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ARTHUR BUTTERWORTH in conversation with Christopher Thomas

In 2003 Arthur Butterworth celebrated his eightieth birthday and as he now enters the middle years of his ninth decade, he can look back on a life of richly diverse musical interests. After early studies with Vaughan Williams - still one of his heroes – he became a professional trumpet-player with the Scottish National Orchestra where for a time he acted as apprentice conductor to Walter Susskind. There was then a period in the trumpet section of the Hallé under Barbirolli and later on he worked as teacher and lecturer. Yet throughout these years it is composition that has remained the central thread. Indeed, despite his status as an octogenarian there is little sign of any abating of the flow of inspiration. His Fifth Symphony was completed early in 2003 and premiered by the BBC Philharmonic the following October. The sixth instalment in his symphonic cycle was completed in 2006 and at the time of writing awaits its first performance.

His output is extensive and encompasses a wide range of genres with the notable exception of opera, a form on which he has been outspoken on more than one occasion. Yet although the breadth of his output is impressive, it is in the world of brass bands that he has arguably achieved notable success. This is attributable not only to a number of fine works for the medium but also to his close involvement with the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain.

At one level this is no surprise, for as a Lancastrian Butterworth’s northern roots are evident not only in his compositions but also in his early musical training. Brass bands were with him from the beginning and as a young man he progressed to become a cornet player in the Besses O’ th’ Barn Band, which historically has enjoyed considerable success. Earlier still it had been the local church choir that had provided his first musical induction. Ultimately however, when music presented itself as a potential career he came up against the all too familiar parental opposition.

"I started as a choir boy but quickly turned to the church brass band that we had in New Moston, Manchester. My father was not at all happy with this and thought that I should do something decent, like be articled to a solicitor or work as an engineer. In the end I did go into a firm of solicitors just after leaving school to learn the legal business, but the war had just started and within two years of leaving school I was in the army. The night before I went into the army my father remarked, ‘If you are that keen on music, when you come out of the army I’ll not stand in your way’."

Upon the commencement of his military service it seemed logical that Butterworth should become a member of one of the army bands.

"Although I played the trumpet, I wasn’t all that good. Having been a cornet player at Besses I thought I knew it all, so when I went into the army I tried to get into the Royal Engineers Band. It was no go because I was A1 and any really fit young men were for the fighting front. So, although I wanted to go into the band the bandmaster said the only way I could go in was if I signed up for twelve years and I didn’t want to do that. However it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for instead I joined a field company of Royal Engineers and found myself in Germany towards the close of the war. Thereby began a long association with German musicians and the classics. That was a real eye- and ear-opener for me, so when I did eventually come out of the army, although I went back to Besses I called it a day after only a month."

By this time, with newly broadened musical horizons, Butterworth realised that the musically insular nature of the brass band world was too restrictive for his musical curiosity and soon found himself studying at the Royal Manchester College of Music. It was here that he came under the influence and later the tutelage of Vaughan Williams.

"Diffidently I showed him some songs and said that I was very sorry that they were very much like what he would have written. He responded by saying not to worry about it and that he had been the greatest cribber since Handel. He went on to tell me that as an English composer, just like him, we were influenced by the same things, the countryside and the environment. In fact, the same natural English language. Like him in learning from Parry and Stanford, one has to learn from ones predecessors; hence my learning from him. He told me that eventually, if I was lucky, something of my own would come through, but never to force it. Forced originality would never succeed. Then he said the most generous thing that a great man could say to a young nonentity like me. He said that if in thirty or forty years time his music did not have the same appeal to me, not to feel disloyal. Of course, he was right, although I like his music it doesn’t bowl me over in the way it did in 1950".

In the following years it was as a professional trumpet player that Butterworth was to earn his living, initially with the Scottish National Orchestra. Already he had had some experience of conducting, having gained a diploma before going into the army at the age of eighteen. Consequently he immediately struck up a relationship with the orchestra’s conductor at the time, Walter Susskind.

