22 April, 2009
George Sainton Kaye Butterworth was an English composer best known for his tone poem The Banks of Green Willow and his settings of A. E. Housman's poems.
Although Butterworth was born in London, his family moved to Yorkshire not long after his birth. He received his first music lessons from his mother, who was a singer, and began composing at an early age. However, his father intended for him to be a solicitor, and he attended Eton College, from there continuing on to Trinity College, Oxford. While at Trinity he became more focused on music, for there he met the folk song collector Cecil Sharp and composer and folk song enthusiast Ralph Vaughan Williams. Butterworth and Vaughan Williams made several trips into the English countryside to collect folk songs, and both saw their compositions strongly influenced by what they heard. Butterworth was also an expert folk dancer, being particularly fond of Morris dancing.
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. When the manuscript for that piece was lost (having been sent to Fritz Busch in Germany 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. 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 at the Royal College of Music where he worked with Hubert Parry among others.
At the outbreak of World War I, Butterworth signed up for service in the British Army. He served in the Durham Light Infantry as a lieutenant in the 13th Battalion. 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, the traces of which can still be found within a small wood. For this action Lt George Butterworth, 31, was recommended for the Military Cross by Brigadier Page-Croft, who described him as: A brilliant musician in times of war and an equally brilliant soldier in times of stress. It is interesting to note that Ralph Vaughan Williams was serving as an ambulanceman nearby during this time.
The Somme Battle was now entering its most intense phase and on 4 August 23rd Division was ordered to attack a communication trench known as Munster Alley. The soldiers named the assault trench 'Butterworth Trench' in their Officer's honour. In desperate fighting 4/5 August Butterworth and his miners captured and held on to Munster Alley albeit with heavy loss. That night amid the frantic German attempts to recapture the position, George Butterworth, the most promising British musician of his generation, was sniped through the head and killed.