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George Butterworth

George ButterworthDescription : George Sainton Kaye Butterworth, MC (12 July 1885 – 5 August 1916) was an English composer best known for 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. Soon after his birth, his family moved to Yorkshire so that his father Sir Alexander Kaye Butterworth could take up an appointment as general manager of the North Eastern Railway, based at York. George received his first music... Page:g118

For other people named George Butterworth, see George Butterworth (disambiguation).
George Butterworth
Butterworth 2.jpg
George Butterworth, c. 1914
BornGeorge Sainton Kaye Butterworth
(1885-07-12)12 July 1885
Paddington, London, England
Died5 August 1916(1916-08-05) (aged 31)
Pozières, The Somme, France
Cause of deathShot by sniper in the Battle of the Somme
Resting placeUnknown
  • Aysgarth School
  • Eton College
Alma materTrinity College, Oxford
OccupationComposer, schoolmaster, music critic, professional morris dancer, soldier
Parent(s)Sir Alexander Kaye Butterworth, general manager, North Eastern Railway

George Sainton Kaye Butterworth, MC (12 July 1885 – 5 August 1916) was an English composer best known for the orchestral idyll The Banks of Green Willow and his song settings of A. E. Housman's poems from A Shropshire Lad.

Early years

Butterworth was born in Paddington, London. Soon after his birth, his family moved to Yorkshire so that his father Sir Alexander Kaye Butterworth could take up an appointment as general manager of the North Eastern Railway, based at York. George received his first music lessons from his mother, who was a 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 being played during his time there (it is long since lost). He then went to Trinity College, Oxford, where he became more focused on music, becoming President of the university musical society. He also made friends with folk song collector Cecil Sharp; the composer and folk song enthusiast Ralph Vaughan Williams; the future Director of the Royal College of Music, Hugh Allen; and a baritone singer and future conductor, Adrian Boult. Butterworth and Vaughan Williams made several trips into the English countryside to collect folk songs (Butterworth collected over 450 himself, many in Sussex in 1907, and sometimes using a phonograph) and the compositions of both were strongly influenced by what they collected. Butterworth was also an expert folk dancer, being particularly keen in the art of morris dancing. In fact, he 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, a member of the Demonstration Team.

Upon leaving Oxford, Butterworth began a career in music, writing criticism for The Times, composing, and teaching 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. Vaughan Williams recalled:

We were talking together one day when he said in his gruff, abrupt manner: ‘You know, you ought to write a symphony’. I answered...that I’d never written a symphony and never intended to...I suppose Butterworth’s words stung me and, anyhow, I looked out some sketches I had made for...a symphonic poem about London and decided to throw it into symphonic form...From that moment, the idea of a symphony dominated my mind. 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. I can never feel too grateful to him for all he did for me over this work and his help did not stop short at criticism.

When the manuscript for that piece was lost (having been sent to Germany, either to the conductor Fritz Busch or for engraving, just before the outbreak of war), Butterworth, together with Geoffrey Toye and the critic Edward J. Dent, helped Vaughan Williams reconstruct the work. Vaughan Williams dedicated the piece to Butterworth's memory after his death.

First World War

At the outbreak of the First World War, Butterworth (together with several friends including Geoffrey Toye and R. O. Morris) 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. He was known as G. S. Kaye-Butterworth in the army. Butterworth's letters are full of admiration for the ordinary miners of County Durham who served in his platoon. 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 16–17 July 1916, the traces of which can still be found within a small wood, although Butterworth was slightly wounded in the action. For it Temporary Lt George Butterworth, aged 31, was awarded the Military Cross, gazetted 25 August 1916, although he did not live to receive it.

The Battle of the Somme was now entering its most intense phase. On 4 August, 23rd Division was ordered to attack a communication trench known as Munster Alley that was now in German hands. The soldiers dug an assault trench and named it 'Butterworth Trench' in their officer's honour. In desperate fighting during the night of 4–5 August, Butterworth and his miners captured and held on to Munster Alley, albeit with heavy losses and despite 'friendly fire' from Australian artillery. At 0445 on 5 August, 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 following morning the same trench was the site of Private William Henry Short's (Yorkshire Regiment) act of gallantry which was to win him a posthumous Victoria Cross.