"I suppose I fell on my feet in a way, because Walter Susskind, who gave me the trumpet job, knew I liked conducting and made me the kind of dogsbody assistant conductor. I did schoolchildren’s concerts, sectional rehearsals and stood in for guest conductors who would only turn up the day before the concert for which they were engaged. I was also helped and encouraged in this respect by Karl Rankl, who succeeded Susskind at the SNO. It was quite an apprenticeship as for Rankl I also got to conduct Schoenberg and Sibelius. Rankl had no liking for Sibelius hence the fact that I was able to conduct the music of my favourite composer. Eventually I managed to get myself a few out of town concerts."

In 1955 Butterworth was to return to his Manchester roots to take up a position with the Hallé who were then at the height of their powers under John Barbirolli. Scotland however, had made a lasting impression on the young composer and proved to be a formative influence on his music.

"The landscape and the climate were particularly influential and proved to have quite an impact on my First Symphony, written in 1949-56."

The Manchester connection was here too, for it was Barbirolli and the Hallé who premiered the Symphony No. 1 at the 1957 Cheltenham Festival. How it was that Butterworth came to be become a member of the trumpet section of the orchestra is a story he delights in telling.

"I knew the orchestral manager of the Hallé, Wally Jones, a tuba player, and he asked if I could play one of the extra trumpet parts in Verdi’s Requiem for the Hallé at the Edinburgh Festival. I told him that the Scottish had a job elsewhere that day, but that I would fix him up with four other off-stage trumpeters to do the job, which I duly did. It just so happened that some months later I was down in London and noticed that the Hallé were playing at the Royal Albert Hall. Going along to hear the concert I met Wally Jones in the bar. He commented that "the boss" (meaning Barbirolli) had been very pleased with the trumpet players I had arranged for the Edinburgh Festival, so casually I said that if a job came up with the Hallé I would be happy to go back to Manchester. A fortnight later a telegram arrived asking if I would be interested in second trumpet. I can remember Barbirolli at the audition asking what I had brought to play. "I suppose it’s the Haydn Trumpet Concerto, all trumpeters play that". After playing a bit of the Haydn he said "you play with my old orchestra the Scottish, under Susskind don’t you? You must know Dvorak Eight then". "Oh yes I replied, we’re always playing that". So, after playing the trumpet call from the last movement he asked, "When can you start?" It was so different from today where any number of players may be tried for six months and the management want to know whether you will fit in socially as well as musically."

Barbirolli was aware of Butterworth’s compositional aspirations and knew that a couple of his works had been performed by the Scottish Orchestra during his tenure with them. So it was that after a year or so with the Hallé the young composer gave Barbirolli the score of his First Symphony.

"His response was that he would take a look at it but that there could be no promises. Then, one February morning he said, ‘Have you seen the "Telegraph" this morning Butterworth? If you take a look you will see we are doing your First Symphony at the Cheltenham Festival’. That was how I found out about it. He did ask if I would like to conduct it, but I thought it would be better that he did it. I was right. Although I had had some experience of conducting I could not have got out of it what he did with his authority and international prestige."

Despite his reticence over the First Symphony, conducting continued to be a field in which Butterworth did take a serious interest and over the coming years he was to conduct a good number of his own works. His feelings on the subject of conducting his own work have nonetheless remained mixed.

"Berlioz was a great conductor of his own music and so was Wagner. Elgar perhaps passably, although a number of his players thought that he was not the best conductor. Arnold Bax on the other hand, would not conduct a note of his own music. It is sometimes far better to let someone else do it and let them see the score from the outside. For the composer/conductor it can only be subjective, although more than anything else sitting in good orchestras for a number of years under good, indifferent and bad conductors does teach one what works. I particularly admired Barbirolli first and foremost, but also Boult. I didn’t much care for Sargent and neither did the players. Orchestras didn’t like him. Amongst composer/conductors I played under Hindemith and he was capital, absolutely first rate. He looked like a successful banker. Unlike most conductors he would attend rehearsals in a pin stripe suit and silk tie but he knew how to conduct an orchestra and had a sense of humour. Vaughan Williams, whilst not a great technician with the baton, knew what he wanted and would ask if the part suited. For instance when we did his Eighth Symphony he would come round the orchestra saying ‘Have I written this all right for you? I’ve not done anything that I shouldn’t have done have I?’ Unlike Walton who was rather arrogant, the orchestra never found him easy or communicative".

