“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent”. ―
Of our five senses, smell is said to be the most acute, the most reliable. I once challenged students involved with Agincourt to map the landscape of their youth, not by sight, the physical landmarks that define our personal world, but by the sense of smell. And it works in the conjunction of space-time: There is a commercial bakery on my route from campus to home and I think that smell of freshly baking bread is linked automatically with the turn signal and my usual left turn onto Fourth avenue; it tells me where I am and what to do.
Smell can also transcend time. The smell of egg salad transports me instantly to my grandmother’s kitchen where I’m standing before the open refrigerator and being lectured to know what I want before opening it. Likewise, the changing styles of music and my shifting taste could be a chronology of my life. Given a bit of time, we could write the history of Agincourt in its music. Indeed, it already has been through scattered musical references: Gerry Leiden rehearsing the “Lessons & Carols” at St Joe’s church on election eve 2015 and the premier of his oratorio “Shanawdithit” soon after; a punk band playing at the Yellow Brick Roadhouse; the 1895-1895 opening season at The Auditorium. Each of these could be someone’s reference point in space-time.
“Music is a total constant. That’s why we have such a strong visceral connection to it, you know? Because a song can take you back instantly to a moment, or a place, or even a person. No matter what else has changed in you or the world, that one song stays the same, just like that moment.”
In 1963 our Senior Class met to consider a memorial gift to the school. I can’t recall what it was; maybe something like a score board for the swimming pool, though that sounds way beyond our means. But at some point during the meeting, I offered a suggestion: Why not (I suggested naively) commission a living American composer — names like Vincent Persichetti or William Schuman came to mind — to write a graduation march, something to bear our school’s name into the future and, perhaps, beyond the confines of District #217.
“But ‘Pomp & Circumstance’ is traditional,” they protested. Reminding them that “Pomp & Circumstance” — actually the first of a group of five marches written by Sir Edward Elgar in 1904; I looked it up — had itself been an innovation got me nowhere. My eccentricities had already put me at the fringe of teenage culture and this just confirmed their suspicions. But that idea, to commission a musical composition lodged in my psyche and wouldn’t go away. So as we prepared for the first of what would be three Agincourt exhibits, the exhibit celebrating the 150th anniversary of the city’s incorporation in 1857 — its “sesquicentennial”; I love saying that word — it was clear the time had come: we would commission a Sesquicentennial Fanfare for brass as part of the opening ceremonies.
Who to approach with the commission? Several composers came to mind but the list quickly focused on Daron Hagen, familiar because he had written an opera based on the early life of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Hagen was also a Midwesterner, born in Milwaukee and rooted in the same soil as Wright and Sullivan. And, so, I crafted an email message, explained that I represented “the Sesquicentennial Committee of Agincourt, Iowa, a town of 27,500 people” and we wished to commission a fanfare to inaugurate the city’s 150th birthday celebrations. And, oh, by the way, Agincourt is a work of fiction, an academic exercise in the relationship between design and narrative, place-making and story-telling, to which I expected one of three reactions: 1) the delete button; 2) a recommendation to seek serious therapy — I was already getting that and Agincourt had become a large part of it — or, 3) a qualified “yes”. His actual reply was more than we could hope for: “I’m there,” he wrote. It’s reassuring when an idea resonates with others.
Maestro Hagen asked what we had in mind and I suggested “Musik for His Majesty’s Sackbuts and Krumhorns”, though William Byrd was several generations too late for the actual Battle of Agincourt. But it set a tone and allowed Hagen to revisit a 1989 composition unknown to me, “Sennets, Cortege & Tuckets”. Two months later came the PDF of “Agincourt Fanfare,” scored for four trumpets, four french horns, three trombones, baritone and tympani. The brass section of our local symphony did justice to a complex work and those in attendance that Thursday evening had just witnessed a world premier. That itch had finally been scratched.
Eight years and several semesters later, there was enough new material to suggest a second exhibit to our friend and museum director James O’Rourke. The six hundredth anniversary of the actual Battle of Agincourt would pass largely unnoticed here in the United States on October 25th, 2015, which was hard to ignore — everywherre except a small town in Iowa. Once again there was an opportunity for music to reinforce the exhibit. We approached Daron Hagen a second time — he had already been recognized as Agincourt, Iowa’s official “Composer-not-in-Residence” — with the suggestion to set a Shakespeare text for baritone voice and piano; I had in mind Henry’s speech to his troops on the eve of battle, fifty powerful lines that have been delivered by the likes of Lawrence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh and during innumerable speech tournaments and theater auditions. So this time, the exhibit closed on October 25th, the 600th anniversary to the day (allowing for calendar shifts from O.S. to N.S.) of the battle, the definitive battle, of the Hundred Years’ War, off-stage centerpiece of Shakespeare’s Henry V, with “We Few”, another surprise world premier.
“Dear Ronald, I wanted to let you know that I finished a second set of revisions to the Henry scene written in memory of your father. TWELVE years after first finishing the piece! But I have learned a lot since then and the piece is now very much the “big moment” in the Henry opera that I shall never have written, and well worth having stewed over for so long. I am grateful for the commission long ago, and for the chance to have a go at that text. Importantly, what motivated me to go back in is that I signed my catalogue over to Peermusic Classical, which is a highly honorable global independent that will keep the music in print for a couple of generations, at least. Relieved.” — Daron Hagen