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Arthur Butterworth - British Composer (1923-)


A proud Northerner by birth and conviction, Arthur Butterworth is a prolific composer whose works deserve greater exposure.
Sitting firmly astride the Lancashire-Yorkshire border for much of his life, he resides in a house near Skipton called “Pohjola” which many will recognise immediately as a work by Sibelius, thus showing exactly where his sympathies lie. Nevertheless, his music is distinctive and it is regrettable that so much air time is given to other contemporary composers far less tuneful and much less interesting.
Born in 1923 at New Moston in Manchester, for the grand entrance fee of sixpence, young Butterworth attended Hallé concerts and later became a member of the famous Besses o’th Barn Brass Band, initially with the trombone, before switching to cornet and then the trumpet. His music teacher at North Manchester Grammar School, Percy Penrose, gave him much encouragement but his parents and headmaster tried to dissuade him from a full-time career.
Five years in the wartime Army gave little scope for music-making but Arthur more than made up for it afterwards. In 1939, however, he won the Alexander Owen Scholarship for young brass players and had his first work played in public by the Wingates Band conducted by Granville Bantock (see This England, Summer 2010). He had no idea at the time how famous he was nor that he was a friend of Sibelius! Nevertheless, the great man said kindly “If you try hard enough maybe one day you’ll grow up to be a proper composer.”
Throughout his life Butterworth has been inspired by the northlands, not just England but Scotland, Scandinavia and well beyond into the Arctic. Many of his atmospheric pieces therefore conjure up places far away from the madding crowds, unspoilt wild expanses of natural beauty where only occasional animals and birds can be seen and heard. The listener therefore needs to use his imagination as well as his ears.
Other inspirations have also come from unusual quarters. Early on, a tentative request to visit Vaughan Williams was granted partly because of the coincidence of namesake George Butterworth who VW knew before the First World War. He encouraged the younger man to express himself and not to be afraid of criticism or admit to enjoying the music of others such as Carl Nielsen. Happily, Butterworth regarded himself as just mature enough not to be influenced by the post-war avant garde movement which preyed on younger men like Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies — surely a blessing as the wheel has gradually begun to move away from discord and lack of direction!
Nevertheless, Butterworth is his own man and although some of his larger works may at first seem a little harsh, they are all firmly routed in progression, unlike some whose output is extremely hard to follow. Another contemporary composer put it more succinctly a few years ago when he said “There is as much chance of Rutland Boughton’s 3rd Symphony being played at the Proms as there is of Harrison Birtwistle writing a tune!” How true. How sad.
Butterworth shows no sign of slowing up and recently accepted an invitation to speak at his old school, now renamed the Manchester Creative Media Academy for Boys — what a mouthful. He is well qualified, however, because he was their first pupil ever to take a music exam!
When Butterworth was only six, the family piano was removed by a relative and although he initially regretted his lack of prowess on the keyboard, now believes it was a blessing in disguise, helping him to be more aware of other instruments which help hugely with orchestration. Married to Diana for 60 years, he was awarded an MBE in 1995.



































































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