By this stage of his career Butterworth was building a substantial catalogue of works. The years during and immediately after his period at the Hallé saw the composition of several of his most popular pieces, amongst them The Path Across the Moors (which was later transcribed for brass band), The Quiet Tarn and The Green Wind, both dating from 1961. The Moors, a large scale suite for orchestra and organ followed in 1962 and ultimately the Second Symphony of 1964. Well before this time the early influence of Vaughan Williams had been shaken off to reveal a rugged, craggy and often austere sound-world, unmistakably imbued with the North and the landscapes that have meant so much to the composer throughout his life. Not surprisingly therefore, the music of Sibelius has been a lifelong passion and Butterworth still cites the Finnish master as one of the most powerful influences on his own musical language.

"The greatest influence has been Sibelius, apart from the language of English music, Parry, Vaughan Williams and obviously Elgar. The influence of Sibelius is not just musical but something I can’t easily define. It’s climate and landscape and being a northerner. By ‘northerner’ I mean northern Europe and Scandinavia, which is a part of the world I feel associated with. During the war I was in North Africa and the heat was something that didn’t appeal to me one little bit. It still doesn’t and I have never been on holiday there".

Another great love is the music of Arnold Bax and the mere mention of his name has Butterworth exclaiming in rapturous admiration.

"I first got to know the music of Bax in 1948 when I went in for the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra young conductor’s competition and the sight reading test was Tintagel. There were three of us who were selected for the scholarship and we were given the score of Tintagel to look through for about ten minutes. I was fascinated by it and its English romanticism. Then, a few years later when in the Scottish, the second bassoon player came one day with an instrument I didn’t recognise. When I asked what it was he replied that it was a heckelphone and that he had got a job the following week with the BBC Scottish playing the Bax First Symphony. He asked me if I wanted to go along, which I did, and was absolutely knocked sideways by it. Some years later I had the opportunity to conduct this work with the Slaithwaite Philharmonic; they even went to the trouble of finding a heckelphone player to do it properly and they were assisted by the Bax Society in putting it on".

Butterworth’s time with the Hallé came to an end in 1961 when he decided to take the step of moving into teaching, thus allowing more time to devote to composition.

"I left the Hallé because it was taking up so much time. It was a six day week, sometimes seven; my two daughters were just at childhood stage and I wasn’t seeing enough of them. I wanted to spend more time composing so took the plunge, went into teaching to give me an income and never looked back. I frankly didn’t enjoy the teaching very much and don’t think with hindsight that I was a particularly good brass teacher. If one is a capable performer you don’t see the problems of others; whereas if you are not a particularly good performer one can sympathise with pupils. So I taught for about nine years and it did open the way to other things. Ultimately it led to my getting the Huddersfield Philharmonic and that in turn led to some concerts with the BBC Northern and the BBC Scottish. Eventually I went to teach composition at Huddersfield, the Polytechnic as it was then, and spent another eight years there. Unfortunately though, I didn’t enjoy that for different reasons. It wasn’t that the pupils weren’t good but rather that I felt under-used and that there was no opportunity to take on the things that I wanted to do. The outlook was very narrow musically, avant-garde yes, but for one who had been in the practical business of first rate orchestral playing, I didn’t even get the chance to work with the college orchestra".

Huddersfield was to become particularly associated with the avant-garde, a field of music that for which Butterworth felt little or no sympathy.

"Those of us that were born in the 1920s grew up to our first mid-teen maturity before 1945. We were influenced by the English choral tradition, Gilbert and Sullivan, Vaughan Williams and Elgar so we were not taken in by the mid-European avant-garde. There are exceptions to every rule and Tippett for instance, who was twenty years older than me, did like the avant-garde. But those such as Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr who came to their teenage maturity after 1945 were ripe for it and fell under the influence of Richard Hall at the Northern who was very much a guru of the twelve note system".

It is not surprising then, that Butterworth has his opinions on the music of today and what he finds worthwhile.

