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Fairy Day, Op 131

completed on 6 November 1912; subtitled 'Three Idylls for Female Chorus and Small Orchestra'
author of text
1874; poems from Prince Brightkin, in Songs, Ballads, and Stories

The ‘Three Idylls for Female Chorus and Small Orchestra’ which Stanford entitled Fairy Day, Op 131, were completed on 6 November 1912 in London and published in a vocal score by Stainer & Bell the following year. Settings of three poems from ‘Prince Brightkin’ in William Allingham’s Songs, Ballads, and Stories of 1874, the miniature cycle was dedicated ‘To the St Cecilia Society of New York and its Conductor Mr Victor Harris’. Harris was himself a composer, organist, teacher and conductor and spent much of his life working in New York. A vocal coach at the Metropolitan Opera for three years (1893–6), he founded the St Cecilia Chorus (as it was initially known) in 1906, made up exclusively of women’s voices (formed from a more informal Tuesday Morning Singing Club: an association of women who met regularly to sing at the Waldorf Astoria, the grand Art-Deco hotel in mid-town Manhattan, where they gave concerts). Harris probably commissioned the work from Stanford (although we have no evidence to confirm this at present) but there is no record of a performance by Harris who remained conductor of the Chorus until 1936. Fairy Day in this orchestral version was first broadcast by the BBC on 17 January 2011, the Ulster Orchestra and Ulster Youth Choir being conducted by Howard Shelley.

Stanford’s ‘Three Idylls’ were conceived as a cycle of three partsongs to words by his countryman, William Allingham (1824–1889), who was famous for his children’s poems, especially those relating to the imagination and the supernatural. His lines ‘Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy glen, We daren’t go a-hunting, For fear of little men’ from The Fairies, his most famous poem, became a classic, especially for schoolchildren. Scored with a gossamer precision reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the work reflects the composer’s consummate brilliance in this ‘Urlicht’ idiom, and one that looks forward to the transparent ballet music of his last opera, The Travelling Companion (1916). With only the resources of a chamber orchestra, Stanford created indelible musical illustrations of those memorable images by Edmund Dulac, Charles Edmund Brock (who illustrated Kipling’s Rewards and Fairies of 1910), Hilda Miller and Ida Outhwaite—gentle images in pale pastel colours with which many children grew up during much of the twentieth century. The first partsong, ‘Fairy Dawn’, is in two parts: first, an extended introduction (‘Fairies and Elves! / Gone is the night’) depicting the awakening of the fairy world (and one in which Stanford shows himself the master of modulation and of a sensuous harmonic language redolent of early Debussy); second, a lively partsong (‘Golden, golden / Light unfolding’) with a refrain ‘All the length of a summer day!’ which celebrates the joy, warmth and vibrance of midsummer. ‘Fairy Noon’, a slow movement, begins with a horn call, summoning the fairies to rest as the sun reaches its apogee (‘Hear the call!’). Beginning obliquely, through D minor and G minor, a mellifluous cor anglais reworks the call into a longer melody in a luxuriant D flat major attended by the chorus. A more tonally fluid central paragraph anchored to B flat subtly facilitates an orchestral transition through its submediant G minor, and minor subdominant E flat minor, to a reprise of the opening material in D flat in which all fairies are tenderly conveyed to slumber. The final partsong, ‘Fairy Night’, is a lullaby (‘Moon soon sets now’) in rondo-variation form in which each occurrence of the lullaby, as a foil to the ‘scherzino’ episodes, is developed and transformed. In a feat of true artistry, Stanford never allows his lullaby theme, suspended continuously on its dominant, to cadence. This is evident in the first presentation of the main theme, but in the first variation, where it is more sensually adorned with the solo violin and some highly affecting key changes, the sense of ‘variation’ becomes evident. Moreover, the final variation, which carries the partsong to its restful conclusion, is a stunning example of Stanford’s flair for orchestration as ‘chamber music’ in its use of solo strings and wind. Only here, in the dying bars, does the composer also allow the music to cadence into D major.

from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2019


Stanford: A Song of Agincourt & other works
Studio Master: CDA68283Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


No 1: Fairy Dawn: Quasi allegro molto moderato  Fairies and Elves! Gone is the night
Track 5 on CDA68283 [7'15]
No 2: Fairy Noon: Larghetto  Hear the call!
Track 6 on CDA68283 [5'18]
No 3: Fairy Night: Allegretto tranquillo  Moon soon sets now
Track 7 on CDA68283 [6'08]

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