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George Butterworth and “The Banks of Green Willow”

George Sainton Kaye Butterworth (July 12, 1885 –August 5, 1916) was an English composer whose reputation as a composer rests on a handful of exquisitely fashioned small-scale works which were strongly influenced by his studies in English folk song, including the orchestral idyll The Banks of Green Willow and his song settings of A. E. Housman’s poems from A Shropshire Lad. Butterworth was born in Paddington, London, on July 12th, 1885 to a well-to-do family. His father, Sir Alexander Kaye Butterworth, was a solicitor. Soon after his birth, his family moved to Yorkshire so that Alexander could take up an appointment as general manager of the North-East Railway Company, based at York, where the boy grew up. George received his first music lessons from his mother Julia Wigan, who was a talented singer, and he began composing at an early age. As a young boy, he played the organ for services in the chapel of his prep school, Aysgarth School, before gaining a scholarship to Eton College. He showed early musical promise at Eton, a ‘Barcarolle” for orchestra by him being played during his time there, though it is long since lost.

In 1904, Butterworth then went to Trinity College, Oxford, where he began to study law but became more focused on music, becoming President of the university musical society. He also made friends with folk song collector Cecil Sharp; composer and folk song enthusiast Ralph Vaughan Williams; future Director of the Royal College of Music, Hugh Allen; and baritone singer and future conductor, Adrian Boult. Butterworth was also an expert folk dancer, being especially expert in the art of morris dancing and was employed for a while by the English Folk Dance and Song Society, of which he was a founder member in 1906, as a professional morris dancer and member of the Demonstration Team. Also, he and Vaughan Williams made several trips into the English countryside to collect folk songs, with Butterworth collecting over 450 himself, many in Sussex in 1907. The compositions of both were strongly influenced by what they collected.

Upon leaving Oxford, Butterworth began a career in music, writing criticism for The Times, composing, and teaching for a year at Radley College, Oxfordshire. He also briefly studied piano and organ at the Royal College of Music where he worked with Hubert Parry among others, though he stayed less than a year as the academic life was not for him. 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. In 1911 and 1912, Butterworth wrote eleven settings of Housman’s poems from “A Shropshire Lad,” published in two sets. The “Rhapsody, A Shropshire Lad,” a sort of postlude to the songs, employs a very large orchestra, and was first performed on October 2, 1913, at the Leeds Festival, conducted by Arthur Nikisch. It was influential upon Vaughan Williams’s A Pastoral Symphony, Gerald Finzi’s A Severn Rhapsody, and Ernest Moeran’s First Rhapsody. Butterworth’s other orchestral works are short and based on folksongs he had collected, Two English Idylls (1911) and The Banks of Green Willow (1913). “Love Blows as the Wind Blows” is a setting of poems by W. E. Henley. It exists in three forms: for voice and string quartet, voice and piano, and voice and small orchestra.

Butterworth did not write a great deal of music, and right before and even during the war he destroyed many those manuscripts which he deemed unworthy of survival, lest he should not return and have the chance to revise them. At the outbreak of the First World War, Butterworth joined the British Army as a Private in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, but he soon accepted a commission as a Subaltern (2nd Lieutenant) in the 13th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, and he was later temporarily promoted to Lieutenant. 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 near Pozières on July 16–17, 1916. Butterworth was slightly wounded in the action and was awarded the Military Cross. Then on August 5, amid frantic German attempts to recapture the position, Butterworth was shot through the head by a sniper. He was hastily buried by his men in the side of the trench, but his body was lost in the fierce bombardments of the next two years. The body was never recovered, although his unidentified remains may well lie at nearby Pozieres Memorial, a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery. His memorial is at Thiepval. Almost all Butterworth’s manuscripts were left to Vaughan Williams.

The following works by Butterworth are contained in my collection:

The Banks of Green Willow, Idyll.
A Shropshire Lad, Rhapsody.

—material taken, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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