"I have very mixed feelings on contemporary music. Some of it I like but a larger part of it I do not like because I do not feel that it is music of the heart, it’s too cerebral. I like Lutosławski for instance and I like some of Maxwell Davies’s later stuff but I cannot feel attuned to Birtwistle. Of the younger generation Mark Anthony Turnage and Thomas Adčs have done some good things. I also very much like Ringed by the Flat Horizon by George Benjamin".

The conversation turns to brass bands, a crucial part of Butterworth’s life, as composer, player and conductor. His compositions for bands span most of his career and form an integral part of his output. Yet he has also been outspoken in his stance on the banding world and has been quoted as controversial in his views on more than one occasion, not least for an article published in the brass band press in the 1970s entitled "Brass bands – a Cloth Cap Joke?"

"When I was in my teens I was obsessed with the brass band but by the time I was about seventeen I had already begun to see that it was narrow. I used to wonder why can’t there be serious brass band music that would appeal to a wide audience and particularly deplored the narrowness with regard to contest music. When I got the BBCM diploma in 1942, just before I went into the army, I wrote a letter to the Brass Band News along the lines of: why can’t there be a more serious attitude to band music. Why can’t we have it for not just the players but the rest of the population? In a way, this has come to pass in that there are fewer bands but they are better technically and musically, largely because they are better trained. They have not come up in the old-fashioned way. Nonetheless I have to admit that the brass band was something that arose for popular entertainment and that is a function it still fulfils. My idealist argument with the brass band is still what I see as an obsession with contesting. I know that all musical organisations have competitions, the Leeds Piano Competition and the Tchaikovsky Competition to name two. But brass bands take this too far, it becomes almost like professional football where unless you win one has nothing. Although I do not like doing it, I have succumbed to pressure and adjudicated several times at contests; but all the bands want to know is who has won. They are not interested in the adjudicator’s remarks."

His views on the technical abilities of the modern brass band are unequivocal and he has particular praise for the Black Dyke Band which has recorded a CD of some of the band works.

"The Black Dyke band is the Berlin Philharmonic of the brass band world. They are absolutely stunning and what one asks them to do at the rehearsal they do immediately. I was present at a couple of the recording sessions for the disc and they were flawless."

Perhaps the most powerful of Butterworth’s works for brass band, Odin – From the Land of Fire and Ice, did not make it onto the Dyke disc, although the composer mentions that it remains one of his favourites amongst his band pieces. Conceived on an ambitious, symphonic scale and rich in imagery, the work takes us back to the composer’s love of Nordic culture. It is an undoubted technical tour-de-force that stimulated considerable discussion when it was used as the test piece for the finals of the National Brass Band Championships in 1989. Butterworth recalls that the initial impetus for the work stemmed from what at first seemed to be an innocuous conversation in the car park at Huddersfield Polytechnic.

"I was talking to a distinguished player who taught brass at the college and who at that time was principal cornet with the Black Dyke Band. ‘The trouble with your music’ he asserted, ‘is that it is not difficult enough for contesting.’ ‘Maybe you are right’ I said, ‘but does that mean that you feel Paganini’s Violin Concertos to be superior to Mozart’s because they are more technically difficult?’ I made the point that, for a long time, the band movement didn’t like Holst’s A Moorside Suite because it didn’t have any semi-quavers in it, but it is still a great piece of music. A short time after this Peter Parkes asked me to write a piece for Black Dyke and the outcome was Odin."

Challenging though the piece was Butterworth points out that its technical difficulties have since been considerably superseded by other composers and that in certain cases the desire to write music that challenges the players’ techniques to the limit has sometimes been at the expense of the music itself.

"I have to add though that there have been some good pieces too like those by John McCabe and Robert Simpson."

Yet despite the undoubted significance of Butterworth’s output for brass, the band movement fails to grant it the recognition it deserves in performance, particularly in the concert hall. The composer himself puts it down to the possibility that his music might be seen as too cerebral in some quarters, the historical custom of the brass band being to provide basically lighter, more popular kinds of music.

"The exception of course is contesting, where demanding, challenging new works are sought; but, after serving their purpose as contest material are subsequently largely ignored and not promoted in concert performances to enlighten an intelligent audience."

Butterworth is a composer to whom symphonic thought is clearly second nature and Odin is no exception to this. Yet although generally less known than his larger-scale works there are also numerous works for chamber forces in his catalogue of compositions.

