Notes on Composers


A note from Steve Wright, one of our bassoonists.

(read here or download as a pdf file)


George Butterworth


His early life and Education


George Stainton Kaye Butterworth was born on 12 July, 1885 in Paddington, London, He was the only child of Sir Alexander Kaye Butterworth and Julia Wigan.

His father became General Manager of the North Eastern Railway Company based at York. His mother was a singer and she gave him early music lessons. He went as a boarder to Aysgarth Preparatory school where he played the organ for Services in chapel and later became School Captain.  


He won a Kings Scholarship at Eton College in 1899 and lived in the secluded heart of the school. He was a very able boy but not a swot and took advantage of all the school had to offer. He was a fine cricketer and a good rackets player.


In a report to his father (6 May, 1902) his tutor wrote: “George yields to no-one in solid sense and his industry is satisfactory. But he has a cross bench mind and a nonchalant manner. It is the mode, I fear, in College and as you say of an age “when boys think it is a fine thing to be an athlete than a book worm”.

He studied music with Thomas Dunhill who was an Assistant Master in the Music Department and who no doubt encouraged him as a conductor, player and composer. None of the music he wrote during his school his career, eg his “Barcarolle”, survives.


In his final year he was elected to Pop and became the Keeper of the school harmonium the significance of which is that he was honoured by the school and respected by his fellow pupils.


In 1904 he went to Trinity College, Oxford, to study Greats (classics, ancient history and philosophy). He was immediately active in the musical life of the College and University and rose to become President of the University Musical club from 1906 to 1907. Like many of his generation he was greatly influenced by Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad” and in a letter to his parents (5 June, 1905) he says he has already set “When I was young and twenty” to music.


In a later letter (11/11/1906) he wrote: “In the meanwhile you will be pleased to hear that I have at last begun to study the art of piano playing! The cause being merely a few words which Tovey let drop the other day. It is wonderful what a little bit of the right sort of encouragement will do.” George could do no other than respond; Donald Tovey had prodigious musical aptitude, was 10 years his senior, a famous pianist and had Eton connections. (DNB, 1931-1940)


In 1906 he became interested in folk song and dance. He started collecting folk music and met Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams. He and VW became friends and treated each other as equals. He went on expeditions in Sussex in 1907 with a phonograph and collected about 450 songs and dance tunes.


In a letter to his mother (29/04/1907: “I showed my collection to Vaughan Williams. He was much pleased with them, but recommended me to keep them back until I had got more and then bring out a volume of the Folk Song Journal on my own account.”

He was one of the founder members of the English folk Dance Society in 1911 and became an accomplished Morris and folk dancer.



He sung in the Oxford Bach choir conducted by Hugh Allen and made a name for himself when he deputised for Allen conducting the New Symphony Orchestra in Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in London in 1908.


As his musical interests increased his original intention, to become a lawyer like his father, waned. His academic work suffered and he took a third class degree. When he left Oxford he became a music critic of the Times and taught for a while at Radley College. In 1910 he enrolled at the Royal College of Music and studied organ and piano, and composition with Charles Wood, but didn’t enjoy the academic life and left in 1911. He went to live with his parents in London. His father gave him an allowance which enabled him to compose, encourage the folk song revival and pursue his interest in Morris and folk dancing.


Most of his music which survives was written between 1910 and 1914 including “The Banks of Green Willow” written in 1913.


The following letters illustrate the understanding between Butterworth and VW. This letter to VW about his London symphony was written on 29/03/1914:


“My dear Ralph,

Among all the debauchery of last night’s congratulations and mutual pattings on the back, I really had nothing much to add but should like now to tell you how frightfully glad I am that you have at last achieved something worthy of your gifts. I refer to the work and its performance jointly, for after all a work cannot be a fine one until it is finely played – and it is still possible that the Sea Symphony and the Mystical songs may turn out equally well – but at present they are not in the same class. I really advise you not to alter a note until after its second performance (which is bound to come soon) – the passages I kicked at didn’t bother me at all, because the music as a whole is so definite that a little occasional meandering is pleasant rather that otherwise….meanwhile here’s to Symphony no 2. Yours, George B”


After George was killed and the news reached his friends Vaughan Williams wrote a letter to George’s father (10 Dec, 1917), from RA Mess, Hut Town, Lydd, written in stubby pencil:


“Dear Sir Alexander,

I am sending a few words while I have time to write about George. I wish it was more worthy – if you would care to do so please pass on as you think best. I am sorry it is in pencil but pens with ink are hard to come by here. I am enclosing George’s letters from which I quote – I feel you may care to keep it….


One of my most grateful memories of George is connected with my London Symphony. Indeed I owe its whole idea to him. I remember very well how the idea originated. He had been sitting with us one evening talking and playing (I like to think that it was one of those rare occasions when we pressured him to play his beautiful little pianoforte piece (“Firle Beacon”). At the end of the evening just as he was getting up to go he said in his characteristically abrupt way “you know you ought to write a symphony”*. I showed the sketches to George bit by bit as they were finished and it was then that I realised that he possessed, in common with very few composers, a wonderful power of criticism of other men’s work and inspire with their ideas and motives…..

