George Butterworth

George Butterworth (1885–1916)
‘George Butterworth. Composer, collector of folk songs, Morris dancer, cricketer, soldier. Great in what he achieved, greater still in what he promised. No composer’s reputation stands on so small an output. It is the truest sense English music.’ This is from a radio talk in 1942, and was probably written by Elizabeth Poston or Roger Fiske.

George Butterworth did not write any music in the First World War, or influenced by it, but he will be forever associated with the conflict – a life tragically cut short.

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Early years
George Sainton Kaye Butterworth was born in Paddington in London on 12 July 1885, the only child of Alexander Butterworth (later Sir) and Julia Wigan. His father was a solicitor for the Great Western Railway, and when he transferred to the North Eastern Railway in 1891, for which he later became the General Manager, the family moved to York.

Butterworth therefore grew up in Yorkshire so has often mistakenly been described as a Yorkshireman. His mother was a professional singer before she married, so music was in the family, and George showed an early aptitude for the piano. He was a boarder at Aysgarth Preparatory School from 1896 to 1899 where he played organ and composed three hymn tunes. He enjoyed cricket and was a school captain, so was already showing the qualities of leadership which were to stand him in good stead later. From there he entered Eton College as a king’s scholar in 1899 where he excelled more in sports and music rather than in academic subjects. His directness and independent thought, which were a feature of his character throughout his life, were not always welcomed at Eton, as letters from the school to his father indicate, but while there he played the piano and conducted his early Barcarolle, thus showing evidence of his musical promise.

In his last year at Eton he settled down to more academic work and did well enough to gain a place at Trinity College, Oxford in 1904, where he read ‘Greats’ (classics, ancient history and philosophy). Again, music overshadowed his academic studies; he joined the Oxford University Music Club for which he became president from 1906 to 1907, and he sung in the Oxford Bach Choir conducted by Hugh Allen, who became a good friend and supporter. He made a name for himself when he deputised for Allen conducting the New Symphony Orchestra in Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in London in 1908.

In 1906, Butterworth became interested in folk song and dance, which was becoming popular at this time among those who saw the revival of the tradition as a way of developing a distinctly English musical style. He started collecting folk music, and it was through this activity that he met Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams who were both to become friends and colleagues. He went on collecting expeditions in Sussex in 1907, arranging an album of Sussex folk songs, while some of those collected found expression in his two English Idylls, an early orchestral piece written a few years later. In all Butterworth collected around 450 items, including songs and dance tunes, and he published several books of country and Morris dances. He joined the Folk Song Society in that year, and was one of the founders of the English Folk Dance Society in 1911, where he was a member of its original Morris Dance side. He was an accomplished Morris and folk dancer, and it is in this activity that he was most comfortable and fulfilled while he was struggling to find a music career. Vaughan Williams later said that he felt Butterworth was held back by a strong Schumann-Brahms influence, and by the fear of self-expression fostered by the academic tradition, but that his discovery of folk song freed him from foreign influences, and helped him find an original voice. He and Vaughan Williams shared many ideals, admired each other’s music and provided moral and practical support to one another.

Butterworth only gained a third class honours degree from Oxford, but this was more due to the distraction of music rather than being a reflection of his ability. He had abandoned plans for a career in law, much to the regret of his father, but was restless. He worked briefly as a music critic for The Times, and contributed to the new edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and taught for a while at Radley College in Oxford. In 1910, he enrolled at the Royal College of Music where he studied organ, piano, composition and harmony, but he was soon disillusioned and left in 1911.

Butterworth the Composer
Butterworth and his parents had moved back to London in 1910 and lived in Cheyne Gardens very close to Vaughan Williams. His father had now accepted his son’s decision to follow music composition rather than teaching and gave him an allowance, so from now until the start of the First World War, he was able to commit fully to both writing music and the folk song revival, which included demonstrating Morris and folk dancing.

Most of Butterworth’s compositions date from 1910-14. He had completed his two sets of songs from A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad by 1910. These were the Six Songs and Bredon Hill and other Songs which were performed at an Oxford University Music Club concert (the two English Idylls were also performed there in 1912). Housman was very popular among composers; his poems show brevity, have rhythm and convey a pastoral atmosphere and a sense of ‘Englishness’, reflecting a certain Victorian pessimism and nostalgia. A Shropshire Lad was written by Housman in 1896, and follows a doomed young countryman who becomes a soldier, farmer, criminal and lover. Of the poems set by Butterworth, Loveliest of Trees portrays a young man regretting the passing of years which, given that Housman was in his mid-thirties when we wrote it, and Butterworth only had a few years to live, has a certain irony about it. The lads in their hundreds is about young men going to Ludlow Fair, perhaps for the last time, and contains the line ‘Lads that will die in their glory and never grow old’. In On the idle hill of summer, a poet hears soldiers marching, where upon he meditates on the folly of war, but decides to join up anyway. There is poignancy in these songs, and some appear prophetic in view of what was to befall Butterworth.

