George Butterworth (born London, 12 July 1885; died Pozières, France, 5 August 1916) was an English composer. He showed great talent as a young man and might have become one of England’s greatest composers if he had lived longer. He was killed while fighting in World War I. He is best known for a group of songs which are settings of poems by A. E. Housman.
Early years[change | change source]
Butterworth was born in London. His father was a solicitor who later became the general manager of the North Eastern Railway. The family moved to Yorkshire soon after George’s birth. He had his first music lessons from his mother, who was a singer, He soon started to compose music. His father wanted him to be a solicitor and so he sent his son to Eton College. From there he went to Trinity College, Oxford. At Oxford he became more and more involved with music, especially after 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. Both of them were influenced by English folk songs when they were composing. Butterworth was also a very good folk dancer. He was particularly fond of Morris dancing.
Vaughan Williams and Butterworth became close friends. It was Butterworth who said to Vaughan Williams that it would be a good idea to turn the symphonic poem he was working on into his London Symphony. When the manuscript for that piece was lost in the post Butterworth and two other musicians helped Vaughan Williams to write it out again. Vaughan Williams dedicated the piece to Butterworth's memory after his death. When he left Oxford, Butterworth became a music critic for The Times as well as composing and teaching at Radley College, Oxfordshire. He also studied at the Royal College of Music for a short time, working with people such as Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford.
First World War[change | change source]
Although Butterworth had lots of work he often felt that his life had no purpose. When World War I broke out, Butterworth felt that he could be useful so he joined the British Army. He was killed by a sniper in 1916 at Pozières leading a raid during the Battle of the Somme. His body was not found, and his name appears on the Thiepval memorial, near the site of the Somme. He was awarded the Military Cross, and a trench was named after him.
A Shropshire Lad[change | change source]
Butterworth did not write a great deal of music, and during the war he destroyed many of his compositions that he thought were not good enough. Of those that survive, his works based on A. E. Housman's collection of poems A Shropshire Lad are the best known. Many English composers of Butterworth's time set Housman's poetry, including Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Butterworth wrote two song cycles on Housman's poems. They include some of the best-loved English songs of the 20th century, especially Is My Team Ploughing? and Loveliest of Trees. He used this last song as the basis for his 1912 orchestral rhapsody, also called A Shropshire Lad. It is full of soft, tender music as well as passion.
References[change | change source]
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie, 1980, ISBN 1-56159-174-2.