When his brigade commander, Brigadier General Page Croft, wrote to Butterworth's family to inform them of his death, it transpired that they had not known that he had earlier been awarded the Military Cross. And likewise, the Brigadier was astonished to learn that Butterworth had been the most promising young English composer of his generation. The Brigadier wrote that Butterworth was; "A brilliant musician in times of peace, and an equally brilliant soldier in times of stress." There is confusion sometimes about exactly what Butterworth was awarded. It is often said that he won the MC twice. That is not correct, but the misunderstanding may have arisen because Butterworth was notable for his bravery in July 1916. Firstly, he was mentioned in despatches early in the month, then he was recommended for the MC "for conspicuous gallantry in action" on 9 July at Bailiff Wood, then again "for commanding his company with great ability and coolness" when wounded on 16–17 July (this was the action for which he was awarded the MC), and Brigadier Page-Croft wrote to Sir Alexander after Butterworth's death that he had 'won' the medal again on the night he died, but since the Military Cross was not awarded posthumously at the time, he could never have been awarded it.

Plaque, Deerhurst Church

Butterworth's body was never recovered (although his unidentified remains may well lie at nearby Pozières Memorial, a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery), and his name appears on the Thiepval Memorial. George Butterworth's The Banks of Green Willow has become synonymous for some with the sacrifice of his generation and has been seen by some as an anthem for all 'Unknown Soldiers'. Sir Alexander Butterworth erected a plaque at St Mary's Priory Church, Deerhurst, Gloucestershire in memory of his son and of his nephew, Hugh, who died at Loos in 1915. (Rev. George Butterworth, the composer's grandfather, had been vicar of St Mary's in the previous century.) Sir Alexander also arranged the printing in 1918 of a memorial volume in his son's memory. Almost all Butterworth's manuscripts were left to Vaughan Williams, after whose death Ursula Vaughan Williams lodged the original works in the Bodleian, Oxford, and the folk song collection with the EFDSS.

A Shropshire Lad, and other compositions

Butterworth did not write a great deal of music, and before and during the war he destroyed many works he did not care for, lest he should not return and have the chance to revise them. Of those that survive, his works based on A. E. Housman's collection of poems A Shropshire Lad are among the best known. Many English composers of Butterworth's time set Housman's poetry, including Ralph Vaughan Williams.

In 1911 and 1912, Butterworth wrote eleven settings of Housman's poems from A Shropshire Lad. The poems are:

  1. "Loveliest of Trees"
  2. "When I Was One and Twenty"
  3. "Look Not in My Eyes"
  4. "Think No More, Lad"
  5. "The Lads in Their Hundreds"
  6. "Is My Team Ploughing?"
  7. "Bredon Hill"
  8. "Oh Fair Enough Are Sky and Plain"
  9. "When the Lad for Longing Sighs"
  10. "On the Idle Hill of Summer"
  11. "With Rue My Heart Is Laden"

He used no known folk tunes in the songs, although one ("When I Was One and Twenty") was said to be based on a folk tune that has defied identification. The songs were dedicated to Victor Annesley Barrington-Kennett, a friend from Eton and Oxford, who was also to die in France in 1916. They were eventually published in two sets, Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad (1-6 above) and Bredon Hill and Other Songs (7-11), although the composer never settled on a preferred order. Nine of the songs were first performed at a meeting of the Oxford University Musical Club, organised by Boult. The singer was James Campbell McInnes, with the composer at the piano. Shortly thereafter Boult sang several of the songs at a private function. At this stage, Butterworth still had not completed "On the idle hill of summer" and did not do so until he was living at Cheyne Gardens in London. It is unusual for the songs to be given publicly in full, although each of the published sets is often performed separately and recorded regularly – in fact, they can be said to be among the most frequently performed English art songs. Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad is the more popular set, with "Is My Team Ploughing?" being the most famous song. Another, "Loveliest of Trees", is the basis for his 1912 orchestral rhapsody, also called A Shropshire Lad, which quotes two songs from the whole - "Loveliest of Trees" and "With Rue My Heart Is Laden".

The parallel is regularly made between the often gloomy and death-obsessed subject matter of A Shropshire Lad, written in the shadow of the Second Boer War, and Butterworth's subsequent death during the Great War. In particular, the song "The lads in their hundreds" tells of young men who leave their homeland to 'die in their glory and never be old'.

The Rhapsody, A Shropshire Lad - a sort of postlude to the songs – employs a normal sized symphony orchestra, and was first performed on 2 October 1913 at the Leeds Festival, conducted by Arthur Nikisch. It was influential upon Vaughan Williams (A Pastoral Symphony), Gerald Finzi (A Severn Rhapsody) and Ernest Moeran (First Rhapsody). Butterworth's other orchestral works are short and based on folksongs he had collected in Sussex in 1907, Two English Idylls (1911) and The Banks of Green Willow (1913). They are often performed and recorded, Banks particularly so. The latter work was premiered by the 24-year-old Adrian Boult on 27 February 1914, at West Kirby, Liverpool (this was in fact Boult's very first professional concert).

