Two English Idylls, Rhapsody ‘A Shropshire Lad’, The Banks of Green Willow, 11 Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’
(b. 12 Juli 1885, London – 5. August 1916, Pozières)
Works for Orchestra
Two English Idylls
Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad
The Banks of Green Willow
Eleven Songs from A Shropshire Lad
(arranged for voice and small orchestra by Phillip Brookes)
George Butterworth was one of Britain’s finest musicians during the years leading up to World War One, a conflict which tragically claimed his life. As a composer, he wrote exquisite music for the orchestra in addition to moving and poignant songs, especially to words by A.E.Housman. He was also an important figure in the folksong revival and one of the most talented morris-dancers (folk-dancers) of his day, being responsible for preserving many ancient dances.
He was born in London on 12 July 1885, the son of a lawyer, although he grew up in York (his father was manager of the North-East Railway at the time), before entering Eton and Trinity College, Oxford, where he read Greats (Classics). It was at Eton that he began to show musical promise, producing several compositions that were played by the school orchestra, particularly a Barcarolle for orchestra, long since lost.
At Oxford, he made friends with the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, Adrian Boult (conductor and founder of the BBC Symphony Orchestra) and Hugh Allen (later director of the Royal College of Music).
He joined the newly formed Folk Song Society in 1906 and enthusiastically embraced the fashion for collecting folk songs throughout Britain. He was responsible for preserving about 300 songs – fewer than Vaughan Williams, Grainger or Holst, but still significant. He was music critic for The Times for a short time, and music master at Radley College, Oxfordshire, where he was best remembered for his skill as a cricketer! It was during this time that he began to compose his ‘Shropshire Lad’ songs.
He entered the Royal College of Music in 1910, but left before he had completed a full year. He concentrated instead on folk dancing, becoming in effect a ‘professional’ morris dancer (almost the only one there has ever been). The archives of the English Folk Dance and Song Society include film footage of Butterworth, with Cecil Sharp ad Maud Karpeles, performing folk dances. He travelled widely, demonstrating the technique of folk dancing, and published books of dances.
Music nevertheless remained the backdrop to all these interests. His output was never high (he was a fastidious composer, who habitually revised his work), but he completed more music than we now know. When war broke out in August 1914, Butterworth volunteered to join Kitchener’s ‘New Army’ and began to set out the stall of his life’s work; in the process, he probably destroyed several early works, including the Barcarolle.
He was eventually assigned the role of Subaltern in B Company, 13th Batallion, Durham Light Infantry, which was largely made up of miners, whose company he enjoyed. He was later temporarily promoted to Lieutenant, but not before he had been mentioned in dispatches, recommended for one Military Cross and awarded another for his actions at Pozières on 19 July 1916. On the night of 4-5 August 1916 he led an attack on part of the German line known to the British as ‘Munster Alley’, for which he won the Military Cross a second time. But just before dawn he was shot and died of a single bullet to the head; he was barely 31 years old. He was hastily buried and his body was never recovered after the war, so that today his name is one of the 74,000 inscribed on the memorial at Thiepval, listing those young Britons who died on the Somme and who have no known resting place.
Two English Idylls
These two miniatures comprise Butterworth’s earliest surviving work for orchestra, and date from 1910-1911. Their premiere was given on 8 February 1912 in Oxford Town Hall, at a concert of the Oxford University Musical Club; the conductor was Hugh Allen, organist of New College. This performance was well received, with the second Idyll being encored. The Times commented that the work revealed “ the highest promise, showing great individuality of harmony and orchestration, and a singularly fresh and subtle imaginativeness”. Although styled for “small orchestra”, Butterworth employs double woodwind (plus piccolo), four horns, timpani, triangle, harp and strings. The orchestration is particularly fine and delicate, while the treatment of the basically simple thematic material is of a high quality throughout.
The first Idyll makes use of three folk tunes from the county of Sussex. The first, announced by the oboe, Allegro scherzando, is derived from a well-known song with many variants, Dabbling in the dew. The second is also introduced by the oboe, Più moderato; it is Just as the tide was flowing (rehearsal letter D) and was collected by Butterworth in April 1907. A livelier section, Molto vivace (F), reveals the third tune, Henry Martin (collected by Butterworth in June 1907), played first by clarinet, then by flute and bassoon. After general development, a fortissimo version of the Just as the tide is heard in the strings (L); a climax is reached, then suddenly all goes quiet, with oboe and flute sharing equally the opening theme (three bars after N). In the final bars, busy string figures from earlier recur, and all ends peacefully.
The second Idyll uses only one main theme, Phoebe and her dark-eyed sailor, first collected by the composer in Sussex in April 1907. Compared with its predecessor, this is a slower, softer and more contemplative piece of writing, beautifully scored, and again with solo oboe announcing the tune, accompanied by two bassoons. Although the main characteristic of this piece is of a gentle lyricism, the music does move towards a climax of some breadth and power, before a quiet ending. Towards the close, a solo violin plays a decorated version of the tune in canon with a solo clarinet (G).
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