Conductor and composer Kriss Russman describes the life of British composer George Butterworth whose music died when he was shot by a German sniper on the Somme 5 August 1916. Kriss Russman has made a ground-breaking CD, of George Butterworth's music. This work has been sponsored by The Western Front Association.
George Sainton Kaye Butterworth was the son of Julia Marguerite Wigan, a coloratura soprano, and Alexander Kaye Butterworth, a solicitor and general manager of Britain’s North Eastern Railway.
Born in Paddington, as the couple’s only child, George soon moved with his family to York through his father’s work.
Butterworth took music lessons from Christian Padel, a local Leipzig-trained pianist, and by the time he entered the nearby Aysgarth Preparatory School he was a capable keyboard player and began to study the organ.
In 1899, he entered Eton College on a scholarship and began to conduct his own compositions and give piano recitals.
In 1904, George Butterworth won a place at Trinity College, Oxford to read Classics.
There, his increasing musical interests as a composer, pianist, singer and conductor took precedence over his academic work and he was president of Oxford’s prestigious Musical Club for two years. He also became involved in the emerging English Folk Song movement and, with his Oxford friend Francis Jekyll, spent his holidays collecting songs from the elderly in the southern English countryside. He soon formed friendships with equally enthusiastic folk song collectors including Cecil Sharp and the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.
On leaving Oxford, Butterworth found work as an assistant music critic on The Times in London but, after a year, decided to take up a teaching post at Radley College, near Oxford, where he formed a choir and oversaw the school’s piano teaching. It was here that he most probably completed his Suite for String Quartette and began his song-settings based on A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad poems. Housman’s evocative portrayal of rural life and the untimely death of young men had resonated with the British public during the recent Second Boer War and the collection was a bestseller.
Butterworth’s absorption in composition determined his decision to seek formal musical training and he applied for a place at the Royal College of Music in London.
George Butterworth entered the RCM with his childhood friend from York, R O Morris.
However, they both became disenchanted with the strong emphasis on Germanic music and teaching at the time.
Butterworth then joined the newly formed English Folk Dance Society and soon became an expert dancer. After a family move from York to Chelsea in London, he also strengthened his friendship with Vaughan Williams who lived locally. After 18 months of erratic attendance, Butterworth left the Royal College of Music and, following the death of his much-loved mother in January 1911, he decided to devote himself entirely to composing.
In the following three years, he completed most of the music for which he is remembered - and which also features on the CD I have made.
However, despite his success, he never felt fully satisfied with his achievement. In the words of his friend, R.O. Morris, the outbreak of war in August 1914 seemed to ‘provide the release’ for Butterworth and within a month he had joined the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry as a private. He then applied for a commission and was soon fighting on the Western Front in Flanders with the 13th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry.
As a lieutenant and acting company commander in the Durham Light Infantry (which comprised of mostly miners from the Durham pits), he became a much admired and respected officer whose warmth of personality and endearing demeanour made him a popular leader.
In the final hours of his life at the Battle of the Somme, Butterworth was ordered to dig a trench to link up with the German-held Munster Alley, near the village of Pozières. The bravery and leadership he displayed under fire gained him a recommendation for a second Military Cross (he had already received one) and the trench was named the ‘Butterworth Trench’ on all official maps.
With this year’s centenary of the Battle of the Somme, there is no better opportunity to celebrate the musical vision of one of Britain’s finest composers and reflect upon the human and cultural tragedy of war.
The Western Front Association is the main sponsor for a CD I have made of the first ever complete recordings of orchestral music by the renowned British composer George Butterworth who was killed in the First World War at the age of just 31. The disc has been recorded with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and internationally acclaimed baritone James Rutherford for the award-winning company BIS Records.
Butterworth was one of the great hopes for British music. The few pieces he composed - including the Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad, the Idyll: The Banks of Green Willow and Six Songs from 'A Shropshire Lad' - are masterpieces and have remained popular since they were first performed.
The CD will include three world premiere recordings of Butterworth's music.
One is the completion of a recently discovered 92-bar fragment of a work that Butterworth left unfinished before going to war. It is remarkable that the piece has survived at all as Butterworth destroyed much of his music before going to war. It is called Orchestral Fantasia and was brought to my attention by Butterworth's biographer Anthony Murphy.
The fragment is very different in style from Butterworth's other music and includes the longest melody that he composed. There are no surviving sketches for the work and, through an in-depth analysis of Butterworth's musical language, I have extended this three-minute fragment to nearly nine minutes, similar in length to the composer's other works. It was given its public world premiere by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, under Martyn Brabbins, in Glasgow on 19th November 2015.
I have also orchestrated Butterworth's Six Songs from 'A Shropshire Lad' for voice and piano and arranged the composer's virtually unknown Suite for String Quartette for full string orchestra. These three recording premieres will sit alongside Butterworth's other famous orchestral pieces on the CD as well as the composer's only song-cycle for voice and orchestra, Love blows as the wind blows.
The CD was released in the UK on 1st July and is available for download at eClassical.com.
The following link to George Butterwork allows you to listen to up to 30 seconds of each track.
When Butterworth was shot by a German sniper in the first light on the morning of 5 August 1916, none of his fellow soldiers knew that he was a rising star amongst Britain’s composers.
Two of Butterworth’s orchestral works had received national critical acclaim: his Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad was first performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under the great German conductor Arthur Nikisch and his Idyll: The Banks of Green Willow was premiered by musicians from the Hallé and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestras with the young, and soon to be famous, Adrian Boult making his conducting debut.
Butterworth’s song-cycle for voice and piano, Six Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad,’ had also been widely acclaimed at its London premiere in 1911. It was typical of Butterworth’s nature that he left his growing reputation as a composer behind when he enlisted to fight in Kitchener’s army.
I am most grateful to The Western Front Association for making this recording possible. I hope it will not only revive Butterworth’s musical legacy, but also allow music that has lain dormant for more than 100 years to finally be heard.
© 2016 Kriss Russman