Arthur Butterworth - British Composer
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
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.