In a preface to the score, the composer explains that ‘the folk song The Flowers of the Forest is believed to date from 1513, the time if the battle of Flodden, in the course of which the archers of the Forest (a part of Scotland) were killed almost to a man’. Bennett had already used the same tune in his Six Scottish Folksongs (1972) for soprano, tenor and piano, and it is the arrangement he made then that forms the starting-point for the brass-band piece.
A slow introduction (Poco Adagio) presents the folk song theme three times in succession - on solo cornet, on solo cornets and tenor horns, and on muted ripieno cornets in close harmony - after which the work unfolds through five sections and a coda. Although played without a break, each of these five sections has its own identity, developing elements of the tune somewhat in the manner of variations, but with each arising from and evolving into the next.
The first of these sections (Con moto, tranquillo) is marked by an abrupt shift of tonality, and makes much of the slow rises and falls characteristic of the tune itself. The tempo gradually increases, to arrive at a scherzando section (Vivo) which includes the first appearance of the theme in its inverted form. A waltz-like trio is followed by a brief return of the scherzando, leading directly to a second, more extended, scherzo (con brio) based on a lilting figure no longer directly related to the theme. As this fades, a single side drum introduces an element of more overtly martial tension (Alla Marcia) and Bennett says that, from this point on, he was thinking of Debussy’s tribute to the memory of an unknown soldier (in the second movement of En Blanc et noir, for two pianos). Bennett’s march gradually gathers momentum, eventually culminating in a short-lived elegiac climax (Maestoso) before the music returns full-circle to the subdued melancholy of the opening. The work ends with a haunting pianissimo statement of the original tune.