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A composer’s own most memorable performances - Arthur Butterworth

Some days ago I was asked to comment on some of the most memorable and influential performances I had heard in my lifetime of music-making. These included a variety of concerts in which great works by other composers, ranging from Monteverdi to Sibelius and Bax were performed and which had had a profound seminal influence on all my own subsequent music-making, both as a player, conductor and composer.

The earliest of these memorable performance came about when I was merely a schoolboy of about 14. The others came from later in life, when I had already developed an awareness, and some wide experience as a musician, so could then fully appreciate the significance, musical, philosophical, psychological, intellectual and certainly emotional, of what was I was hearing.

However, it has been suggested that there must have been many occasions when my own music was performed that impressed me for some reason. Apart from a small handful of pieces that were written in my very earliest years as an inexperienced manipulator of the composer’s craft (it could hardly have been called "art" at that time) all the music I have written since 1947 – when a composition student at Manchester – has had a formal opus number allotted to it. This was done not for any reason of self-satisfaction in being able to claim to the world at large that I have reached such-and-such an impressive list of works, but because, admittedly I have ever been meticulous at listing things carefully so that in the future there would not be any doubt as to when, where, or indeed why, a piece of work had been embarked upon. This trait I got from my father, who, when I used to do my school homework (maybe physics or chemistry) insisted – quite logically – that a proper record of what one does is useless, and indeed unscientific unless it has the exact date on it; otherwise referring to the sequence of whatever kind of work, research or whatever else can be meaningless and misleading unless one can identify in what order one’s work has been carried out. So this is what I have done with carefully numbering all the musical creations with an opus number, then I know in future in what order I have done things; what follows on from what; what the logical development has been and so on.

This I carry on – some would say to pedantic lengths! – when I ALWAYS put the date on communications of any kind; without a date any kind of communication to another person can be totally puzzling and lead to misunderstanding. You will gather that I am not one for casual communication: to me a letter must always have a greeting (but never that modern-day casual "Hi!" which to me is lacking in punctilio and is far too casual) and should have a proper closing salutation; although I realise we all get casual nowadays. Some of us even descend to wearing those awful American base-ball caps – ugh!

So, all the pieces have a proper opus number. At the present (to be exact, 20 June 2006!) there are now 127 listed works. This is not a particularly impressive catalogue, many composers can claim quite a lot more than this, but perhaps many of these larger catalogues could consist of relatively short pieces. The list of works I have brought to completion includes several quite large-scale orchestral works; there are now six symphonies, seven concertos, and twenty-six other orchestral works. Additionally there is a corpus of major brass band works (not often played it has to be admitted) along with a growing number of chamber works – the two piano trios having been quite recently recorded on a CD. Also numerous slighter pieces for one purpose or another – usually educational, and a slender number of works for voice or voices.

So what have been, at least as far as I myself can judge, the outstandingly memorable performances? This is hard to answer, but here then, are just a few:

  1. The first major work I had played by an orchestra was the "Sinfonietta" Op.9 and it was the BBC Northern Orchestra (as the BBC Philharmonic was then known) who played it. This was in 1953. It was conducted by my then-rival in the conducting field, John Hopkins; who warned me before they began rehearsing it, that the players would absolutely insist that all the band parts should be flawless; they would not consent to spend valuable rehearsal time correcting badly-copied parts; the players would just refuse to play it. Remember – there was no such thing as computerised-printing of music in those days; composers either had to pay a copyist or do the whole lot themselves with pen and ink; a most tedious, time-consuming task: it could take months to copy out a major work, and paying a professional copyist was beyond the means of young composers, so they did it themselves and learned many invaluable lessons thereby; not least to ask themselves (as they burnt the midnight oil laboriously copying) whether they really meant what they had written in the flush of inspiration.. The performance on the Third Programme (Radio 3) was all right, but not outstanding; but it was for me a milestone of achievement.
  2. The Cheltenham Festival premiere of the First Symphony by the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli, remains in my recollection the most important and memorable of all the performances of my music. It was done superbly well and received universal critical acclaim; it had had something approaching nineteen hours rehearsal in the previous ten days or so. It still remains the highlight of my musical life.

  1. Perhaps not surprisingly the next landmark was the premiere of the Second Symphony (which had been commissioned as a result of the First Symphony’s premiere). This took place at Bradford, with the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.
  2. Something quite different happened in 1968 when the Northumberland Youth Band , who had commissioned "Three Impressions for Brass" gave its premiere one dull Sunday afternoon, but this was indeed memorable too – I cannot quite say just why – but it certainly was, and is one of the few brass band works of mine which has ever since stayed in the band repertoire; maybe on account of its evocation of the Royal Border Bridge at Berwick-on-Tweed.
  3. I shall never forget the first broadcast (a live public concert) of the Violin Concerto from Glasgow, when Nigel Kennedy played this work and I conducted it with the very shortest imaginable rehearsal (because his plane was delayed due to fog) and we managed to do it with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra almost at sight; it was a stunning display of violin virtuosity on the part of Kennedy; yet somehow, I now feel uncomfortable with the design and form of the first movement and have recently revised it in the hope that somehow, and somewhere it might be done again.
  4. The Fourth Symphony had had its splendid first performance under Bryden Thomson with the BBC Philharmonic in 1986, at a public broadcast performance in Manchester, but it was a later performance at Warwick University that was truly a memorable occasion: for not only was this the very first time a splendid student orchestra had ever attempted a symphony of mine, and made an excellent record of it, but my 75th birthday was most generously celebrated that evening with a huge birthday cake too, all organised by the most resourceful and generous manager of the web-site you are now reading: Dr Len Mullenger, to whom I shall ever remain grateful for promoting that concert in 1998.
  5. A Hallé commission in 1995 brought about the premiere of "Mancunians" for orchestra and a full brass band (The Scottish CWS Band from Glasgow); this work formed part of the opening concert of the Hallé’s final season in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester; this too was a splendid – and indeed unusual performance – since it brought together a large orchestra and a large brass band in a specially designed work for these two disparate kinds of musical forces.
  6. More recently the Fifth Symphony played by the BBC Philharmonic under Jason Lai persuaded me that this was a new departure for me: a more restrained musical utterance, so different from that youthful First Symphony of nearly fifty years ago.
  7. Finally, most of the previous recollections have been concerned with the orchestra, but one particular premiere stands out as well: the first performance in 1983 of the First Piano Trio at the Cheltenham Festival played by the eloquent Music Group of London; this too marked a new departure for me into the realm of chamber music, a path I have become more drawn to explore ever since.

Arthur Butterworth

20 June 2006


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