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ClassicsOnline Home » BUTTERWORTH, G.: Songs from A Shropshire Lad / Folk Songs from Sussex (English Song, Vol. 20) (Williams, Burnside)
One of England’s most distinctive composers, George Butterworth belonged to the generation of young men decimated in the Great War of 1914–1918. His sensitive and melancholic settings of poems from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, with their subject matter of the futility and arbitrariness of war, are small-scale masterpieces. Of particular note are the Loveliest of Trees, describing the passing of the seasons, and the ghostly and elegiac Is my team ploughing? The Folk Songs from Sussex and settings of poems by R.L. Stevenson, Shelley and Wilde, whose subject matter revolves around flirtation, love, courtship, marriage and desertion, are no less notable for their attention to detail, linguistic nuance and delicate, economical piano writing.
By Andrew Achenbach
By James Manheim
By Brian Wilson
George Butterworth (1885–1916)
The English composer George Butterworth belonged to the generation of young men decimated in the Great War of 1914–1918. It is difficult to hear his music, and particularly his settings of poems from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, without having in mind his early death on active service. Born in London in 1885, Butterworth was of Yorkshire ancestry, endowed with the sturdiness and obstinacy of character associated with that county. His father, Sir Alexander Kaye Butterworth, was solicitor and later general manager of the North Eastern Railway, and his mother an amateur singer. He was first at Aysgarth, a prep school in Yorkshire. Something more of his musical ability became further apparent while he was at Eton, where his teachers included Thomas Dunhill and C.H. Lloyd. He went on to Trinity College, Oxford. There he read Literae Humaniores, but neglected his classical academic studies in favour of musical activities, becoming president of the University Music Club and meeting Hugh Allen and R.O. Morris. His father opposed his intention of becoming a musician and Butterworth in consequence was obliged to support himself, following the choice he had made, at first on the music staff of The Times and then as a master at Radley, a school within easy reach of Oxford. In 1910 he returned to London and entered the Royal College of Music, studying the organ with Walter Parratt, piano with Herbert Sharp and theory with Charles Wood, but left after a year, living with his parents, who now were established in London.
The years before the war brought friendship with Vaughan Williams. Butterworth instigated the composition of A London Symphony, helped in the reconstruction from the parts of the full score, which had been lost, and provided analytic notes for the first performance. The period also involved Butterworth in the collection of folk-music and in morris dancing and the activities of Cecil Sharp in the English Folk Dance Society. At the outbreak of war he was commissioned in the 13th Durham Light Infantry, posted to France in 1915 and killed the following year at the battle of the Somme. He was awarded the Military Cross.
Butterworth’s Folk Songs from Sussex provide the simplest of settings to the eleven songs, an obvious reflection of his work with Cecil Sharp. The subject of the songs, as so often, revolves around flirtation, love, courtship and marriage or desertion. The accompaniments allow the words and sung melody to retain much of their original character, set off by the piano-writing that displays great lightness of touch, whether in the jaunty A lawyer he went out one day () and the dialogue of Seventeen come Sunday () or the spare texture of The true lover’s farewell ().
I will make you brooches () is an aptly idiomatic setting of words by Robert Louis Stevenson, grouped here with Shelley’s I fear thy kisses () and the poignant Requiescat () of Oscar Wilde, whose fall from grace was a relatively recent event, the subject of a later poem by Housman. The songs offer the same qualities of economy in their accompaniments, coupled with a gift for the perception of linguistic nuance.
The poems of A.E. Housman have enjoyed the widest popularity. Housman himslf, a man of particular reserve, hiding the deepest feelings and sensitivity, won high distinction as a scholar, serving as Professor of Latin at London University and then at Cambridge, far away from his native West Country. His academic interests, notably his study of the relatively little known Roman didactic poet Manilius, are in marked contrast to his poems, their pastoral settings and kinship more with the poems of the Greek Anthology than with the Astronomica of Manilius, to which Housman devoted thirty years of study. His poems had a strong appeal to composers of his time and there are settings by Samuel Barber, Bax, Dyson, Gurney, Ireland, Moeran, Somervell and Vaughan Williams. The poems reflect Housman’s nostalgia for the imagined Arcadia of Shropshire, his feelings towards other men and ‘lads’, and a certain implicit irony not always captured in music.
A Shropshire Lad, a series of 63 poems, is dated 1887, when Housman was 28, and was first published in 1896. Butterworth’s eleven songs were published in two groups, Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad in 1911 and the cycle Bredon Hill and Other Songs the following year. The poignant Bredon Hill (), with its cheerful church bells and final death knell, is followed, in the second set, by O fair enough are sky and plain (), with its mood of pastoral nostalgia. The modal When the lad for longing sighs () has all the simplicity of a folksong and the fourth song of the set, On the idle hill of summer (), is haunted by the syncopated drum-beat that accomapnies the song. The cycle ends with the gently elegiac With rue my heart is laden ().
The earlier and better known set of six songs from A Shropshire Lad starts with Loveliest of trees () realising the passing of seasons and, as so often, gaining poignancy from the coming tragedy of war, in which Butterworth would lose his life. When I was one-and-twenty () is set to a traditional tune. It is followed by Look not in my eyes (), telling the tale of Narcissus, here ‘a Grecian lad’ and the dramatic Think no more, lad (). The lads in their hundreds () again seems prophetic in its lament for doomed youth and the set ends with the delicate melancholy and ghostly dialogue of Is my team ploughing? ().
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