In 1911, he wrote his Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad which quotes from some of the songs from his two sets. The orchestral forces in this piece were the largest he was to use, and shows that he was capable of writing on a larger scale. This is widely recognised as his finest work, and although it is inspired by folk music, is entirely original. The music is pastoral in nature and looks back to an earlier time, but it is poignant and expressive, and moving when one considers that Butterworth was to die so young. The work closes with the melody of the last song in the set Bredon Hill and other Songs at the line ‘With rue my heart is laden, for golden friends I had’. The Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad received its first performance in Leeds in 1913, and for the first time brought Butterworth to national attention. He was beginning to show a style that was simple and restrained, but with deep passions which can emerge forcefully.

Love Blows as the Wind Blows is a song cycle, originally written in 1911 with piano or string quartet accompaniment, but in 1913 he made an orchestral version of it. Although there is a fragment of a Fantasia for orchestra, Butterworth’s final completed work for orchestra is the Banks of the Green Willow, a third English idyll which was written in 1913 and given its first performance in February 1914.

In the final months before the war Butterworth provided both moral and practical support in the composition and performance of Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony ahead of its premiere. When Vaughan Williams revised the work in 1920, he was to dedicate it to Butterworth’s memory in recognition of his knowledge and support.

Butterworth and the First World War
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Butterworth, along with a group of musician friends, enlisted together the following month as Privates in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, initially travelling to Cornwall before returning to Aldershot for training. The group wanted to stay together, so they applied together to gain commissions. In October they had all achieved this with Butterworth appointed as a Second Lieutenant in the 13th Durham Light Infantry. His company were mainly Durham miners with whom he got on well, showing the natural leadership which had already been evident in his life.

The winter of 1914-15 was spent in Aldershot which Butterworth found dull. He was promoted to First Lieutenant just ahead of being sent to France in 1915. Since the start of the war, Butterworth had written no further music. Whether he had a premonition that he would not survive the war is not known, but he ensured that he left all his work in good order before he went, bequeathing his manuscripts to Vaughan Williams. He is known to have destroyed a number of his manuscripts, especially piano works and songs, although he saved the fragment of his Fantasia for orchestra.

Life closer to the theatre of war involved periods of training in the trenches alternating with periods of rest and much boredom. He saw no active fighting until July 1916 when his Battalion moved to the Somme to provide support in the first Battle of the Somme which had already commenced. During the fighting he experienced on 9 July, Butterworth took charge when his Commanding Officer was wounded, for which he was recommended for the Military Cross ‘for conspicuous gallantry in action’. On 19 July, he was recommended again, and received the Military Cross, for ‘commanding his company with great ability and coolness’. On 1 August, his Brigade was sent to the front where they dug a trench, which was later to bear his name, and they made a successful assault on an enemy trench.

It was at Pozières, on 5 August at 4.45am, while moving in an exposed low cut trench, that George Butterworth was shot in the head and killed. Due to the danger of being so close to the enemy line, his body was not able to be removed, so he was buried along with a fellow soldier where he fell. He was awarded a second Military Cross on the night he died for leading his men in the task of linking the front line, doing so with disregard for his personal safety. His remarkable leadership, unselfishness and courage won him the respect of those he led, regardless of social class. Many, in fact, did not know he was a well known musician and composer. George Butterworth has no known grave, but is one of the 73,357 listed as missing on the Thiepval Memorial.

George Butterworth was noted for his strength of character, for having the courage to express strong opinions, and for having a direct and sometimes blunt manner, but he was modest, kind, and had the gift of natural leadership. He was widely respected, whether by fellow undergraduates, or by former miners in the Durham Light Infantry. Very little is actually known about his life, but he was a certain kind of Englishman of his generation, with his love of cricket, his love of the countryside, and with his sense of duty. His music reflects a rural and rather elegiac England, which has been reinforced by his early death – a youthful promise cut short. His output was very small, even allowing for the scores he destroyed. Being a self-critical composer, he worked fairly slowly and made many revisions to his scores before he was fully satisfied. Butterworth’s father, who outlived him by thirty years, was hit particularly hard by his death, but from the tributes and letters of condolence which flowed from musicians, he seemed finally to be reconciled to his son’s musical ability, and it was he who instigated the publication of his work.

Butterworth’s Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad received many performances in the years immediately following his death, and was warmly received, but the work was no longer an expression of the hope of things to come, as at its first performance, but more a memorial to what was lost, as well as a memorial to what he achieved.

Information from the above summary can be found in the following books and online resources

Michael Barlow: Whom the Gods love: the Life and Music of George Butterworth
Grove Music Online (free access for members of Westminster Libraries)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (free access for members of Westminster Libraries)

To find out more, click on the links

  1. Ken Gatlin says:

    A most moving tribute. Thank you.

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