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A Shropshire Lad: A guide to Butterworth's masterpiece and its best recordings

Clare Stevens explores Butterworth's masterpiece, A Shropshire Lad inspired by AE Housman’s lyrical poems

a guide to butterworth's a Shropshire Lad
Published: May 9, 2022 at 4:12 pm
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Hindsight can sometimes play tricks with our perception of a piece of music. A case in point is George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad – this song cycle for baritone and piano has become so closely associated with the First World War in which Butterworth lost his life that it is easy to forget that both AE Housman’s words and the composer’s musical setting actually date from several years earlier.

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When was AE Housman's book of poems, A Shropshire Lad, published?

The small first edition of Alfred Edward Housman’s 63 poems collected under the now-famous title A Shropshire Lad was published with very little fanfare in 1896, with some financial assistance from the author, a professor of Latin at University College, London. One of the critics who reviewed the book, Grant Richards, admired it so much that he bought the rights and reissued it under his own imprint. Keen for the poems to reach a wide audience, Housman welcomed the publication of cheap editions, including tiny volumes that fitted neatly into the breast pockets of soldiers serving on the western front. Its lyrical descriptions of the English countryside and weather, the references to many real places and the mood of nostalgia made A Shropshire Lad the perfect companion for young men seeking an escape in their off-duty hours from the horror of the trenches.

Housman was not himself a Shropshire lad; he was born in a Worcestershire village and grew up in the town of Bromsgrove, now part of the Birmingham conurbation, where his father was a solicitor. The ‘blue remembered hills’ that he described formed the distant western horizon of his youth, and the poems were written in Highgate, North London. Curiously, he refused to allow individual poems to be anthologised in collections of verse, yet was quite happy to authorise them to be set to music, as long as no cuts or alterations were made and, he said, as long as he did not have to listen to performances, which he found an embarrassing experience. He forbade concert promoters from reproducing the texts in programme books, and was pained by the discovery that some composers had disregarded his wishes about tinkering with the poems.

When were they set to music?

He would have had quite a task keeping abreast with all of them – Peter Parker, researching his 2016 book Housman Country, found that 47 composers produced 176 individual vocal settings between 1904 and 1940. Somervell, Vaughan Williams and Gurney are among those whose Housman settings have endured but even in this distinguished company Butterworth’s stand out.

Their appeal lies partly in their economical simplicity and directness, and Butterworth’s love for and knowledge of the English folk song tradition can clearly be heard in his musical style. Such an idiom was ideally suited to the themes of Housman’s poems, which represented an idealised ‘land of lost content’, an imaginary rural escape from the tensions of his own emotionally repressed life, albeit shot through with irony and loss.

The Six Songs under consideration here were composed from 1909-11, in tandem with a second five-song Shropshire Lad cycle, published as Bredon Hill and other songs in 1912. Nine of the songs were given their first performance in Oxford in May 1911 by the baritone James Campbell McInnes, accompanied by the composer. A month later, on 20 June 1911 at the Aeolian Hall in London with Hamilton Harty as the pianist, McInnes performed the six songs that were included in the first published selection.

They follow a loose narrative sequence, opening with ‘Loveliest of trees’, a simple reflection on the transient beauty of a cherry tree whose drifting blossoms are echoed by a wistful falling motif, though the conclusion is optimistic as the poet/singer resolves to seize the day and enjoy the bloom while he can. The second song, ‘When I was one-and-twenty’, is the only one to use an existing folk tune; the prevailing mood is carefree as a lovelorn young man shrugs off the sage advice of an older friend, with a painful realisation of his folly in the final bars.

The Greek myth of Narcissus is used as a metaphor for the theme of lost love in the beautifully crafted third song, ‘Look not in my eyes’, while, with its urgent piano part, ‘Think no more, lad’ adds immediacy and a more universal context to the threat of loss, as the narrator contemplates the heedlessness with which young men put themselves in harm’s way.

‘The lads in their hundreds’ depicts the jolly crowd who gather at Ludlow Fair – some attracted by the company of girls, some by the pubs – and anticipates their fate as they head off to a war from which many will not return. It was encored by an enthusiastic audience at the premiere, but the final song, ‘Is my team ploughing?’, a poignant dialogue between the ghost of a fallen soldier and his surviving friend, in which each has his own melody, is the acknowledged masterpiece of the set.

