Friday, 9 June 2017

10 & 11 June - Butterworth

George Butterworth.
(Script has been slightly edited to fit the timeslot)

This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme, written and researched by Mike Burrows, is a tribute to the composer, George Butterworth.
George Sainton Kaye Butterworth was born in 1885, the son of a lawyer and managing-director on the railways, and died as a Captain in the Durham Light Infantry during the Battle of the Somme. At about dawn, in August 1916, leading his company in action near Pozieres he was killed instantly by a sniper in a moment of sleep-deprived unconcern for his own safety. As a soldier, he had liked to lead from
the front; here, he had made an elementary slip and raised his head too high. Posthumously awarded the Military Cross, he lived up fully to what had been expected of him and thus to the example of his grandfather, an army General. Like many of his contemporaries of the privileged middle-classes, he died as a junior officer fighting the Hun, his last moments spent caught up in the crossfire of an attack in the blasted landscape of a sector of the Western Front, his body never recovered, his name added to the famous Thiepval Monument to many of those Allied troops who were killed in France or Belgium between 1914-18 and who have no known grave. The monument stands not far from where he was killed. At the time, the earthwork in which he fell became known as The Butterworth Trench.
Let’s hear an arrangement of a folksong arranged by him, one of his 11 Sussex Folksongs, Roving In
The Dew. He collected 3 versions of this song himself, under the title, Dabbling In The Dew, but
for this arrangement used a version taken down by another researcher.
Track 1 Roving In The Dew, Arr Butterworth 
It is doubtful that George Butterworth ever had thoughts of living up to his Grandfather’s example. Though an Old Etonian and graduate of Trinity College, Oxford and one who would have regarded himself as the social equal of most of the more famous victims of the meatgrinder in the teens of the last Century –the first-rate Tennants, Grenfells Asquiths and Horners of this life - was no conventional patriot, no Tory, no euphuist in any aspect of existence.  Whether learning or teaching music – he 
taught at Radley – he was an artist of close mouth and practical activity. He was a physically strong,
man who smoked a straight Lovatt briar, grew the expected flourishing moustache and tended to look as though smiling at the eyes – lucent eyes crinkled at the corners, the lower lids subject to upward pressure from his cheeks, humorous eyes, their humour with a touch of irony or scepticism, perhaps.
They were also watchful eyes. A graduate in Classics, he attended the Royal College of Music from 1910, a late starter in the College’s eyes – though a composer from the age of 9 - who knew where
he was going. The courses disappointed him, leading nowhere; he left after a year. He had the clearest ideas of form and modern harmony and had made a study of folk-music, becoming a staunch member of Cecil Sharp’s Folksong Society. He had worked through the expected influences of the day that wrecked the work of lesser talents; Wagner left his mark, possibly Grieg or Debussy and possibly, at the outside, the colourful and ingenious style of Slavic instrumentation. He remained the most analytical and clearminded of critics, and certainly cut through musical problems for that late-developer, Vaughan Williams. At the end of an evening, he took his pipe out of his mouth to suggest in his abrupt way that Vaughan Williams write a 2nd Symphony, The London Symphony, and Vaughan Williams dedicated it to him before its premiere in 1913. When Butterworth died, Vaughan Williams felt as though utterly bereft; there’s the matter of his having volunteering for war-service as an ambulance-driver but, in time, changing his battlefield vocation to become a Royal Artillery officer. Perhaps
the death of Butterworth contributed to this decision.
George would not have been impressed by talk of his bravery in encouraging his men – mostly hardbitten ex-miners - to one more effort, or by admiration of his Military Cross – which only officers could win. His men loved him, but that would have made the error seem all the more stupid. He would have kicked himself for making the mistake made by chivalrous idiots just posted up from home, clever lads who forgot to duck or who had no idea how hard it were to dodge the bullet of an unseen assailant – the speed with which death could be dealt in a modern War in France.  As a composer, George Butterworth’s work has come down to us as a proof of his technical ability as well as pure expression; he seems the most humane but poised of artists, a man who, quite possibly attained the very highest degree of feeling and polish; not one of his works appears blemished by extraneous or awkward details or developments. They appear to have been distilled and perfected by a musical magician. He must have destroyed volumes of early pieces before leaving for France – if not sooner. His complete oeuvre 
consists of four orchestral pieces, a couple of single songs – one setting Requiescat by Oscar Wilde after the death of his own mother, three song cycles – one based on poems from Stevenson’s Songs of Travel, two on the Shropshire Lad poems of AE Housman, one on poems by WE Henley, Love Blows
As The Wind Blows, a book of arrangements of 11 Sussex folksongs and – most famously – the ever-fresh four orchestral pieces, the Two English Idylls of 1911, the Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad, (1912) and An Idyll: The Banks of Green Willow (1913).
The Folksong movement in English music has been decried by modernists and so-called internationalists ever since its co-opted member-composers came to fame. Not one of the brilliant
minds who have pointed out that the world of folksong nostalgically revived was invalid as a form of
artistic expression because dead on its feet even as it was obtruded on the minds of sophisticated Rightwing intellectuals, or just plain substanceless when contrasted with industrial machine-reality, has
managed to extirpate the public’s love of its Art-music. The point has so often been missed that
folksong-and-dance formed the musical means of self-expression and entertainment of ordinary people who did not attend Public School or University or hire a suburban piano. Ordinary people toiled and died without mark save birth, marriage, census and funeral – unless they attained the charge-sheet, or entered the Workhouse.
Let’s hear the two English Idylls. The first is based on three folksongs: Dabbling in The Dew, whose
subject is unsuccessful wooing, Just as The Tide was Flowing, a story of successful wooing and Henry Martin, in which a man turns to piracy on the high seas in order to support his brothers!
Track 2: English Idyll No 1, Butterworth 