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. The orchestral version differs from the others quite markedly, not least in having only three songs: "In the Year That's Come and Gone", "Life in Her Creaking Shoes", and "On the Way to Kew" (the other versions include "Fill a Glass with Golden Wine"). The orchestral version was in fact the last music Butterworth worked on before leaving for France, and shows the composer's familiarity with Vaughan Williams' style, as well as with the music of Wagner, Elgar and Debussy.

It is thought by many that Butterworth showed real talent that might have flourished but for his early death. The Two English Idylls and Banks show an ability to handle folksong in a way that eluded many other composers – as the true building blocks of larger forms. His original music (especially the Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad and the orchestral song cycle Love Blows As The Wind Blows) have a delicacy that brings to mind Claude Debussy or Jacques Ibert. However, there is reasonable evidence that he had put composition behind him by the time he went to France and it is by no means certain that he would have resumed it had he returned. It is certainly likely that he would have faced considerable pressure from friends to compose again, since his orchestral works (particularly the Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad) had made a great impression, but he was a single-minded man who was unlikely to bow easily to such pressure. He remains perhaps the most obvious case of "what if...?" that is left to us from the battlefields of northern France, and he joins the Frenchman Albéric Magnard, the Spaniard Enrique Granados, and the German Rudi Stephan as possibly the greatest loss to music from the First World War. The great conductor Carlos Kleiber saw in Butterworth a special gift. In his 1978 appearance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra he programmed, to the surprise of many, Butterworth's English Idyll No. 1.

List of compositions

Butterworth's complete extant works are:

  • Two English Idylls for orchestra (1910–1911)
  • Two English Idylls (arranged for piano duet by John Mitchell)
  • A Shropshire Lad, Rhapsody for orchestra (1911)
  • A Shropshire Lad, Rhapsody (arranged for piano solo by John Mitchell)
  • The Banks of Green Willow for orchestra (1913)
  • Love Blows As the Wind Blows, song cycle for voice and piano or string quartet (both 1911–12) or small orchestra (1914) (words William Ernest Henley)
  • Suite for String Quartet (1910)
  • Suite for Small Orchestra (arr. by Phillip Brookes from the Suite for String Quartet)
  • Eleven Songs from A Shropshire Lad (i.e., Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad, and Bredon Hill and Other Songs) ([words A. E. Housman] 1910-1911)
  • Eleven Songs from A Shropshire Lad (with accompaniment for small orchestra arranged by Phillip Brookes)
  • Folk Songs From Sussex (1912)
  • Haste On, My Joys!, song (date unknown, probably pre-1906) [words Robert Bridges]
  • I Will Make You Brooches (date unknown) [words Robert Louis Stevenson]
  • I Fear Thy Kisses (1909) [words Percy Bysshe Shelley]
  • Requiescat, song (1911) [words Oscar Wilde]
  • In The Highlands, for female voices and piano (poss. 1912) [words R. L. Stevenson]
  • On Christmas Night, for male chorus (poss. 1912) [folksong]
  • We Get Up In The Morn, for male chorus (poss. 1912) [folksong]
  • Morris Dance Tunes, books 8 & 9 (with Cecil Sharp)

