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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