George Butterworth, MC (1885–1916)

English composer, folk song and dance collector, and soldier

Life and Music

George Butterworth (see note at bottom)George Sainton Kaye Butterworth was born in London on July 12th, 1885 to a well-to-do family.  His father, Sir Alexander Butterworth was a solicitor and later General Manager of the North Eastern Railway, headquartered in York, where George grew up before going to school at Eton. His musical talent as a composer was already apparent while at Eton.  In 1904 he went up to Trinity College, Oxford to read Greats but found that music became more and more important to him, especially after meeting up with Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams.  After Oxford, he taught for a year at Radley, then studied for a short time at the Royal College of Music, then concentrated more or less full time on collecting folk songs, sometimes with Vaughan Williams.

On the outbreak of World War I in August, 1914, he quickly joined the Durham Light Infantry as a Lieutenant in the 13th Battalion.  During his year in the trenches, he was "mentioned in dispatches" for outstanding courage, won the Military Cross for his defence of a trench that was subsequently named for him, and led a raid during the Battle of the Somme.  The raid was successful but Butterworth was killed by a sniper's bullet.  It was August 5th, 1916.  His memorial is at Thiepval.

His music is of the very highest quality and at the same time extremely simple and sparing.  His own standards were so exacting that he destroyed those of his scores which he deemed unworthy before setting out for France. His teachers included Thomas Dunhill (while at Eton), Christian Padel in York, and Hubert Parry who was director of the Royal College of Music while Butterworth was there.

Although just about every English composer of the time attempted some settings of the poems of A. E. Housman (1859-1936), none caught the essence of the poetry like Butterworth – and no other composer is quite so associated with these poems, especially A Shropshire Lad (published in 1896).  As well as having a recurrent death wish theme, many of Housman's poems return to the senselessness of war and the arbitrariness of who would return and who would not.  Although it was the Boer war that was the main subject of such poems, WWI brought new force to the agony of these lines.  It is with almost fatalistic irony (only too common in the world of the arts – for example Pushkin foretelling his own death in Eugene Onegin) that we note that Housman would long outlive these young men, particularly his greatest musical interpreter: Butterworth.  It is no exaggeration to say that the Somme robbed us of the most promising composer of his generation.

What to Listen For

Perhaps the best way to judge Butterworth's mastery of scoring (using the term somewhat loosely to cover both orchestration and song writing) is to compare the two forms of Loveliest of Trees: in the original song with piano accompaniment and in the orchestral rhapsody A Shropshire Lad.  In the first, the accompaniment is ultra delicate – at times, the piano is tacet; at other times just the odd note to keep the sense of form; at other times the piano's line is quite fulsome and melodic but never overshadowing the voice.  The first line in the vocal part, starts on a high E, hanging like a petal and then gently falling to the ground.  Notice particularly the rather engaging division of the first syllable "Love..." into two, while squeezing "..liest" into just one syllable.  It is as if Butterworth wanted to underscore the generally happy nature of this poem by emphasizing that first syllable as if it were a word on its own.  But this generally cheerful message returns to the theme of mortality with its carpe diem advice (see text below).

In the orchestral rhapsody, Loveliest of Trees, the first of the eleven songs provides the melodic material for the entire piece, except for a plaintive quote from With rue my heart is laden (the last of the eleven) in the flute at the conclusion.  Thereby, without adding unnecessary complication, the composer manages, metaphorically, to compass the emotion of the whole set. To quote from Kenneth Loveland's liner notes from the Nimbus recording: "The piece was written in 1912 and first performed under the great Nikisch in 1913 at the Leeds Festival and can justifiably be thought of as a small-scale masterpiece capturing as it does the pastoral environment and regretful sadness of Housman's poems."  The orchestration is for the most part, very understated, beginning with just hints at the main subject, suggested by violas and clarinets.  As the music develops, tender exchanges between woodwind and strings alternate with carefully fashioned climaxes until the music sings back into the tranquil landscape from which if grew: a solo violin ascending skywards, strings whispering and a flute adding a gentle farewell.

Butterworth actually reverses the order of exposition of the themes from the first stanza. The opening viola/clarinet exchanges referred to above are variations on the accompaniment for "Wearing white for Eastertide". The next theme, introduced pp by a solo clarinet (and later, the main climactic theme), E, F#, G#, B, G#, D#, E, C# (all even quarter notes, except for the last note, with stresses shown underscored) is, in the poem, the line "and stands about the woodland ride" (see below). This is immediately followed in the violins by the melody which accompanies the first two lines of the poem.

Here is the full text:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

His treatment of folk song is equally brilliant.  Much of his work is influenced by his folk-song researches with Sharp and Vaughan Williams, but those pieces which are actually based on folk songs show a sensitivity and attention to detail which is quite superb.  One of the best examples is the idyll Banks of Green Willow, a very inventive and beautifully scored orchestral piece.  To me, he has perfectly captured the bucolic nature of the English countryside, from the languid clarinet solo in the opening, to the more poignant and intense violin solo which closes the piece out.

