England’s Forgotten Composer

When most people think about England’s great composers, the names of Henry Purcell, Edward Elgar, Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams immediately spring to mind. There is, however, one composer who has been consistently forgotten over the past 99 years. I am referring to George Butterworth, a twentieth-century composer whose life was cut tragically short in 1916 by the violence of World War I.

When explaining who George Butterworth was and what sort of music he composed, a comparison with his contemporary Vaughan Williams is inevitable. Both were known for composing pastoral music and settings of folk songs that evoked all that was English. As I have mentioned in my post on Flos Campi,  some of Vaughan Williams’ output has a somewhat disturbing quality to it, his Fourth Symphony being a good example. Butterworth’s music does not share that feeling to the same extent, but instead creates an even more raw feeling of an idyllic England with all of its struggles. His output is small, owing to the short length of his career, but I feel that there are two pieces of music that are particularly worth mentioning.

The first is The Banks of Green Willow, an orchestral piece based on two folk songs. The first is eponymous with the piece as a whole, and puts me in mind of walking through the English countryside, although the tale behind it is altogether more shocking. As well as the main theme in this section, the answering phrases, particularly in the violin part, stand out, before the music takes on a more unsettled feel. This provides a striking contrast with the opening section, but lacks the depth of uneasiness that similar passages by Vaughan Williams would contain. This, I think, makes the struggle that Butterworth’s music represents feel all the more real. The third section of the piece is more similar to the first: it is based on the folk song “Green bushes”, which is also used by Vaughan Williams in the second movement of his English Folk Song Suite, which is introduced by the woodwind.

A comparison with works by Vaughan Williams such as the English Folk Song Suite and Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus (otherwise known as The Star of the County Down) is revealing: Butterworth’s music lacks some of the harmonic and textural complexity that is found in Vaughan Williams’ works, but this does not detract from the character and atmosphere that he creates; rather, it suggests a much more realist approach whereas Vaughan Williams feels much more abstract and philosophical at times.

Butterworth’s other particularly well-known piece of music is the Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad. This is an orchestral arrangement of Butterworth’s own settings of A. E. Housman’s set of poems by the same name, which are based around the transience of life and the corresponding need to take opportunities as they come (what is left of my inner Classicist at this point prevents me from quoting the oft-mistranslated aphorism carpe diem). The main theme is provided by Butterworth’s setting of Housman’s second poem in the set, entitled “Loveliest of Trees”, the text of which can be found here. This piece is a great deal more poignant than Banks of Green Willow, and more so than many of Vaughan Williams’ works because it points at the transience of the idyllic state of England at a time when many young men, including Butterworth himself, left English shores never to return.

The context of this piece therefore makes the opening descent of the main theme particularly appropriate; it is almost a reminder that the high points in our lives cannot last forever. Whilst I have put this in what feel like rather philosophical terms, the subject matter is infused with the realism evident in The Banks of Green Willow that I feel is sometimes missing in Vaughan Williams’ works. In the Rhapsody, what really stands out is the delicacy of Butterworth’s original music, which I think is a distinguishing feature from Vaughan Williams’ works. This is in part because of the way in which he uses orchestral forces: typically, Butterworth’s textures are much thinner, whereas Vaughan Williams’ tend to be thicker and more complex, an idea to which I have alluded above. As a result, whilst it is accurate to describe Butterworth as a contemporary of Vaughan Williams, I think any comparison between the two must also go into more detail.

It is clear from both the pieces of music I have discussed that George Butterworth was a highly promising composer who, if he had returned from war, would undoubtedly have become one of England’s most celebrated composers. When exploring the vast field that is twentieth-century English music, both The Banks of Green Willow and the Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad are worth listening to, as are Butterworth’s original settings of A. E. Housman’s poems. England’s forgotten composer must not remain so.


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