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For George Butterworth, Illustrator & Cartoonist, see George Butterworth (cartoonist).

George Sainton Kaye Butterworth, MC (12 July 1885 – 5 August 1916) was an English composer best known for his tone poem The Banks of Green Willow and his settings of A. E. Housman's poems.

Contents

Early years

Although Butterworth was born in London, his family moved to Yorkshire not long after his birth. He received his first music lessons from his mother, who was a singer, and began composing at an early age. However, his father intended him to be a solicitor, and he attended Eton College, from there continuing on to Trinity College, Oxford. While at Trinity he became more focussed on music, for there he met the folk song collector Cecil Sharp and composer and folk song enthusiast Ralph Vaughan Williams. Butterworth and Vaughan Williams made several trips into the English countryside to collect folk songs, and both saw their compositions strongly influenced by what they heard. Butterworth was also an expert folk dancer, being particularly fond of Morris dancing.

Vaughan Williams and Butterworth became close friends. It was Butterworth who suggested to Vaughan Williams that he turn a symphonic poem he was working on into his London Symphony. When the manuscript for that piece was lost (having been sent to Fritz Busch in Germany just before the outbreak of war), Butterworth, together with Geoffrey Toye and the critic Edward J. Dent, helped Vaughan Williams reconstruct the work.[1] Vaughan Williams dedicated the piece to Butterworth's memory after his death. Upon leaving Oxford, Butterworth began a career in music, writing criticism for The Times, composing, and teaching at Radley College, Oxfordshire. He also briefly studied at the Royal College of Music where he worked with Hubert Parry among others.

First World War

At the outbreak of World War I, Butterworth signed up for service in the British Army. He served in the Durham Light Infantry as a lieutenant in the 13th Battalion. Butterworth's letters are full of admiration for the ordinary miners of County Durham who served in his platoon. As part of 23rd Division the 13th DLI was sent into action to capture the western approaches of the village of Contalmaison on the Somme. Butterworth and his men succeeded in capturing a series of trenches, the traces of which can still be found within a small wood. For this action Lt George Butterworth, aged 31, was recommended for the Military Cross by Brigadier Page-Croft, who described him as: A brilliant musician in times of war and an equally brilliant soldier in times of stress.

The Battle of the Somme was now entering its most intense phase and on 4 August, 23 Division was ordered to attack a communication trench known as Munster Alley. The soldiers named the assault trench 'Butterworth Trench' in their officer's honour. In desperate fighting on 4-5 August, Butterworth and his miners captured and held on to Munster Alley, albeit with heavy losses. That night, amid the frantic German attempts to recapture the position, George Butterworth, the most promising British musician of his generation, was shot through the head by a sniper. He was hastily buried by his men in the side of the trench, his body later lost in the fierce bombardments which followed. (The following morning the same trench was the site of Pt. William Short's (Yorkshire Regiment) act of gallantry which was to win him a posthumous Victoria Cross.)

His body was never recovered (although his unidentified remains may well lie at nearby Pozieres CWGC Cemetery) and his name appears on the Thiepval Memorial, near the site of the Somme. George Butterworth's Banks of Green Willow has become synonymous with the sacrifice of his generation and has been elevated to an anthem for all 'Unknown Soldiers'.

A Shropshire Lad

Butterworth did not write a great deal of music, and during the war he destroyed many works he did not care for. Of those that survive, his works based on A. E. Housman's collection of poems A Shropshire Lad are the best known. Many English composers of Butterworth's time set Housman's poetry, including Ralph Vaughan Williams.

In 1911 and 1912, Butterworth wrote two song cycles on Housman's poems. These were eventually published in two cycles, "Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad" and "Bredon Hill and Other Songs". Ten of the songs were first performed while the composer was at Oxford, but the eleventh ("On the Idle Hill of Summer") was not written until he was living in London. They are rarely performed in full today, although six of the songs are often presented together, with "Is My Team Ploughing?" being the most famous. Another, "Loveliest of Trees", is the basis for his 1912 orchestral rhapsody, also called A Shropshire Lad.

The parallel between the often morbid subject matter of A Shropshire Lad, set in the context of the Second Boer War, and Butterworth's subsequent death during the Great War is frequently commented upon. Butterworth's other two short orchestral works, Two English Idylls (1911) and The Banks of Green Willow (1913), are regularly performed. The latter work was premiered by the 24-year old Adrian Boult in 1914. It is generally thought by those who have studied his work that he showed great talent which would have flourished but for his early death.

Recordings

The complete Butterworth songbook, Stone Records 5060192780024, Mark Stone (baritone) and Stephen Barlow (piano)

Notes

  1. ^ Mann, William, liner notes to EMI CD CDM 7 64017 2, 1987

External links

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Simple English

George Butterworth (born London, 12 July 1885; died Pozières, France, 5 August 1916) was an English composer. He showed great talent as a young man and might have become one of England’s greatest composers if he had lived longer. He was killed while fighting in World War I. He is best known for a group of songs which are settings of poems by A. E. Housman.

Contents

Early years

Butterworth was born in London. His father was a solicitor who later became the general manager of the North Eastern Railway. The family moved to Yorkshire soon after George’s birth. He had his first music lessons from his mother, who was a singer, He soon started to compose music. His father wanted him to be a solicitor and so he sent his son to Eton College. From there he went to Trinity College, Oxford. At Oxford he became more and more involved with music, especially after he met the folk song collector Cecil Sharp and composer and folk song enthusiast Ralph Vaughan Williams. Butterworth and Vaughan Williams made several trips into the English countryside to collect folk songs. Both of them were influenced by English folk songs when they were composing. Butterworth was also a very good folk dancer. He was particularly fond of Morris dancing.

Vaughan Williams and Butterworth became close friends. It was Butterworth who said to Vaughan Williams that it would be a good idea to turn the symphonic poem he was working on into his London Symphony. When the manuscript for that piece was lost in the post Butterworth and two other musicians helped Vaughan Williams to write it out again. Vaughan Williams dedicated the piece to Butterworth's memory after his death. When he left Oxford, Butterworth became a music critic for The Times as well as composing and teaching at Radley College, Oxfordshire. He also studied at the Royal College of Music for a short time, working with people such as Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford.

First World War

Although Butterworth had lots of work he often felt that his life had no purpose. When World War I broke out, Butterworth felt that he could be useful so he joined the British Army. He was killed by a sniper in 1916 at Pozières leading a raid during the Battle of the Somme. His body was not found, and his name appears on the Thiepval memorial, near the site of the Somme. He was awarded the Military Cross, and a trench was named after him.

A Shropshire Lad

Butterworth did not write a great deal of music, and during the war he destroyed many of his compositions that he thought were not good enough. Of those that survive, his works based on A. E. Housman's collection of poems A Shropshire Lad are the best known. Many English composers of Butterworth's time set Housman's poetry, including Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Butterworth wrote two song cycles on Housman's poems. They include some of the best-loved English songs of the 20th century, especially Is My Team Ploughing? and Loveliest of Trees. He used this last song as the basis for his 1912 orchestral rhapsody, also called A Shropshire Lad. It is full of soft, tender music as well as passion.

References

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie, 1980, ISBN 1-56159-174-2.

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