Composer, Collector of folk songs, Folk dancer, Teacher, Soldier

Here you will find a brief description of the other details of Butterworth's short life that made him a truly interesting and likable person, for it appears that he was well liked, in musical and folk circles, as well as in the army. Judging by contemporary descriptions and the many photographs (including the one on the title page) he was a tall, handsome man with a kindly face.

A BBC radio talk which introduced a 1942 performance of the Rhapsody began thus:

George Butterworth. Composer. Collector of folk songs. Morris dancer. Cricketer. Soldier.... 'Great in what he achieved, greater still in what he promised.' No composer's reputation stands on so small an output... It is in the truest sense English music.

While this comment is absolutely true, it does tend to ignore the large contribution to folk dance and folk song collection which the composer made. In fact, in his short life, he collected almost 300 folk songs, 134 dances in field notations, and 29 dance tunes arranged for piano. This should be compared to the 810 songs collected by Vaughan Williams, the composer most closely associated with English folk song collection (the others being his friend and colleague Gustav Holst and the Australian Percy Grainger). His love of folk dancing, in particular Morris Dancing (see Hook - A History and Description of the Border Morris), and his work on annotating folk dances were extremely important. Not only was he possibly the best folk dancer of his generation, but he was very skilled at notating the steps for posterity.

As far as I know, Butterworth was one of only two composers of any repute to have been killed in WWI. The other was the Spanish composer Enrique Granados (1867-1916), who went down with the S.S. Sussex when it was torpedoed by the Germans off the coast of England while returning home from a concert tour in the USA. Both were tragedies, but Butterworth was almost twenty years younger, with most of his potential in front of him.

Butterworth's army career and early death are evidence of a completely different man from the sensitive and modest composer. He was a good leader and by all accounts extremely brave. Here is a possibly incomplete list of his citations:

[He was perhaps a kindred spirit to Joshua Chamberlain, Bowdoin College professor of rhetoric turned Civil War Hero at Gettysburg].

While in the army, Butterworth apparently kept quiet about his musical talents, probably out of modesty. Similarly, his letters home didn't even mention the award of the MC! Indeed, General Ovens, of the North Command, wrote to Butterworth's father, praising his son's abilities as a soldier and adding "I did not know he was so very distinguished in music."

Catalogue of Works



Choral Music

Chamber and Instrumental Music

Also, Morris dance arrangements and many lost works, presumably destroyed by the composer in 1914.

Butterworth Internet Resources

Other Internet Resources

Recommended Books

Recommended Recordings

See Discography for a fuller, but not necessarily recommended, list of recordings.

Footnotes and Glossary

In the British educational system, a professor is the head (or at least high-ranking member) of a department (sometimes referred to as a "full" professor) and has a "chair". Lower ranking tenured faculty have titles such as Reader or Lecturer.
Durham Light Infantry
According to Grove's, he joined the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, but I have it confirmed by Mike Young of the DLI that Butterworth did indeed serve for the Durhams.  In any case, they would be a logical choice, being based in the heart of his father's railway territory.  The mystery is explained in [Barlow 1997]: apparently, Butterworth and a group of his friends joined up on September 1st 1914 with the DCLI, but quite soon heard that the DLI would offer him a commission. By mid-October, he had transferred as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 13th Durham Light Infantry. q.v. Durham Light Infantry
Eton College
Leading British "public school", the equivalent of a "prep school" in the U.S.  Traditionally, one of the prime breeding grounds for future prime ministers. Currently attended by Prince William.  q.v. Eton College's External Web Pages
Quaint (and now archaic) term covering (if I recall) classics, history and possibly other stuff.  More formally known as Literae Humaniores. In Butterworth's time (and to a lesser extent today), British universities, especially Oxford, did not offer subjects leading directly to employment in some field.  Greats would be a typical undergraduate degree for someone intending to to become a lawyer (or even a doctor!).
A junior officer, pronounced "lef-tenant" (not "loo-tenant", as in the U.S.).  1st Lt. is the rank below Captain.  2nd Lt. is the lowest commissioned rank in the British Army (just above Chief Warrant Officer). Butterworth was offered the position of 1st Lt. but, characteristically, and feeling that the battalion had more 1st Lts than were really needed, he requested to be made a 2nd.
His memorial is at Thiepval, Somme, France.  Panel Number:  Pier and Face 14 A and 15 C (thanks to Mike Young, DLI, for this information). There is also a carving, in the church door of St. Mary's, Deerhurst, Gloucestershire where George's grandfather (also George) was vicar from 1856-1893, q.v. Deerhurst
Military Cross
British (and Commonwealth) medal for valour in the field of battle; awarded to junior officers. q.v. British Medals
North Eastern Railway
The NER served the East coast from Doncaster to Berwick.  Later grouped with the Great Northern and North British into the London and North Eastern Region, and now the Great North Eastern Railway.  Part of the line which connects London, York, Edinburgh and beyond. q.v.  NERA and LNEEG - Homepage
Radley College
Like Eton, a well-respected "public" school. Situated quite close to Oxford, with fairly close academic ties, also. q.v. Radley College
Royal College of Music
The senior music school in England. Alma Mater of many English composers. An annual prize known as the "Butterworth Award" is given each year to a promising student. q.v. Royal College of Music
Sharp, Cecil J.
Folk song collector, friend of RVW, mentor to GSKB and founder of English Folk Dance Society, q.v. EFDSS - History
English county in the Welsh marches, i.e. on the border of Wales, now known (since the Maud commission in 1965) as "Salop" (which was formerly only its postal abbreviation).  Situated on the banks of the Severn (England's biggest river), Shrewsbury is the county town and, in fiction, the haunt of the late Ellis Peters' monk and part-time detective, Cadfael. Generally, the country is very beautiful, especially the rugged Wenlock Edge (immortalized by Housman and thereafter by Vaughan Williams) area in the southern part of the county near Ludlow (The Lads in Their Hundreds). q.v. GO2 Shropshire - a complete guide to county of Shropshire, England
General purpose lawyer, as opposed to a barrister who actually represents someone in court.
Vaughan Williams
As well as being one of Butterworth's closest friends, Vaughan Williams dedicated his London (2nd) symphony to GSKB, mainly as a memorial to a lost friend, but partly in gratitude for GSKB's significant help and encouragement with the writing of the symphony.

