Friday, 1 August 2008

Prom 16 George Butterworth


Perhaps it's not so surprising few people really know who George Butterworth was. He died aged 31, but two years before that he burned all his unpublished music before joining the Army. When he died, courageously, in battle, his general wrote his father "We did not know he was a musician". Yet this was the man of whom it was said, by his tutor at Oxford, "There goes more red revolution than in the whole of Russia". In 1906, just after the December uprising in Russia, this was incendiary stuff indeed. Butterworth was also closely involved with the English folk music and dance movement under Cecil Sharp - there are wonderfully kitsch photos of him morris dancing in full regalia in the archives which I must use someday. And he was a powerful influence on Ralph Vaughan Williams.

This Prom featured Butterworth's exquisitely beautiful piece for orchestra, A Shropshire Lad. It was interspersed with the A E Housman poems that so inspired the composer. In theory, yes. But why not then Butterworth's song settings of the same ? Heard together the songs and the orchestral piece are enhanced by a sum of magnitude, because they reflect each other. The musical themes expand immeasurably when you know how Butterworth himself set them to music, and he would have assumed listeners would know them both. Instead, here we just had the poems read out minus the music, which might perhaps have worked, were it not for the extreme theatrical declamation. It might have been great for high camp Shakespeare but everything about Housman and Butterworth mitigates against ostentation. In any case these are poems of vernal purity. And there are orchestral versions of the songs as well.

One day perhaps the BBC will do a Butterworth Prom, with this rhapsody and Banks of Green Willow, which sadly exhausts the Butterworth oeuvre, but it could be supplemented with RVW's own A Shropshire Lad and RVW's Second Symphony, "London" in whose creation Butterworth was instrumental. No Butterworth, perhaps not the RVW we know.

It would also tie together the Prom's new ventures into literature with its core music content. Housman and Butterworth are intriguing figures. Both were intensely secretive personalities, who expressed in art what they couldn't express otherwise. Think about all Housman's reference to the lovely naked necks of young soldiers ! Housman didn't out himself to the world but neither did he hide in the closet - an act of courage and integrity in those times.

Butterworth is even more complex. Why did he burn his music ? Why did he cherish the camaraderie of the trenches ? Why did he die the way he did, throwing himself into the line of fire ? No one really has tackled these issues before, but they are significant in understanding what an interesting man Butterworth really was. Michael Barlow's biography is tantalising as it leaves so much out. In the course of my own work in the archives, I found something of the secret. Butterworth didn't enlist under the name "Butterworth" !!!!! No wonder Barlow couldn't track him down. But I managed to find material not, I think, looked at since 1916. Suddenly a lot more about the man falls into place, including the manner of his death. There's a lot more to Butterworth than this Prom produced.

8 comments:

Roger Thomas said...

Your research into Butterworth's World War I service sounds intriguing. Could you please let your readers have some more information on your blog about what you found out.

Thanks

Doundou Tchil said...

Ok, I will dig up my notes and do something on August 5th the day Butterworth was killed in 1916.

Evan Tucker said...

Totally concur with Roger. This is fascinating reading. I love Shropshire Lad, and I thought the Halle did a fabulous (albeit slow) job with it. Personally I thought the poetry could have worked quite well if the actors showed any competence whatsoever in their declamation. They sounded like English William Shatners.

The Energy Guru said...

Surely the greatest composer of his time! I listen to his English Idylls, Shropshire Lad and The Banks of the Green Willow. They are something! Words simply do not express what I feel when I listen to this music. I am convinced that if he had lived he would have been even greater. Perhaps in a parallel universe, or somewhere just like here 10^(10^118) m away
where he survived they are listening to the music we have been deprived of. One can only dream...

Phillip Brookes said...

I heartily endorse all that is said in the blog and comments, with one reservation - A Shropshire Lad and Banks does not 'exhaust the Butterworth oeuvre'. The Two English Idylls shouldn't be forgotten, neither should Love Blows as the Wind Blows, the orchestral/vocal version of which was the composer's very last music. There's also a quite recent version of all 11 Housman songs with orchestral accompaniment, published by a German firm (I know for a fact the this has been performed in Europe, including in Latvia!).

Then there's the unrecorded Butterworth - the Suite for String Quartet, In the Highlands for female voices and piano, and a couple of choral folk-song settings. All this is published. Amazing, isn't it.

(By the way, did you know that the first performance of The Banks of Green Willow in February 1914 was in Adrian Boult's very first professional concert?)

Doundou Tchil said...

As I said in the last sentence, "There's a lot more to Butterworth than this (2008) Prom". Please see my other posts about Butterworth, including reviews of the complete Butterworth songs (first recording of the Sussex Songs. And also unknown Ivor Gurney.

Doundou Tchil said...

Phillip, the phrase that bothered you was made in relation to the way the 2008 Prom was programmed. It'sds meant ironically since the Ptrom didn't even include Butterworth songs, only readings of the poems. Please don't take the phrase out of context.

Phillip Brookes said...

Not at all. I think these are really good reviews. I wanted to make the point that there's about 33-35 minutes' music in the 2 English Idylls, Banks, Love Blows, and the Rhapsody, without even considering the recent orchestration of the Shropshire Lad songs. The first four would programme reasonably with one big work (RVW's London Symphony is obvious, but the Pastoral might be even better). Such a concert would need a 'big orchestra' piece to balance the Shropshire Lad Rhapsody, which uses a big orchestra (the other pieces don't).

Keep up these excellent blogs!