Plaque in Driffield Terrace
English Composer and Folk Song Arranger
George Sainton Kaye Butterworth was born in Paddington, London, on 12 July 1885, the only child of Sir Alexander Kaye Butterworth and his wife Julia Marguerite, née Wigan, a professional singer before her marriage. In 1891, when George was six years old, the family moved to York on the appointment of his father as solicitor and later general manager of the North Eastern Railway Company. Their home was at Riseholme, a house on Driffield Terrace which now forms part of The Mount School.
George’s mother abandoned her own musical career after her marriage but channelled her energies into her son’s education, engaging private tutors for general subjects and teaching him the piano. As his talent developed she arranged for lessons with an experienced German piano teacher, Christian Padel, whose home was very close to the Butterworth’s. At the same time George was also enrolled for dance lessons.
In the spring of 1896 George was sent to Aysgarth Preparatory School in the Yorkshire Dales where his musical talent was encouraged and hew was allowed to play the chapel organ. At this time he began his first compositions, some simple hymns. From Aysgarth he won a scholarship to Eton College in 1899. Here his musical promise was also recognised, but George was encouraged by his father to follow his own profession and study law. In 1904 he went up to Trinity College, Oxford with this in mind but was still greatly interested in music, becoming President of the University Music Society. As he became more and more involved with the growing interest in folk music, he abandoned the thought of a legal career.
Folk songs and dances
At the turn of the century, a number of musicians were becoming increasingly anxious to preserve the music of traditional songs and dances which had been handed down in the oral tradition through generations of ordinary families. They feared that this heritage would be lost as gramophones and sheet music became popular. George had already made a friend of Ralph Vaughan Williams, a leading figure in the collection of this folk material, and George became an avid collector of songs, dance tunes and dances eventually accumulating details of more than 450. He joined the Folk-Song Society in 1906 and was a founder member of the Folk-Dance Society formed in 1911. For a time he was employed by the society as a professional dancer to demonstrate Morris dance. He published several books of country and Morris dances in collaboration with Cecil Sharp, another leading figure in the folk music scene, and also collected and arranged an album of Sussex folk songs. Film of George dancing, taken on a Kinora machine in 1912, may be viewed on the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library and War Composers’ websites.
George left Oxford in 1908 and, struggling to establish himself as a composer, became a music critic for The Times and also contributed articles on living contemporary composers to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. In 1909, he took up the post of assistant music master at Radley College in Abingdon, close to Oxford, where he also helped with sporting activities. His career as a schoolmaster did not last long for he left Radley in July 1910 and briefly studied piano and organ at the Royal College of Music in London. It was during this time that he completed the musical settings of A.E. Housman poems from A Shropshire Lad and, between 1909 and 1911, composed his first orchestral work, a rhapsody based on folk songs, the English Idyll Number 1,
His parents returned to London from York in 1910 but, sadly, his mother, a victim of Hodgkin’s disease, died in the following January. George felt her loss greatly and took consolation in his music, over the following two years composing two of his best-known works, again idylls based on folk songs: The Banks of Green Willow and A Shropshire Lad Rhapsody. This latter, as the name suggests, used some material from the Housman songs he had already set to music and was first performed at the Leeds Festival of 1913. During this time, too, George’s friendship with Vaughan Williams strengthened and they made trips into the countryside together to collect folk music material. The influence of this music is strongly felt in the works of both men.
Inspiration for London Symphony
Vaughan Williams had begun to compose a symphonic poem and it was George who first suggested that this might be turned into a symphony. As Vaughan Williams recalled:
One of my most grateful memories of George is connected with my London Symphony. Indeed I owe its whole idea to him…. He had been sitting with us one evening … and as he was getting up to go, he said in his characteristically abrupt way, ‘You know, you ought to write a symphony.’ From that moment the idea of a symphony – a thing which I had always declared I would never attempt – dominated my mind…. Anyway I looked out some sketches I had made for what I believe, was going to be a symphonic poem about London and decided to throw it into symphonic form.
I showed the sketches to George bit by bit as they were finished, and it was then that I realised that he possessed … 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.
Just before the outbreak of the First World War, the manuscript of this London Symphony was sent to Germany to be prepared for printing and was lost. George was one of the friends who helped Vaughan Williams reconstruct it. The first performance took place in 1914 and the printed edition, published in 1920, was dedicated to George Butterworth. Before he left England for war service, George destroyed the manuscripts of any of his work with which he was dissatisfied or felt needed revision so relatively few manuscripts still exist. Those that do suggest that Butterworth would have become one of the leading composers of his generation. The remaining manuscripts were left to Vaughan Williams and are now in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, housed in Cecil Sharp House in London.
At the outbreak of war George, with a group of friends, enlisted in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and was later granted a commission in the Durham Light Infantry. He was on active service for almost a year and mentioned in dispatches for action between 7 and 10 July 1916 for which he was awarded the Military Cross. The citation states that he had commanded the Company when the Captain was wounded ‘with great ability and coolness … and total disregard of personal safety’.
Less than a month later, on Saturday 5 August, he was shot through the head by a German sniper. In his letter of condolence to the Butterworth family dated 13 August, his commanding officer, who had been visiting the company moments before the fatal shot, wrote that George was ‘one of those quiet, unassuming men whose path did not appear naturally to be a military one, … [but he had done his duty] … quietly and conscientiously. When the offensive came he seemed to throw off his reserve and, in those strenuous 35 days in which we were fighting off and on, he developed a power of leadership which we had not realised he possessed.’ He was in charge of a group digging a trench under German fire – this trench was subsequently called the Butterworth Trench on all the official maps – and he was ‘cheery and inspiring his tired men to secure the position which had been won earlier in the night…. Within a minute of my leaving him, he was shot.’
His body was never recovered although it is thought that it might have been interred at the nearby Pozieres Memorial Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery. George’s name is displayed on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Battles of the Somme. This memorial is near the village of Thiepval in Picardy, France, and commemorates the 72,195 missing British and South African men with no known grave.
Main works of George Butterworth
Two English Idylls for orchestra (1910-1)
Eleven Songs from A Shropshire Lad (ie. Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad, and Bredon Hill and Other Songs). Words by A.E. Housman. (1910-1)
A Shropshire Lad, Rhapsody for orchestra (1911)
Folk Songs from Sussex (1912)
Orchestral idyll, The Banks of Green Willow (1913)
Anthony Murphy, Banks of Green Willow, 2nd ed. (Malvern, 2014)
Alain Frogley, ‘Butterworth, George Kaye (1885-1916)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP online edition, May 2015)
Robert Weedon, ‘George Butterworth – a biography’ (warcomposers.co.uk website)
Ken Linge and Pam Linge, Missing but Not Forgotten: Men of the Thiepval Memorial – Somme (Barnsley, 2015)
Directories for York published by Cook, Kelly and Stevens.
© Dinah Tyszka