Appendix A - Housman

Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936), classics scholar and poet, was born not actually in Shropshire but just over in Worcestershire at Bromsgrove. He won a scholarship to St. Johns College, Oxford in 1877 and achieved the rare distinction of failing his finals! After a brief interlude of teaching, he went back to get his degree and thence to the Patent Office in London. In 1892 he was given a chair (Latin) at the University of London on the strength of his published work. In 1911 he took the Kennedy chair of Latin at Cambridge, where he remained until his death. He had a reputation of being something of a curmudgeon and was accused, perhaps unjustifiably, of misogeny in his writing and general attitude. He left behind one of the great, and lasting, poetry cycles from the Victorian era (A Shropshire Lad, 1896) which has been compared as the poetic counterpoint to the prose of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), both dealing with the life and death struggles of ordinary country people. There are six collections of poems in all, three being published by his brother after his death.

If you have seen the movie Out of Africa you will remember the very moving poem which Meryl Streep as Isak Dinesen reads at Denis Finch-Hatton's funeral (Robert Redford). Of course, it is from A Shropshire Lad (XIX): "To an Athlete Dying Young".

Here are the texts of two poems set by Butterworth and mentioned in this home page:

The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair,
There's men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold,
The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there,
And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old.

There's chaps from the town and the field and the till and the cart,
And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave,
And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart,
And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the grave.

I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell
And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.

But now you may stare as you like and there's nothing to scan;
And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.

With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfood lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.

Appendix B - Whom The Gods Love

The following lines containing the "Whom the Gods Love" quotation, were written by a friend of Butterworth's on hearing the news of his death. It's not clear to me who the author was as he (perhaps wisely) only gave his initials.


So thou hast died for England! with thy 'boys'
Around thee. Sad and strange it seems to me
That thou should'st die this death, when peaceful joys,
Creative art, music and song, (for thee
Thy rightful heritage, and proper aim)
Were thine. Thy country called thee! Age to man,
And beast, a faithful friend, to kill and maim
Was alien to thy kindly nature's plan.
'Whom the gods love, die young.' It must have been
Inferno to thy gentle soul! Hell's noise,
Such frightful sounds, and sights, the world's ne'er seen!
But, borne aloft on Death's soft, sable wing,
Thou hearest,
now, the Heavenly Voices sing.

'In memoriam G. S. K. B.', by 'M. E. B.', 13 August 1916


This page is quite unofficial and is here to fill one of the most egregious gaps in the musicology of the internet. I have loved Butterworth's music for many years, though I really didn't know much more than the basics until recently. The impetus to find out more came when I began to prepare the program notes for Symphony Pro Musica's October 1999 concert. I discovered that there was no "home page", and scarcely even a mention of Butterworth on the internet. Hence this page. The fact that my two children were born on July 12th and August 5th is pure coincidence.

Dr. Robin Hillyard is an amateur musician (bassoonist), Oxford-educated Englishman (albeit an expatriate in Boston, USA), the preparer of program notes for Symphony Pro Musica, and lover of great music.  While not a musicologist in any academic sense, he is sufficiently expert to talk more or less intelligently about music for SPM's pre-concert lecture series.  See SPM program notes archives for examples of other music writing.

The color scheme for this page (dark green and red) is in recognition of the Durham Light Infantry colors. Since I haven't seen them myself, however, it's very likely that I'm way off the proper colors. Comments welcome.

Note about the photograph of Butterworth

The photograph comes from the English Folk Dance and Song Society, to which my thanks are due. It was cropped from the dust jacket of [Barlow 1997].

Note about the quotation on the first page

The quotation comes from Housman's poem (from A Shropshire Lad XXIII), The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair.

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Last updated: June 8th, 2002

Please email: Robin Hillyard if you have comments or questions (see email for explanation of mechanism).