Other writings

The Country Dance Book, parts 3 (1912) & 4 (1916), with Cecil Sharp


All three orchestral works (Two English Idylls, A Shropshire Lad: Rhapsody. and The Banks of Green Willow)
Boult/LPO (rec. 1973); Lyrita SRCD 245
Llewellyn/RLPO (rec. 1991); Decca 436 401-2
Boughton/English String Orchestra (rec. 1986); Nimbus NI 5068
Marriner/ASMF (rec. 1976); Decca 468 802-2
Elder/Hallé Orchestra (rec. 2002); Hallé CD HLL 7503
Two English Idylls only
Boult/British Symphony Orch. (No. 1 only, rec. 1922); HMV Cc1129
Dilkes/English Sinfonia (rec. 1971); HMV ESD 7101
Carlos Kleiber/Chicago SO (No. 1 only, rec. June 2, 1983); Memories CD
Tate/English Chamber Orchestra (rec. 1987); EMI CDC7 47945-2
Horvay/Prague Radio SO (No. 2 only, date unknown); Artist’s Rifles CD41
Wilson/Royal Liverpool PO (rec. 2011) Avie
A Shropshire Lad: Rhapsody only
Boult/British Symphony Orch. (rec. 1920); HMV 4618AF
Boult/Hallé Orchestra (rec. 1942); VAI Audio VAIA 1067-2
Stokowski/NBC SO (rec. 1944); Cala CACD 0528
Goossens/Sydney SO (rec 1952); HMV DB 9792-3
Boult/LPO (rec. 1954); Belart CD 461354-2
Barbirolli/ Hallé Orchestra (rec. 1956); Barbirolli Society SJB 1022
Barbirolli/ Hallé Orchestra; EMI 4577672
Dilkes/English Sinfonia (rec. 1971); HMV CSD 3696
Elder/Halle Orchestra (rec. 2002); BBC MM 289
The Banks of Green Willow
See the separate page
Songs (complete)
The Complete Butterworth Songbook: Stone/Barlow; Stone Records 5060192780024 (All Butterworth’s songs, including the voice/piano version of Love Blows. It also includes a short silent film of Butterworth morris dancing. The tracks from this disc are included among the details below.)
All eleven Shropshire Lad songs ('Six Songs' and 'Bredon Hill and Other Songs')
Cameron/Moore; Dutton
Luxon/Willison (rec. 1976); Decca 468 802-2
Luxon/Willison (rec. 1990); Chandos CHAN 8831
Williams/Burnside; Naxos 8.572426
Rolfe-Johnson/Johnson; Hyperion CDD22044
Terfel/Martineau(rec. 1995); DG 445946
Allen/Parsons (rec. 2001) EMI 67428
Maltman/Vignoles; Hyperion CDA 67378
Stone/Barlow; Stone Records 5060192780024
Keenlyside/Martineau; Sony Classical 88697 94424-2
Rutherford/Asti (rec. 2012); BIS SACD 1610
Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad only
Henderson/Moore (rec. 1941); Dutton CDLX 7038
Shirley-Quirk/Isepp (rec. 1966); Saga STXID5260
Rayner Cook/Benson; Unicorn
Gehrman/Farmer; Nimbus NI 5033
Rolfe-Johnson/Willinson; EMI
Lemalu/Burnside (rec. 2003); BBC MM298
Allen/Martineau; Wigmore Hall Live WHLIVE0002
Polegato/Burnside CBC Records
Trew/Vignoles; Meridian CDE84185
Varcoe/Hickox/City of London Sinfonia (orch. Lance Baker) (rec. 1989); Chandos CHAN 8743
I will Make You Brooches
Williams/Burnside; Naxos 8.572426
Stone/Barlow; Stone Records 5060192780024
I Fear Thy Kisses
Williams/Burnside; Naxos 8.572426
Stone/Barlow; Stone Records 5060192780024
Varcoe/Benson; Hyperion CDA 6621/2
Williams/Burnside; Naxos 8.572426
Stone/Barlow; Stone Records 5060192780024
Love Blows as the Wind Blows
(Voice and piano)
Stone/Barlow; Stone Records 5060192780024
(Voice and string quartet)
Oxenham/Bingham String Quartet; Meridian DUOCD 89026
Lemalu/Belcea Quartet (rec. 2005); EMI 5 58050
(Voice and orchestra)
Tear/Handley/CBSO; EMI CDM7 64731-2
Varcoe/Hickox/City of London Sinfonia (rec. 1989); Chandos CHAN 8743
Folk Songs from Sussex
Williams/Burnside; Naxos 8.572426
Stone/Barlow; Stone Records 5060192780024
Folk songs collected by Butterworth
Triple Echo by Coope, Boyes and Simpson contains songs from the Butterworth collection. The Banks of Green Willow, The Cuckoo and The Turtle Dove are given with all verses. There are also songs collected by Vaughan Williams and Grainger. (Rec 2005); No Masters NMCD22


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Three roads are named after Butterworth:

  • Butterworth Road, Trichirappali, Tamil Nadu, India (10°49′50″N 78°41′52″E / 10.830471°N 78.69789°E / 10.830471; 78.69789).
  • Butterworth Close in Newport, south Wales (51°35′27″N 2°56′05″W / 51.59082°N 2.934842°W / 51.59082; -2.934842), one of several named after composers.
  • Chemin George Butterworth (George Butterworth Lane; 50°02′28″N 2°43′59″E / 50.041172°N 2.733112°E / 50.041172; 2.733112), at Pozières on the Somme battlefield.


  • George Butterworth Memorial Volume, privately printed, 1918
  • Copley, Ian A.: George Butterworth, Thames Publishing, London, 1985
  • Barlow, Michael: Whom The Gods Love, Toccata Press, London, 1997
  • Barlow, Michael and Brookes, Phillip: Prefaces to 3 volumes of the works of George Butterworth, Musikproduktion Jürgen Höflich, Munich, 2006 and 2007
  • Murphy, Anthony: Banks of Green Willow: The Life and Times of George Butterworth, Cappella Archive, Malvern, 2012
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