George Sainton Kaye Butterworth 1885-1916

On the idle hill of summer,
Sleepy with the flow of streams,
Far I hear the steady drummer
Drumming like a noise in dreams.

Far and near and low and louder
On the roads of earth go by,
Dear to friends and food for powder,
Soldiers marching, all to die.

East and west on fields forgotten
Bleach the bones of comrades slain,
Lovely lads, and dead and rotten;
None that go return again.

Far the calling bugles hollo,
High the screaming fife replies,
Gay the files of scarlet follow:
Woman bore me, I will rise.

A E Housman, A Shropshire Lad XXXV

The composer of the haunting melody to this strangely prophetic poem was killed on the Somme in August 1916 – George Butterworth, a brusque, taciturn man whose lyrical music eloquently captured the essence of Housman’s elegiac poetry.

George Sainton Kaye Butterworth was born on 12 July 1885. He was named George after both his grandfathers, Kaye for a great-grandfather, John Kaye, the straight-talking Low Church Bishop of Lincoln, and Sainton after his mother’s singing teacher, Charlotte Sainton-Dolby, the wife of the violinist Prosper Sainton.

He was a gifted child: clever, good at games, musical and popular. He went to Eton in 1898 as a King’s Scholar – where he was fourth on the list – to Trinity College, Oxford in 1904 as a commoner, and graduated from there in 1908 with a Third Class degree. This slide in academic achievement was a reflection of his increasing participation in the world of music. It is difficult to chart his musical development because in August 1915, before he went to the front, he destroyed virtually every piece of his unpublished work. The Eton College Chronicle records his solo performances at concerts, and the performance in April 1903 of one of his own compositions – Barcarolle – now lost, presumably destroyed in 1915.

By the time Butterworth went to Oxford, music had become the major activity in his life. He met and mixed with musicians – Cecil Sharp, founder of the English Folk Dance Society, the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams – he arranged concerts, performed at concerts, composed music, collected music and in 1906 was elected President of the University Musical Club.

On leaving Oxford Butterworth decided to try to make a career in music, although he knew it would be difficult. For a while he was a music critic on The Times, and then he briefly joined the staff at Radley College, where a master later wrote:

… he had opinions and the courage of them. He looked facts straight in the face and said what he thought of them. He was utterly unable and unwilling to pretend; he was intolerant of narrow mindedness and inefficiency. He had rough corners and a rugged directness of manner coupled with a keen sense of criticism. Few men can have been worse at making an acquaintance or better at making a friend.

It was Butterworth’s keen sense of criticism that made him unsure of his own abilities. Deeply critical of cant, humbug and pretension, he couldn’t be sure where he himself stood when judged by his own standards for, as his father said:

Under a somewhat gruff and imperturbable exterior there lay an ironic and fastidious temperament that could only be satisfied with the best, and directed upon itself a criticism far more searching than it would level at another.

In Butterworth’s own eyes he found himself wanting, but when he came to measure himself against others he discovered himself to be more than capable. In 1910, he enrolled at the Royal College of Music, feeling that he lacked technical knowledge. Within a year he had left having found the work limiting, time consuming, frustrating and far too dominated by Germanic disciplines. Most of his best-known compositions span this period – Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad, 1909-1911; Bredon Hill and Other Songs, 1909-1911; Two English Idylls, 1910-1911; Rhapsody A Shropshire Lad, 1911; The Banks of Green Willow, 1913.

Butterworth was one of a growing number of musicians who drew their inspiration from folk music. Between 1906 and 1913 he travelled extensively through the English countryside painstakingly noting down words, tunes and steps. It takes a particular kind of tact and patience for a stranger to entice the elderly people of England to part with their folk heritage but, for all his apparent gruff impatience, Butterworth obviously had what it took. In the catalogue of the English Folk Dance and Song Society he is credited with the collection of almost 300 folk songs, 134 dances and 29 dance tunes. Some of his friends’ happiest memories of him date from these occasions. R V Lennard joined him once in the village of Bucknell, Oxfordshire:

I found him already at work in a picturesque and ancient cottage with a stone floor and whitewashed walls and wheelbacked chairs. An incredibly old man was dancing about the floor, and though sometimes he hobbled and stumbled or paused for sheer lack of breath, he seemed on the whole to have vanquished his years for a space and one felt a ghostly presence of revels that had had their being half a century before. George Butterworth sat by the wall, smoking his pipe, mostly in silence, busily noting the dancer’s steps in a book. Now and then he would put a question or suddenly demand the repetition of a particular figure.

And on another occasion in Sussex, where Butterworth was watching two ancient brothers, Eli and Jack, as they danced in the middle of a village street accompanied by another elderly man on his pipe and tabor:

He was intent only on the dancing and was entirely oblivious of the crowd of bewildered villagers who had gathered to see the unwonted spectacle. On the road beside him was a heap of notebooks … the brothers advanced and retired, they bowed and they capered, they executed intricate figures with the comrades who were present in their minds, though in fact they had lain many years in the neighbouring churchyard.

On the outbreak of war – 4 August 1914 – Butterworth immediately attempted to join up, but there were so many volunteers that many of them had to be turned away. At the time he was a member of the English Folk Dance Society’s demonstration team at the Stratford-upon-Avon Festival. When the Festival ended he went to London and tried again and by 2 September he was in the Army. Butterworth volunteered because he knew that many of his friends were doing so, all of them fully aware of the bad news coming from France where the British were in retreat. Once in the Army he liked the sense of purpose it gave him, the sense that he was doing the right thing. Despite the fact that at this stage in the war a public school education seemed to be the only qualification necessary for a commission (in fact the hope was that you had had had training in the school OTC, Officer Trainng Corps), Butterworth enlisted in the ranks, unsure that he would make a very good officer, writing in his diary, ‘personally I should feel uncomfortable at taking on a responsible job without any proper opportunity of training for it’. Typically it took him about one month to regret this decision and to realise that training or no training he had more to offer than some of the ‘beardless youths’ he was being forced to serve under. By the first week of October he had been commissioned into the Durham Light Infantry, where he came to have an enormous respect for his soldiers, especially as many of them were Durham miners who had given up proper jobs in order to join the fighting.

