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 He died aged 31, but two years before that he burned all his unpublished music before joining the Army.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.