"Most of my music is symphonic because a large part of my life has been involved with the orchestra and that’s the thing I like most. In another sort of way it has been the brass band because I have somehow been peripherally involved with it but I have always wanted to be involved with chamber music and never really had the great opportunity. I only play the viola badly and play the piano even worse. When I was approaching my sixtieth birthday I was approached by the Cheltenham Festival to write a piece in great haste. They had originally said four months, but when deciding to accept the commission, they told me that the performers were going on a world tour and that they would need the piece in six weeks because they wanted to take it with them to rehearse whilst on tour. The piece turned out to be the First Piano Trio and is one of the best pieces I have ever written. Since then there has also been a Second Piano Trio and a String Quartet which I am not happy with and ought to revise. There are also the Symphonic Variations for Piano Quintet, a Violin Sonata and a Viola Sonata and quite a bit of music for wind ensemble."

This leads the conversation naturally on to the large-scale solo works, an oeuvre to which Butterworth has now made a major contribution with concertos for a range of instruments including a Violin Concerto for Nigel Kennedy.

"Of the concertos it is the Viola Concerto which in my opinion is the best, although there is also the Cello Concerto, the Organ Concerto that I wrote for Gillian Weir and the Trumpet Concerto which was for Maurice Murphy. There is also the Bassoon Concerto which is now recorded and more recently, to my own surprise, a Guitar Concerto, which I am told is successful but which surprises me because I don’t really know anything about the guitar."

Despite the fact that these pieces all possess abstract titles, so many of Butterworth’s works have pictorial allusions or at the very least a strong sense of place. I am curious as to how a work begins and whether, given his low opinion of his own keyboard skills, the piano is involved in the composition process. It is a point on which the composer is typically lucid.

"In terms of whether I compose at the piano, the answer is part and part. Traditionally it is supposed to be the thing not to write at the piano. One is supposed to have it in one’s head and when music was diatonic and stylised as it was with Bach, Mozart, Beethoven etc, composers could do this. However, once Pandora’s Box was opened by Richard Strauss and Debussy, it became a free-for-all where one has to invent harmonies that are not at all easy to analyse. So Stravinsky doesn’t go along with Stanford’s dictum that one must compose away from the piano and here it is a matter of it being both an advantage and a disadvantage to play the piano. If one plays the piano well there can be a temptation, which is all too easy to succumb to, where you think of everything in terms of the keyboard in the manner of Chopin or Rachmaninov. It seems to be therefore that the really great pianist composers have tended to be indifferent orchestrators, like Chopin and to some degree Brahms, whose orchestration tends to be dark brown although I do like his music. The great orchestrators who knew the orchestra inside out were, almost to a man, hardly pianists at all. I am thinking of Wagner, Richard Strauss, Sibelius, all of whom were indifferent pianists and writers for the instrument. The one exception is Ravel, a conceiver of music in keyboard terms but who was also one of the most gifted and imaginative orchestrators."

"I think pieces nearly always start for me when it is a non-musical image, when I am away from the music room. I may be walking on the moors, just thinking or walking the dog. It is not necessarily a question of atmosphere but often musical patterns or designs and concepts about scales in the same way that an architect might think about shapes or how to design a large structure. For instance the First Symphony is really designed along the lines of a big letter V. It starts in B flat and then descends to its lowest point an augmented fourth away which is E. The whole thing is turned upside down literally, so that the themes that start one way are turned upside down and finish that way. The last movement was partly conceived by a train journey and was also the result of having heard, the night before, a marvellous string quartet by Leonard Salzedo in the form of a moto perpetuo which I admired enormously. It was on this train journey the following morning, a bright July morning travelling from London to Edinburgh, that I saw the connection between a moto perpetuo by rail and a moto perpetuo in music. Asking myself how I could possibly do that I suddenly thought of building a chromatic scale that starts in one key, in this case B flat for say thirty four or thirty six bars, then moving up a notch to B for another thirty odd bars or so and then C, so that eventually by the end of the movement it’s got back to the coda which is in B flat, having gone through all those keys."

