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Lasting the best part of sixteen minutes, A Song of Agincourt has many similarities to his Irish Rhapsodies whose use of traditional Irish melody and free manipulation of sonata structure characterized their imaginative forms. The modal flavour (based around D minor) of the medieval English song, introduced forcefully by the trumpets, forms the first subject. Embellished by lively and inventive passagework from the strings, this idea has tremendous elan. This yields to a more tranquil second subject in E flat major, an idea full of the composer’s rich diatonic palette and which has all the thumbprints and contours of Irish melody (and is surely Stanford’s own personal tribute to the work’s dedicatees). A developmental phase recalls the lively tempo and the Agincourt melody which is thoroughly reworked. At its most chromatic apogee (in which Stanford’s advanced harmonic vocabulary is amply evident) a new folksong-like march idea is introduced which forms the central focus of the symphonic structure. Couched in F major, and a spectacular example of Stanford’s contrapuntal dexterity, the march is a lively orchestral tour de force. After quitting F major, another episode of development takes place, this time in the form of a nocturne replete with distant horn calls. This constitutes a transition to a truncated reprise of the second subject, this time in F sharp major and shared more wistfully between the solo oboe and cor anglais. After a cadence in F sharp, a dominant pedal of D emerges more ominously in the timpani which, in 3/4, anticipates the recapitulation of the ‘Agincourt Song’, but this is disrupted by three recurrences of the march in C, A and F, before the song returns in its full glory. While this might have provided a satisfactory conclusion to the work, it is the second subject, in D major and opulently scored together with passing references to the Agincourt material in the brass, that forms its peroration. It was as if Stanford, recalling all those he had taught, and especially those who had passed on—Hurlstone, Coleridge-Taylor, Butterworth, Purcell Warren, Farrar and Parry—wished to place his own personal stamp of tribute on the piece as one of Britain’s elder musical statesmen.
from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2019