George Butterworth

George Butterworth

‘I sometimes dread coming back to normal life with so many gaps,’ wrote Vaughan Williams to Holst in October 1916, ‘especially, of course, George Butterworth.’ Vaughan Williams was in no doubt about the loss British music had sustained when his friend was killed at the Somme two months previously. All of Butterworth’s works, both songs and orchestral pieces, were marked by their beauty and utter sincerity. He was not a ground-breaking modernist, but a skilled and compelling voice who celebrated the beauty of the English landscape exquisitely through his work. His death was a tragedy for music, but it also marked the loss of an exceptional man. An Oxford colleague remembered how George had ‘hated shams of all kinds and humbled every impudent insincerity that he met. But for anything genuine, warm-hearted and courageous he had more than admiration, whether he found it on a village cricket field, in a rustic public house, or in the mud of Flanders.’

There can’t be many famous Morris-dancing Etonians, but George Butterworth was one. He was born in London in 1885 to a well to-do family and a musical mother who quickly recognised his natural musical talent. He was already composing at his prep school, before being sent to Eton, where he was a popular figure and an impressive cricketer – always a help in gaining boys’ admiration. He was someone other boys looked up to, and those skills of leadership among public school boys would become essential once war broke out in 1914. In between winning a serious quantity of sports trophies, Butterworth, now a fluent pianist, began to compose. While still at school he wrote a violin sonata, a string quartet and a Barcarolle for orchestra. All are now destroyed.

It was at Eton that Butterworth developed the habit of carrying musical sketch books with him, jotting down ideas by the side of a cricket pitch. He went on to Trinity College, Oxford, destined rather reluctantly for a career at the bar. At the time, there were no degree courses in music at Oxford or Cambridge, so he threw himself into the unofficial University music-making, soon becoming president of the music club. He spent his time soaking up as much repertoire as he could, and composing, but his degree suffered and he came away with only a third in Classics – he was too good a musician to waste his time on such trivial matters as a degree course.

It was while he was at Oxford that he began his lifelong friendships with Vaughan Williams and the folksong collector Cecil Sharp, who were both to shape his short career and have a huge influence on his music. He, in turn, was an important figure in Vaughan Williams’s life, and was partly responsible for his A London Symphony. ‘He had been sitting with us one evening, talking, smoking and playing,’ wrote Vaughan Williams, ‘and, at the end of the evening, just as he was getting up to go, he said, in his characteristically abrupt way: “You know, you ought to write a symphony”. I suppose that Butterworth’s words stung me and, anyhow, I looked out some sketches I had made for what, I believe, was going to have been a symphonic poem (!) about London, and decided to throw it into symphonic form. I showed the sketches to George, bit by bit as they were finished, and it was then that I realised that he possessed, in common with very few composers, a wonderful power of criticism of other men’s work and insight into their ideas and motives.’

Butterworth had joined the Folk Song Society in 1906 and now, all the time discussing with Vaughan Williams the importance of folk music in building a new English musical Renaissance, he worked the beautiful, simple melodies he was now collecting into his own work. The generation of 1914 were acutely aware that they were inheriting a musical tradition that, apart from its rich seam of choral music, had been seriously lacking in any major musical figures since Purcell. Britain had, with some justification, been dubbed the ‘land without music’, and both Butterworth and VW knew that if they wanted to put British music back on the musical map of Europe they needed to find a new way of writing that was somehow quintessentially English. Butterworth went from village pub to pub, tramping across the Sussex downs, writing down the tunes people sang him, learning folk dances, and absorbing their soundworlds and even the melodies themselves, into his own work.

Butterworth spent two rather unfulfilled years being a good but reluctant critic and teacher, first living in London and writing for The Times, then spending a year teaching in the boys’ school Radley College, which must have felt to him rather like returning to Eton. A setting of Shelley’s poem ‘I Fear thy Kisses’, written at Radley in 1909, survives, and shows how early his pared down, lyrical style had developed. It was not long before he had outgrown school teaching and was longing to return to London to work on composition, his real calling. He entered the Royal College in 1910 with only a handful of compositions to his name, no formal training, but an abundance of natural flair. He was uncertain about where his career was to go. His friendship with Vaughan Williams had shown him that a life as a composer was possible, however impecunious, and he did not want to be held back by his lack of knowledge. However he did not get on with the College, and left after only a year, dissatisfied, depressed and lost.