Over forty-five years separate the First Symphony from the fifth instalment in Butterworth’s symphonic cycle, which he completed shortly before his eightieth birthday in 2003. At the work’s premiere the composer mentioned that in writing the work he had gone back almost to his roots; to long walks over Rannoch Moor during his days as a trumpet player in Scotland. The Fifth certainly has the feeling of a summation, encapsulating so much in terms of atmosphere and language that has been the essence of Butterworth’s music over the years. I ask therefore whether he feels that his music has undergone any fundamental changes with the passage of time.

"Probably the biggest change is that the garish colours of a huge orchestra do not appeal quite so much as they once did. Now it is a matter of slimming down the scoring to fundamental essentials with musical (symphonic) form being far more important than surface glitter. Colour for its own sake soon palls; the imperishable nature of classicism - as the great symphonists knew - is what ultimately matters. I have become especially wary of the obsession with too much percussion and the latest scores restrain the impulse to batter everything with mindless drumming. One could use the example of Tchaikovsky’s solitary tam-tam stroke in the "Pathetic" Symphony which is awe-inspiring. On the other hand Walton’s thumping of the tam-tam in the First Symphony is merely tedious."

"In other ways however I really think that my music has basically stayed the same and will tell you how I have come to discover this. Within the last few years I have become loosely associated with a group of composers who live in Lakeland. I don’t live in Lakeland but am near enough to it to have become associated with orchestral concerts and the like that have been going on there. Consequently I have become one of the group. A while back they decided to put on some concerts on a shoe-string so there was no question of getting in an orchestra; they asked what I had in the way of chamber music. I unearthed a little piano piece, Lakeland Summer Nights, which I had written as a student, that I had completely forgotten about and more or less dismissed as a student work. They got the young pianist Nicholas Rimmer, who a few days later was in the piano final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition, and I was amazed and had no idea what a good piece it was! Some years after writing it I had orchestrated it as Three Nocturnes: Northern Summer Nights (Op. 18), which has been played quite a lot. I couldn’t believe that the piano part was so good. But this is what was revealed to me, that style really hasn’t changed. The stylistic and harmonic approach I hear in pieces like that, I still hear in pieces that have been written recently. Another piece that has come out of this Lakeland association is the Partita for organ which takes me back to days in Germany and the time when Hindemith appealed to me. If one listens to the Partita one would say that’s Hindemith. In a similar way the Legend for Orchestra, written for the Buxton Spa Orchestra in 1950, is embarrassingly like Vaughan Williams, so much so in fact that I blush to hear it. The 1951 Romanza for Horn is again like Vaughan Williams. I can see how the style has grown from there and although some things have changed marginally, the harmonic fingerprints are the same. Overall though I still think the First Symphony is the best of the works. I had hit on the new way of constructing and it built up a climax at the end, that I don’t honestly think I have been able to match since. The Fourth Symphony goes some way towards it but when I now listen to the Second Symphony I do not think it is all that marvellous."

It is perhaps no surprise then that when approached by the Danish label ClassicO with a view to recording one of the Symphonies; it was the Symphony No. 1 that the composer instinctively chose.

"There is nothing quite like the impact of a first symphony I think".

In many ways the fifth instalment in Butterworth’s symphonic cycle shows the composer looking back over his shoulder. The work exhibits hues and echoes of earlier music, not least the brass symphony Odin, which closely shares its opening with the first bar of the Fifth Symphony’s third and final movement. Here then we return full circle to the composer’s affection for his First Symphony, the work that drew its inspiration, in part, from the composer’s love of landscape and in particular that of Scotland, a major influence during his early years as a professional trumpet player.

Although the solitary walks across the moors may have declined in recent years it seems that the inspiration has not and Arthur Butterworth continues to enjoy a glorious Indian summer of creativity. Since completing the Sixth Symphony he has produced another six pieces, two of which, Coruscations Op. 127 and Entre Chien et Loup Op. 130 will receive first performances during 2007. Clearly then, the composer’s mind is as alert and enquiring as ever as he continues to produce both music and regular essays on musical subjects diverse, wide-ranging and undoubtedly controversial. Long may it continue.

Christopher Thomas © 2007



 


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