Butterworth’s use of alto instruments is a shading feature – voices we made of oboe, clarinet, violas, cellos, horns, trombones. The light and freshness comes from flute, harp, solo trumpet, violins. In rounding out the story how effective his harp runs are. The bass is unobtrusive but mobile or 
provides pedals of depth – a depth of earth like firmness. The interplay of instrumentation is lively. His use of harmonics and mutes is as breathtaking in its elemental scene setting as is his sense of drama
and tragedy. Full throated, his orchestra is a formidable force from which both Holst and Vaughan Williams and many other composers learned, as the deep earth settled on its perhaps one time Wagnerist only begetter. Constantly, the blending of timbres is both subtle and unerringly distinct.
In the English Idyll No 2, the folksong is Phoebe and Her Dark-eyed Sailor: in it, a girl encounters a sailor; he seeks to win her; she refuses the confident well-set up lad until she suddenly realizes that he is her betrothed who went to sea and was thought to have drowned. He tried and made his fortune.
Track 3: English Idyll No 2, Butterworth 
People had flocked from the poverty-stricken land to the cities, where pay was supposed survivable. The cities swelled with increasingly cheap labour with predictable results. Thousands were killed young
by machines, dust or fibre-polluted atmospheres and toxic agents, or by a home-life best imagined from the prints of contemporary artists. The workhouse – the being a charity-case – was merely dreaded more than work or a cholera- or typhoid epidemic. No wonder many folksongs sing bittersweetly or longingly of love, usually lost love, betrayal, death or some other form of separation, dalliances while going or coming from somewhere, or sailors, the season or life-occupation, the
possibility of making one’s fortune – with plenty of fireside beer, warming spice and baccy as well. It has to be remembered that at his most utile (and, coincidentally virtuous), the common man or woman was young, fit, unmarried, politically submissive and an abstainer from drinking, smoking and sexual
relations. When rich enough to feed, clothe and house children on one wage, well, a man and woman
could marry, settle down and breed fit young children of the same make. After all, at a higher
differential, this was how professionals not of independent means ought to live, to the glory of God and
Capital, and everyone knew what the alternative was – to be a pauper and expected to die. Moral force was with wealth and the employer; even the established church, socially enmeshed with the gentry and middleclasses, would not or could not ameliorate the conditions created by tyrannical Mammon, yet one had to conform.

The conflicts in AE Housman’s A Shropshire Lad are many; but central to Butterworth’s probable view of them would have been that between living in the countryside or coming to live and work in the
City, in London, as Housman had done, and having to hide one’s own very nature. Facing up to
an inimical, godless universe of chance and ill-fate, and to society’s capacity for damning short-lived man’s non-existent soul to cowering under the threat of social disgrace and even capital punishment as a criminal was a peculiarly Victorian dilemma – particularly after the trial of Oscar Wilde. The covertly homosexual Housman described himself as an Epicurian, and Butterworth likewise was no believer in the Christian God, but both must have felt themselves still to be swimming against the tide of middleclass conventional religion, politics and morality. Both loved the countryside, the seasons, the general goodheartedness of unsophisticated people. The countryside and country folk were still there, still sang and danced in reaction to life. The beauty of Butterworth’s orchestral evocation of Spring in the Rhapsody is superfine from the opening on string harmonics, but also as though of Nature itself. The woodwind, violins, violas and cellos shade the music to perfection, the brass affirmatory of
warmth, youthful happiness or dread fate. To judge from the use of harmony, Butterworth’s study of music must have included the works of Richard Strauss. I’d venture to suggest that no Straussian nor expressionist composer achieved a starker, harsher climax than that of this piece in which vaulting
fanfare builds and is broken by the tritone as in Sibelius. A moment of horror that stays with
one. (The whole tone scale from the harp at close may symbolize death by drowning). The day is
not saved by the Loveliest of Trees motif that has opposed it, all along, but by the phrase of last line of the song. “To see the cherry hung with snow.” Butterworth’s modification, qualification or distortion
of song-themes is a brilliant  and original feature of his orchestral work: he develops them as might
a symphonist. He searches out the harmonic implication or resonance to the last drachm (dram) or scruple. The harp’s rippling wholetone scale near the end has been suggested to symbolize a self-drowning.