Despite his lack of direction, he was now writing the handful of pieces that would ensure his place in English music: works such as his Two English Idylls, the two song cycles setting AE Housman poems and the orchestral works A Shropshire Lad – Rhapsody and The Banks of Green Willow give an indication of what might have been.

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Butterworth was among a whole group of composers and musicians who enlisted, and found themselves exchanging concert halls for training camps. Butterworth was now rubbing shoulders with miners in the Durham Light Infantry. He may have had all the privilege of Oxford and Eton behind him, but he was no snob. His gentle character and unassuming ways quickly won over his new comrades, and he in turn respected and admired them. One of the many extraordinary things about trench warfare was the unprecedentedly close proximity the upper classes had with the working men, fighting alongside them, often with each others’ lives in their hands. Butterworth may have been seen as ‘posh’, but he was trusted and respected with it. His natural directness and lack of pretension also characterised his music. Vaughan Williams wrote that ‘I think I know of no composer whose music expressed his character more exactly. He had the determination to be and to say exactly what he meant and no other.’

Butterworth was quickly promoted from Private to Temporary Lieutenant, in command of his whole company of men. Initially, he was rather disappointed to find war anti-climactic and uneventful. But when his battalion moved to the Somme, he found himself pushed to the limit. He withstood the test, and was awarded the Military Cross for bravery, ‘commanding his company with great ability and coolness’. He had already been recommended for the MC on a previous occasion; he was proving himself to be a brilliant soldier. This was July 1916, but by 5 August, he was dead, shot by a sniper.

‘The trench was very low and broken, and Lieut. Butterworth kept urging me to keep low down,’ wrote the brigadier-general who was with him at the time. ‘I had only reached the Battalion Headquarters on my return when I heard poor Butterworth, a brilliant musician in times of peace and an equally brilliant soldier in times of stress, was shot dead by a bullet through the head. So he, who had been so thoughtful for my safety, had suffered the same fate he had warned me against only a minute before.’

His body was too near the German line to be brought back, so he was buried there, and the grave was lost as the fighting continued. His name is on the Thiepval memorial, along with thousands of others who have no known grave, and the trench in which he had died was re-named Butterworth Trench as a tribute to him. He was a popular and natural leader, and a trusted and competent soldier, but few of his men even knew he had been a composer.

He had stopped composing when he had enlisted, and had destroyed many of his manuscripts before he left for the front. He was never to write again. The trenches were hardly conducive to composition, and only a small handful of composers managed to produce anything at all once they had enlisted. All his surviving songs had been written between 1910 and 1914. There are few other composers for whom such a small section of their early work would have secured the fame and enduring popularity that his work has enjoyed.

The myth of the ‘lost generation of 1914’ has grown up largely through the writings
of soldier poets and figures such as Vera Brittain, whose influential poems and testimonies mourned the loss of so many young men. ‘The lads in their hundreds’, the Housman poem Butterworth set in Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad, described ‘The lads that will die in their glory and never be old’. Among their number were many poets, painters, composers – how different would the arts of the 20th century have been had they survived? We can never know, and it is equally futile to speculate whether the arts would have taken a different course had the First World War, that cataclysmic ‘crack in the table of history’ (as soldier/writer Ford Madox Ford vividly put it) not happened. What we can do, however, is to look at some of those lives so tragically cut short, and while we cannot know what they would have gone on to achieve, whether they would have been another Vaughan Williams, Walton or Britten, we can see just what promise they had, and hope the premature deaths of figures such as Butterworth help us understand just a fraction of the losses that were to be sustained by families, and by culture more generally, when war was declared in August 1914.

One of the most moving aspects of Butterworth’s work was that, without any knowledge of how short his life would be, he wrote works that were elegiac, wistful and full of regret. Just as Wilfred Owen’s poetry would be adopted as the literary ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, so Butterworth’s few compositions have become the musical elegy for his generation.  

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