To him the folk song as a basis of music inspiration was not merely playing with local colour – his most beautiful compositions “Shropshire Lad” for example or the Henley songs have no direct connection with any folk tune – but their influence was no less clearly to be seen than in the “Idylls” in which he definitely took folk music as the thematic basis. RV Williams”

* The London symphony, first performed on 27/03/1914



A character sketch


Like Churchill, Butterworth’s early life was spent in “the august, unchallenged and tranquil glories of the Victorian era”. He was the only son of a distinguished Victorian businessman. He won a scholarship to the most famous school in England. He went to Oxford and there found his vocation. It is not surprising that he grew in self-confidence.


An obit in the Times Literary Supplement, Thursday, April 26, 1917 said:


“As his musical activities increased his devotion to a classical career weakened, and in the end he became President of the University Musical club and obtained a Third Class in the Schools. As President he established a reputation for directness of method and brevity or speech. His programmes were unquestionable and progressive, and his rulings in business autocratic but wholesome, as many of his friends and contemporaries remember. Fearless in debate, a hater of cant, he said many things hard to be borne. Yet he never made an enemy; for behind a somewhat intolerant manner there was a real kindness of heart and a generosity which showed itself in many odd ways”……

Butterworth was 31 when he died. The number of his compositions he left behind is not large; but before he went to France he set his papers in order and destroyed a large number of pieces … which to his mind did not seem sufficiently good to be preserved. The compositions which he left…are a fine achievement. They are sincere, original and beautiful. Although he was self- reliant Butterworth was modest about the things he did best. Impatient of delay and intolerant of stupidity he was extraordinarily careful of detail, and revised his work over and over again. He was one who “searched his spirit, and found it well-nigh impossible to satisfy himself.”


His Military Career


He joined the Army in August, 1914, with a group of musician friends and they enlisted together as Privates in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. They trained at Aldershot and he soon accepted a Commission as 2Lt G.S.Kay-Butterworth in the Durham Light Infantry. He spent the winter of 1914-15 in Aldershot and was promoted to First Lieutenant before being sent to France in 1915. Before he went he destroyed any music he had written which he considered below standard.


There followed training in the trenches until his Battalion moved to the Somme to provide support in the First Battle of the Somme. He greatly admired the Durham miners who served in his Company and they appreciated his northern bluntness of speech, brave leadership, grasp of detail and coolness of judgement.


Early in July, 1916, he was mentioned in dispatches; then he was recommended for the MC for conspicuous gallantry in Bailiff Wood on 9 July and then again for “commanding his company with great ability and coolness” when wounded on 16 – 17 July. It was this action for which he was awarded the MC but he was killed before it could be presented.


At the beginning of August near Pozieres he was in a trench captured under his command which his men called the Butterworth trench. It had been heavily bombed and was dangerously shallow and very close to a German trench in places. Very early in the morning of Saturday, 5 August, 1916 he and his men were repairing it and a sniper shot him in the head. He was 31. One of his men was killed at the same time and both were buried in the trench. His men intended to recover his body for burial in a marked grave but it proved impossible and his remains still lie somewhere near Pozieres. Instead his name is engraved on the Thiepval memorial and also appears on the Eton College WW1 Memorial with 1156 others. Sir Alexander Butterworth erected a plaque in memory of his son and nephew, also killed in the war, at St Mary’s Priory Church, Deerhurst, Gloucestershire.


Details of the action would have been recorded but many of the records of the Durham Light Infantry were lost in WW2.


Almost all his manuscripts were left to Vaughan Williams after whose death they were lodged in the Bodleian Library. The Bodleian Library also contains an extensive archive of letters, school reports, Obituaries, etc from which I have selected a very small sample. I am indebted to Mr Martin Holmes for his help in making the archive available, copying selected documents and photos for me.


I also thank Eton College for providing photos and much information contemporary with Butterworth’s time in the school.

A very good introduction to Butterworth’s orchestral works can be found in:

Musica Britannica,

A national collection of Music,


Edited by Peter Ward Jones

London: Stainer & Bell, 2012


George Butterworth



“George Butterworth. Composer, collector of folk songs, Morris dancer, cricketer, soldier. Great in what he achieved, greater still in what he promised. No composer’s reputation stands on so small an output. It is in the truest sense English music.”


From a radio talk in 1942








George at Eton




George is the young man in the top hat holding a rifle. It is part of a larger picture, taken in the Michaelmas term in 1900, and the earliest picture of George available. They are all recruits in the Eton College Rifle Volunteer Corps.














George in a Wall game team




This photo was taken in 1903. He is shown here standing on the right at the back as part of the Collegers team about to play the Wall game. The Wall game resembles a continuous rugby scrum. The team which pushes the ball beyond a mark on its opponents’ side scores a goal. This rarely happens so most games end up 0-0.












 George and Morris dancers



He was one of the founders of the English folk dance Society in 1911, where he was a member of its original Morris Dance Side. He was an accomplished Morris and folk dancer, and it is in this activity that he was most comfortable and fulfilled while he was struggling to find a music career.






George as a soldier


“All his friends, who perhaps were unprepared for the high military gifts which he displayed in those last strenuous months of his life, were in no way surprised at the splendid manner of his death, for they always recognised in him a fearless disregard for the consequences of actions which he thought right…….His talents as a Company Commander were undoubtedly great……”



                                                                   Obit, April 26, 1917



 War memorial at Eton




On the upper panels are inscribed the names of the 1157 old Etonians killed in WW1. The lower panels record WW2 deaths.










George's name on Eton memorial




The inscription by the entrance is an edited quote from Milton’s Samson Agonistes:


        Nothing is here for tears

        No weakness no contempt

        Nothing but well and fair

        And what my quiet us

        In a death so noble


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