George Butterworth

1885 1916

George Butterworth



George Butterworth was an English composer of the early twentieth century, who established a musical legacy with one brief period of compositional output. He spent much of his life looking for his father’s approval, a place to belong, a sense of purpose. He would find peace and camaraderie in the least peaceful of situations, in the trenches of World War I. It was on the battlefields of France that a young artist and soldier would have his life cut tragically short.

George Sainton Kaye Butterworth was born in Paddington in London on 12 July 1885. His family was well off: his father Alexander was a solicitor for the Great Western Railway. His mother Julia was a professional soprano before marrying Alexander. The family moved north to Yorkshire when George was young. His father started a new job at the North Eastern Railway, where he would end up being the General Manager. Early on, George showed his musical abilities at the piano. He was a boarder at Aysgarth Preparatory School. While there he played organ and composed three hymns. He also was on the school cricket team and he was a school captain, showing the leadership that would be so important later in life.

From 1899 to 1904, Butterworth studied at Eton as a King’s Scholar. Letters home to his father from the school show that he was not much of an academic student, preferring to focus on his music and sports. He also had a direct and independent character, which put him at odds with the school. While at Eton he studied with Thomas Dunhill and C. H. Lloyd. The school orchestra performed his barcarolle in 1903, the score of which is now lost. After Eton, he attended Trinity College, Oxford, after which his father hoped he would join the legal profession, but as at Eton, Butterworth was not a serious student, neglecting his classical studies to focus on music. He was the president of the Oxford University Music Club and was a member of the Oxford Bach Choir. He became good friends with the conductor of the Bach Choir, Hugh Allen. Allen later asked Butterworth to step in and conductMendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in London with the New Symphony Orchestra.

Also while at Oxford, Butterworth met composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and editor Cecil Sharp. Vaughan Williams and Sharp were part of a group of composers dedicated to English folk songs.  Starting in 1906 Butterworth became a member of the Folk Song Society and a collector of folk songs, collecting over 450 examples, later incorporating many into his compositions. This would start a trend followed by Vaughan Williams andGustav Holst.

Butterworth graduated from Oxford with a third class degree, more due to his lack of academic focus rather than any lack of ability. After graduation, Butterworth abandoned any thoughts of a career in law, a decision which disappointed his father who withdrew his financial support of his son. Butterworth was directionless, though found work for a time as a critic ofThe Timesand as a contributor to the new edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. He was also teaching piano and other subjects at Radley College.

In 1910 he enrolled at the Royal College of Music. He studied organ, piano, composition, and harmony, but only stayed for one year. He lived at the time with his father, who had relocated to London. After the death of his mother in 1911, his father came to accept his son’s career choice and gave him an allowance, which let him focus on his music until the start of World War I.

Most of Butterworth’s compositions are dated from this time. He wrote song cycles, including two based on A. E. Housman’sA Shropshire Lad. He wrote orchestral and chamber works as well. He wrote twoIdylls based on folk songs. Butterworth was also an early adopter of recording technology. He used a portable phonograph to record performances on wax cylinders, many of which are preserved.

Butterworth wrote two song cycles in 1911 and 1912, set to poems by A. E. Housman’sA Shropshire Lad. There are six songs that are still widely performed today. The six are: “Loveliest of trees”, “When I was one and twenty”, “Look not in my eyes”, “Think no more, lad”, “The lads in their hundreds”, and “Is my team ploughing”. While he was certainly influenced by the folk song movement of which he was a part, it is not evident in this cycle, with its simpler text setting. While both Housman’s poems and Butterworth’s settings predate World War I, the text and music have a certain sensitivity to the “lads” that never came back, including Butterworth himself. Set for voice and piano, there is also a less common orchestral accompaniment.

He devoted much of the years leading up to the war to his Fantasy for Orchestra.After the outbreak of war, Butterworth assisted Vaughan Williams recreate his score for hisLondon Symphony after the original was lost in the then enemy Germany. Later, Vaughan Williams would dedicate the piece to his friend.

The two most popular orchestral pieces by Butterworth, who often referred to each as an idyll, are often called togetherTwo English Idylls. In fact they are two separate pieces,The Banks of the Green Willow and A Shropshire Lad. They both are steady, gentle pieces, with back and forth interaction between woodwinds and strings. They are also both based on folk songs.The Banks of the Green Willowsamples “Dabbling in the Dew”,  “Just as the Tide Was Flowing”, and “Henry Martin”, whileA Shropshire Lad is inspired by “Phoebe and the Dark-Eyed Sailor”.

Butterworth enlisted in August 1914 in the 13th Durham Light Infantry. After years of uncertainty and feeling directionless, the war gave him a sense of purpose. Letters to his father show that Butterworth was thriving in the environment of his battalion. In 1916, after the wounding of his commanding officer, he took charge of his company. He was recommended twice for the Military Cross, being awarded it both times. The second time was for his actions during the Battle of the Somme on the morning of 5 August 1916. Butterworth was leading a raid at Pozieres that morning and was shot in the head by an enemy sniper and died, aged 31. He was buried where he fell, as it was not safe to move the body and the location was lost.

George Butterworth’s limited output was still enough to establish him as one of the important British composers of the twentieth century. His songs are firmly cemented in the current repertoire and his orchestral repertoire, particularlyA Shropshire Lad, is still widely performed. The fact he was able to accomplish such a legacy in a short amount of time, and the possible musical production that may have followed, make his young death seem all the more tragic.