We named the song 'The Lads in their Hundreds' from TheShropshire Lad song cycle one of the best ever classical English songs

The best recordings of Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad

Christopher Maltman (baritone)

Roger Vignoles (piano)

Hyperion CDA 67378

The best recording of Shropshire Lad

So many outstanding singers and pianists have recorded this work that choosing between them seems invidious – strong contenders among baritone singers include two versions by Roderick Williams, with pianists Iain Burnside and Susie Allan, plus performances by Simon Keenlyside, Thomas Allen and Bryn Terfel, all with Malcolm Martineau. Add to the mix, too, a couple of versions with orchestral accompaniment (not Butterworth’s own, importantly) from James Rutherford with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Kriss Rusman, and Stephen Varcoe with the City of London Sinfonia conducted by Richard Hickox.

However, it is the recording made in 2002 by baritone Christopher Maltman with pianist Roger Vignoles that sits at the top of my 20-strong pile, on the grounds of Maltman’s warm yet never overbearing vocal quality and his subtle characterisation of the texts, which seems to achieve a perfect balance between objectivity and emotion.

‘Loveliest of trees’ comes across as a young man’s performance: thoughtful, yet optimistic and romantic. The same mood infuses an immaculate performance of ‘When I was one-and-twenty’, while ‘Look not in my eyes’ is beautifully paced, eloquent and reflective. In ‘Think no more, lad’, the narrator sounds as though he has had a pint or two and a more cynical tone comes in, but it is not overdone and Maltman never loses fidelity to the score.

In the first half of ‘The lads in their hundreds’ the mood is slightly detached; the narrator seems to be an observer rather than a participant in the drama; but the tone becomes more and more poignant as the second half of the song progresses towards a gentle, wistful conclusion. The final point that ‘The lads that will die in their glory and never be old’ is not laboured; there is no stress on the word ‘glory’; in this intimate performance there doesn’t need to be.

Maltman is not unique in creating an illusion that there really are two people in conversation in ‘Is my team ploughing?’, but he is particularly persuasive in this respect. The ghostly voice of the dead soldier is faint and quavering, though with a touching emphasis on the second phrase of ‘Is my girl happy, that I thought hard to leave?’. Maltman doesn’t milk the final ‘Never ask me whose’, but his pianist Vignoles points to the conclusion with his doom-laden low last note.

Ian Bostridge (tenor)

Warner Classics 9029566156

Released to mark the centenary of the 1918 Armistice, this recording places the Butterworth set in the context of an imaginative programme of related repertoire, including six delicate songs by the German composer Rudi Stephan, another WWI casualty, and Kurt Weill’s Come up from the fields, father. In fine voice, Bostridge easily delivers the rich heartiness often required, but the haunting fragility that characterises his upper register is a real asset too, especially in the final song. Antonio Pappano is a commanding presence at the piano.

Brett Polegato (baritone)

CBC Musica Viva MVCD 1134

In this 1999 account, Brett Polegato’s Canadian accent occasionally comes through, but given the contribution of Canadian forces to the Allied cause in WWI this seems appropriate. There’s a youthful tone in the first song and a lyrical warmth to ‘Look not in my eyes’, with a sceptical twist at the end. The final trio are unsentimentally delivered; the ghost seems not frail, but far away, which makes a refreshing change. Iain Burnside, artistic director of the annual Ludlow English Song Weekend which takes place in the very church in which Housman is buried, is a discreet but deft accompanist.

John Carol Case (baritone)

Heritage HTGCD 297

There are many similarities between this 1974 recording and a slightly earlier one by baritone John Shirley-Quirk and pianist Martin Isepp. Both feature superb playing and eloquent, lyrical singing throughout, with particularly strong differentiation between the two characters in ‘Is my team ploughing?’. For me, Carol Case just has the edge, bringing the listener right into the room with the two men. Recorded towards the end of his career with Daphne Ibbott an able accompanist, his performances convey a poignant sense of an older man’s reflection upon painful memories.

And one to avoid…

Shura Gehrman, whose 1981 recording with pianist Adrian Farmer can be found on the Nimbus label that he himself founded, had a fabulous, rich voice that must have sounded wonderful in some repertoire. However, while his resonant bass adds extra layers of drama to these songs, sadly he does not deliver the precision they need, in either pitch or diction.

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