The 17th Battalion Durham Light Infantry arrived in France on 26 August 1915; it was at this point, whilst he was on his embarkation leave, that Butterworth is thought to have destroyed all his unpublished compositions and anything that he didn’t want to survive his death. On 11 September Butterworth recorded in his diary his first twenty-four hours in the trenches, and on the 20th he wrote to his father:

I have been three times up to the front line and so far have only seen one shell burst and have not seen a single
a) dead man
b) wounded man
c) German
d) gun

It was not until 22 October that the Battalion experienced their first casualties, but they were in a very quiet sector and most of what Butterworth recorded in his diary and letters was concerned with routine and rumour. He was given home leave in January 1916 to attend his father’s wedding, and was home again early in June for a signalling course.

1 July 1916 saw the launch of the Somme offensive and on the 12th, his 31st birthday, Butterworth wrote to his father following a spell in the front line. He was forced to acknowledge that, ‘of course the conditions are utterly different from anything we are accustomed to’, going on to describe with typical understatement:

The ordinary placid routine of trench warfare exists no longer; one has a general sense of confusion, and shells fly about day and night. Add to that wet weather, and mud that requires all ones energy to wade through, and you will have some idea.

What he didn’t mention was that he had been recommended for the Military Cross – which wasn’t awarded – nor that he was now the Acting Company Commander, replacing his own Company Commander who had been wounded.

From 15 to 20 July, the Durham Light Infantry were involved in the heavy fighting that preceded the capture of Pozières. Butterworth was again recommended for the Military Cross and this time it was awarded. The citation noted his ability, coolness, energy and utter disregard for his personal safety whilst in continuous action between 17 and 19 July. On 29 July he wrote to tell his father that he had been slightly wounded:

a small fragment hit me in the back, and made a slight scratch, which I had dressed. This is to warn you in case you should see my name in the casualty list! They have a way of reporting even the slightest cases.

This was his last letter home. On 1 August his Company were ordered to dig a forward trench in the region of Munster Alley to a point within two hundred yards of the German front line. This was successfully achieved and the trench was named Butterworth Trench in honour of the Company Commander. On 4 August the Durham Light Infantry were part of an attack that seized 100 yards of Munster Alley. At 4 am on the morning of the 5th, Butterworth conducted the commander of the 68th Infantry Brigade, General Page Croft, on a tour of the newly captured section of trench. Page Croft arrived back at Battalion headquarters an hour later and was met with the news that his escort:

George Butterworth, a brilliant musician in times of peace and an equally brilliant soldier in times of stress, was shot dead by a bullet through the head.

No one meeting George Butterworth in those last few weeks of his life would have recognised him as the unassuming, taciturn man of his pre-military days. If ‘modest stillness’ is what most becomes a man in times of peace, then this was George Butterworth; but when ‘the blast of war’ blew in his ears then he did indeed ‘imitate the action of the tiger’, throwing off the diffidence that had characterised his earlier life and, in thirty five days of almost continuous fighting, showing qualities of leadership and dash that few realised he possessed.

General Page Croft was one of the few military men to have known of Butterworth’s musical reputation. Colonel RM Ovens spoke for most when he told Butterworth’s father that although he had known Butterworth was a valuable and capable officer he had not known that ‘he was so very distinguished in music.’ But the world of music knew who he was, and what it had lost. A scrapbook in the Bodleian Library, assembled by his father Sir Alexander Butterworth, is full of letters that regret not only his death but also the loss this represents to English music. Hugh Allen:

When George Butterworth was killed in action on August 5 1916 English music was robbed of one of its most promising composers and national musical art of a stimulating force

Sir Herbert Parry railed against the ‘indiscriminate carnage’ that had led to the sacrifice of such ‘rare and irreplaceable gifts’; EJ Dent, later Professor of Modern Music at the University of Cambridge, spoke for many when he said:

His death is the greatest loss that our modern music has suffered, a loss not only to his friends, but to all lovers of music, present and future.

“To his friends” … for all the regrets about the loss to English music of a man who we’ve seen described as gruff, plain spoken, direct, intolerant, to his friends it was a very personal loss for, as Hugh Allen wrote:

he combined great shyness with great power, and roughness with a very tender heart and was altogether loveable.

When Sir Alexander enquired where his son had been buried he was told that as his death had occurred only 30 yards behind the front line he had been buried where he fell. He was given an exact map reference and a precise description of the site, but by the end of the war there was absolutely no trace of either his son’s grave or his body. Consequently George Butterworth is one of the seventy-two thousand names carved onto Lutyen’s massive memorial to the missing at Thiepval which stands high on an ‘idle hill’ overlooking the Somme battlefields.

Sarah Wearne

Scrapbook of Letters etc concerning George Butterworth, 1903-1922 Bodleian MS Eng. Misc. c453 compiled by Sir Alexander Butterworth
George Butterworth 1885-1916 (Memorial Volume) ed. Sir Alexander Kaye Butterworth privately printed
George Butterworth A Centennial Tribute, Ian Copley, Thames Publishing 1985
Whom the Gods Love, the Life and Music of George Butterworth, Michael Barlow, Toccata Press 1997

One Comment

  • What a fine, but surprising, post. Thank you. My whiskey and I have been listening to ‘The Banks of Green Willow’.

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