first co-ed college choir in Greece, he also started the first touring percussion ensemble in the US the moment he started at Ithaca.  He later was one of the founding members of the World Association of Symphonic Band and Ensembles (WASBE), an international advocacy group for wind bands.  He is particularly remembered for his song cycles and his distinctly original contributions to the wind band literature, including The Leaves Are Falling (1964-5), The Solitary Dancer (1966), The Passing Bell (1974) and Symphony II-Lost Songs (1983).

The Leaves Are Falling is a statement of grief following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  For Benson, his feelings on the matter were encapsulated by Rainer Maria Rilke‘s poem Herbst (Autumn):


The leaves are falling, falling as from way off,
as though far gardens withered in the skies;
they are falling with denying gestures.

And in the nights the heavy earth is falling
from all the stars down into loneliness.

We all are falling. This hand falls.
And look at others: it is in them all.

And yet there is one who holds this falling
endlessly gently in his hands.

He thus borrowed the first line of the poem as the title of the piece.  It opens with distantly tolling chimes, followed by a long line in the low flute that introduces the melodic material for much of the piece.  In the second half, Benson begins using the hymn Ein Feste Burg while restating the first melody, working the two melodies ever closer together to a climax.  All the while, the chimes continue to toll.  The Leaves Are Falling is an especially demanding piece in many respects.  At 11 and a half minutes, with the half note marked at 32-34 bpm, it demands intense concentration of the ensemble, and masterly pacing by the conductor.  The amount of exposed playing by every section and the level of musicianship demanded of each player also contribute to its difficulty.  Yet a thoughtfully-paced performance (as below) can be a transcendent experience.

Everyone who plans to conduct The Leaves Are Falling MUST read this 1983 article in which Donald Hunsberger interviews Benson about the piece and does a thorough analysis of it.  You can read up further on Benson and his music at Wikipedia and his extensive, up-to-date website.

The Norwegian Windband plays The Leaves Are Falling:

The quoted hymn, Ein Feste Burg:


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