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Remembering composer Butterworth, a century after his wartime death

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Aug. 5 marks 100 years since George Butterworth was killed in the opening weeks of the Battle of the Somme in World War I. As a lieutenant in command of the Durham Light Infantry's 13th Battalion, Butterworth was tasked with taking “Munster Alley,” a German trench near the French village of Pozières. Butterworth supervised the digging of a connecting trench (subsequently named for him on official maps), then led his men into action. They had retaken a hundred yards of Munster Alley when Butterworth was shot through the head by a German sniper. He was 31.

It surprised his fellow soldiers to learn that Butterworth was one of England's most auspicious and talented young composers; Butterworth had never mentioned it. His mother, a former opera singer, gave Butterworth his first music lessons. His father, a lawyer and manager of railroads, later regretted his resistance to Butterworth's choice of music as a career.

Butterworth's education was that of an establishment scion — Aysgarth School, Eton, and Trinity College, Oxford — but his increasingly extracurricular passion was folksongs. He became a protege of Cecil Sharp, the famous folksong collector, and befriended the similarly interested Ralph Vaughan Williams. The intricacies of folk-dancing especially intrigued Butterworth, who became an expert Morris dancer. (A colleague recalled Butterworth, with a large jug of beer, egging on a pair of elderly Morris dancers while he wrote down their steps.)

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In his own compositions, Butterworth rarely used actual folk materials, instead distilling something of their simplicity and directness into his own polished language. He had an affinity for the poetry of A.E. Houseman, which inspired what are probably Butterworth's best-known works: the orchestral rhapsody “A Shropshire Lad,” and two sets of songs setting poems from that collection. Houseman's combination of pastoral lyricism and reticent ambivalence was a match for Butterworth's subtle sense of drama: The musical gentleness is balanced with compositional precision, and the poems' most charged ironies often, and tellingly, are situated among bursts of silence.

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By 1914, Butterworth had started to feel his music and career to be at loose ends; the war, seemingly, offered clarity. Before enlisting, Butterworth burned his unfinished and (in his judgment) unworthy scores. Had he survived, Butterworth might well have remained in uniform after the armistice: “[I]n those strenuous 35 days in which we were fighting off and on,” his commanding general later wrote to Butterworth's mother, “he developed a power of leadership which we had not realised he possessed.” As in Butterworth's music, the compounding possibilities only intensify the sense of elegy.

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.