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A Song of Agincourt, Op 168

1918; revised 1919

The fifteenth-century ‘Agincourt Song’ or ‘Agincourt Hymn’, written in praise of Henry V’s victory (against the odds) over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, is probably best known today through its use by William Walton for his film score to Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film interpretation of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Though a production of great artistic merit, Olivier’s film and Walton’s music undoubtedly had major propaganda value at a time when, after five years of struggle, Britain could begin to see a new horizon of victory and the destruction of Nazism. Even before Walton appropriated the ‘Agincourt Song’, however, Stanford had appreciated its propaganda appeal and associations when he chose to include it as the central focus of his tone poem A Song of Agincourt, Op 168. Composed in 1918 and revised the following year, it was written ‘in commemoration of those members of the Royal College of Music who fought, worked, and died for their country (1914–18), and dedicated (by gracious permission) to the Patron, his Majesty King George V’. The work was first given by the orchestra of the Royal College of Music on 25 March 1919 under Stanford’s direction. Shortly after this first hearing, a revision took place which was completed on 11 April 1919. A second performance at the RCM took place on 4 July in the third of three special concerts to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the opening of the new RCM building by the Prince of Wales on 2 May 1894. The concerts featured works entirely by those who had taught and studied at the RCM, and A Song of Agincourt was included alongside works by Holst, Rootham, Somervell, Dunhill, Coleridge-Taylor and Parry. It was attended by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) who, dressed in khaki, and having accepted the Presidency of the RCM, was making his first visit to the institution. A third performance of the work occurred on 16 October 1919 when it was played under Dan Godfrey’s direction in Bournemouth.

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


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

Track-specific metadata for CDA68283 track 8

Recording date
29 August 2018
Recording venue
Ulster Hall, Belfast, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Annabel Connellan
Recording engineer
Ben Connellan
Hyperion usage
  1. Stanford: A Song of Agincourt & other works (CDA68283)
    Disc 1 Track 8
    Release date: August 2019
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