The main theme of the Rhapsody, by name, Loveliest of Trees, is a folksong that was in fact
entirely Butterworth’s own. In its original form, it is the first song in his first cycle of Shropshire Lad settings. He ventriloquized Housman’s and Great Britain’s Lad in a song indistinguishable from those that move by every means but the intentional. To adapt Wilfred Owen, the poetry of the art-musician inspired by folksong is in the pity. No wonder the soldiers of his company thought so well of him.
In Butterworth’s music it is never, to use the Masefield couplet, “The smoke of all three farms lifts blue in air/As though man’s passionate mind had never suffered there.”
Track 4: Rhapsody – A Shropshire Lad, Butterworth 
Turn to 1913 and another orchestral Idyll, The Banks of Green Willow, based on two folksongs, the
first eponymous – a woman elopes with a captain, believes that she will die in childbirth and begs him
to throw her over the side – and the second, Green Bushes, in which a fickle maid finds a new lover.
It’s interesting that every Butterworth orchestral piece is in an arch construction:  first, there is the proposition of a beautiful tune and contrast material; then, there is a vehement quasi-development section; lastly, there is a restatement of the opening material – long drawn out, becoming hushed, fading into a dying fall, almost unbearably poignant, nostalgic, regretful but too touching not to be consoling and unforgettable 
Track 5: The Banks of Green Willow, George Butterworth 

Perhaps folk-music survived even the worst of the 19th Century’s murderous advancement of Feudal Capitalism as the basis for a modern society, partly thanks to the Folksong Society and young composers from privileged, even landed, backgrounds who bothered to listen and hear; folk-music was popular self-expression more real than music-hall popular songs or polite villa-ballads provided by paid hacks who might have wished to write symphonies. It was national self-expression; it came of the people, the nation rather than its rulers – as glorified by the latest in Art music-technique, those, for one thing, who bothered to note it down as played or sung, not as taught by the Brahmsian, Dvorakesque Professor Stanford. Modal, not diatonic, pentatonic folk-music could be embellished by being played over chromatic harmonies, subjected to direct strokes of development, manipulation, transformation, even counterpoint – and gain. There was never the intention to seem sophisticated. Sophistication is
not a positive value – it means capable of glib persuasiveness. Not exactly a desideratum in one who pays tribute to the victims of the 19th Century British holocaust who, trapped and left with little or no real comfort, leisure or notice created the only natural, meaningful form of music we had to distinguish
our artworks from superior European models. Everyone, not the educated connoisseur, critic or composer, owned folk-music – felt its pathos or humour – often, its defiant humour and unintentional pathos. Socialists might just look back to the 17th Century and think of Commonwealth – wealth held in common. Holst, Vaughan Williams, Butterworth, Grainger, Moeran and many others will not appeal to those who think their music easy or unpolitical. Anyone with half an ear for music will hear what their
music may mean – and find its influence compelling, magical and inexhaustible, the musical equivalent of a powerful poetic tradition stretching back to Shakespeare or even Chaucer – a bringing together of
the classes, a levelling process, a voice for us all, harmonies for our comedies and tragedies, our own
too-often oppressed and distracted lives. Even if in the Nineteenth Century the devil preached from holy scripture, still, pace the hymn or parlour song writers, he had almost none of the best tunes. True feeling was in the distinct lyrics, ballads and dances of semi-literate and self-taught musicians. Ribald, raucous, insolent or hail fellow, well-met, wistful, grieving, seeking solace, folk tunes held the truth of a materialistic, deeply false and unspeakably cruel age that had trashed earth and society for resources and productivity, profit and power.  How heartrending that Captain Butterworth failed to duck. Sometimes, it is hard to see what he fought and died for on the Somme. His music though is a glory of 
his generation and our country and, as the Great War was simply one more huge atrocity of ndustrialization, capital and utility, his pieces of lifelong-taken pains are made still more poignantly beautiful – as well as ironically bittersweet - by its being in part his and his lost generation’s
unconscious memorial.  How would his music have developed if he had returned to it after the Great War? That is unknowable; like Ivor Gurney, Butterworth was his own man, his future tendencies 
not to be predicted. He left one unfinished orchestral piece. Fantasia. This was completed a short while ago by Martin Yates. A long movement, it makes for fascinated listening, though always with the caveats that a major composer’s sketches are his own and subject to any change he likes, and his final intentions are not divined by editors or, as in this case, a talented fellow-composer who helps fragments across within composition of his own. Here it is. Memories of the pieces heard earlier are rife but welcome, and there is a very likeable dance-episode that Butterworth as a folk-dancer knew well how to encompass. Also, there are moments somewhat akin to Copland’s Appalachian Spring…
This was Classical Break, on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme was researched and written by Mike Burrows. We hope you enjoyed it and will tune in again soon. We leave you with Fantasia, sketched by Butterworth and “realized” by Martin Yates. Goodbye!
Track 6: Fantasia, Butterworth/Yates

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