Thursday, 23 April 2009

Whom the Gods Love

George Butterworth (1885-1916) is probably best known for his orchestral miniatures The Banks of Green Willow and A Shropshire Lad, which turn up on most anthologies of British music, and a handful of songs - mainly settings of Housman. His compositions stem largely from the five years leading up to the war: he destroyed a number of early works before joining the army and some - including a string quartet and a violin sonata - remained unpublished and have since been lost. Excluding some folksong arrangements there are 18 surviving songs, and yet, according to the late Trevor Hold

Butterworth's in quite different ratio to his slender output and his importance as a songwriter lies in the entirely new conception of what English art-song could be. He wanted to shed the claustrophobic clutter of so much late romantic song and replace it with a new directness of expression and simplicity.

Like Vaughan Williams and Grainger he found his model in folksong, of which he was an avid collector. Hold continued:

Here he found lyrical ease and melodic directness as well as the forgotten tonal world of modal music, which would replace what, to him, were the exhausted resources of late 19th century musical language.

Later this month Toccata Press will publish a paperback edition of Whom the Gods Love, Michael Barlow's acclaimed study of Butterworth's short life and surviving works. The sincerity and musical value of these works will, according to Barlow, "assure him of a place in the history of English music."
By way of introduction to this brief but important book, we reproduce the Foreword by Vernon Handley, who died last year:

Art criticism has always been at pains to keep artists firmly in categories: great, important, influential, minor. The exercise has its uses, especially for students of art history - but the more music one hears, the less useful the two extremes in this list seem to matter. As a performing artist, my mind during preparation for a concert is frequently invaded by music I am not about to perform; when I am resting, I am beset by such music. The invasion is not made by exclusively 'great' music; indeed, the interesting thing about it is that so much of it is by unfamiliar or 'minor' composers.

In the last twenty years I have conducted regularly in Scandinavia and Australia, taking care to play a good deal of the music of those regions, the works of lesser composers as well as those of the established masters. The experience I described above holds good: some of the lesser works and composers will not leave me alone. This pleasant itch is the good furtune of many who know the music of George Butterworth, and it yields to no lasting remedy.

The death of young artists in the First World War has been well documented, and it might be called the 'if only' factor exhaustively explored. Michael Barlow's study does something more valuable. It dwells on the positive and vigorous aspects of Butterworth's character, aspects not obviously suggested by the character and inspiration of his works. I say 'obviously' because many who comment on art glibly transfer the prevailing atmosphere in an artist's works to the artist as a person. Delius the young mountain-walker and older irascible is lost in the last cadence of the first cuckoo, as is the self-pity of Beethoven in the initial gesture of the Fifth Symphony. But is the message that the reflective idyll is weak and the obvious optimism strong? The former is accepted with more damage to the composer than the latter. Michael Barlow will give pause for thought to those who have seen Butterworth as merely a gentle dreamer.

It is as well to remember that in only a few years Butterworth's handful of works will have lasted as long as many of those accepted as masterpieces when he was born. He appeals to 'the more thinking among mankind'. To all those who are susceptible, his works leave a clear picture of the strength of his vision and inspiration. The character emerging in this book is an absorbing and almost formidable young man, and his emergence establishes a balance between the man and his music. I welcome the itch, and I know I am not alone.

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