Arthur Butterworth: A Quiet Tarn for orchestra, Op.21
Dutton has recently released a compact disc (CDLX7253) of music by Arthur Butterworth’s orchestral music, which includes the impressive Fifth Symphony Op.115, Coruscations, Op.127, Gigues, Op.42, the Three Nocturnes, Op. 18 and The Green Wind, Op. 22 (see review). However, the piece that really impressed me was the impressionistic A Quiet Tarn, Op.21.
I asked the composer how this work came about. He told me that the inspiration came on 1st June 1959 when he decided to have a walk into this part of the Yorkshire Dales. It was a perfect summer’s day. Butterworth was born and bred in Manchester so the Pennines to the east of that city were well-known to him, however the area round Malham was new territory. Although he did not tell me, I guess that he had use of a motor car that day; as he mentioned that he had visited Top Withen’s the legendary ruin of Wuthering Heights on Haworth Moor. He recalled that “even then, more than fifty years ago it was quite a desolate ruin. A heavy shower came on and I sheltered as best one could, under the few slates still on the roof, and shared this with a shepherd and his dog for ten minutes or so. He seemed to be the living incarnation of Heathcliffe, taciturn, un-smiling and very much a loner.”
Later that day he motored up to Malham which is some thirty miles to the north of Haworth. The day turned out to be ‘gorgeously sunny and very hot.’
Arthur Butterworth explained to me that, ‘at Malham one could go on almost endlessly northwards; there is no further industrial region to come up against; no twinkling town lights, just the light of the stars. Indeed, that is, I suppose, one of the fascinations that Malham had for me that June day - the realisation that this marked the beginning, as it were, of some vast tract of truly wild and almost unending landscape, stretching to the Scottish border. So, there was to me, an indefinable sense of remoteness about it all; stimulating the imagination as to what might lie beyond. Such is the awe inspired by Malham Tarn at sunset - the utter solitude, the silence - save for the curlew, and a few other melancholy moorland birds - it has an inexplicable aura about it. However, towards mid evening the clouds came over, and cool wind came out of the west; there were hints of rain again and I set off back home to Manchester.’
Yet it was this quietness and remoteness of Malham Tarn that made the deep impression on Arthur Butterworth which has remained with him all his life.
A Quiet Tarn opens with a strangely suppressed power in the orchestra which promises much to come. A woodwind figure appears over this background and is then followed by a mysterious cello solo as if rising from the tarn and trying, but failing to reach the sunshine. A key constructive feature of this work appears to be a variety of downward pressing motives and chordal sequences. The music moves on a little bit, as if awakening from a deep sleep. After a passage for woodwind supported by shimmering strings the music sweeps up to the first climax, before quickly being called to check. The horn once again adds a legendary feel to the music. There is an unsettled, almost disjointed tune for the strings, before the second climax. Once again the shimmering strings appear and slowly bring the work to a conclusion. Thematic fragments are gently thrown about before the flute and other woodwind bring the work to a quiet close. The tarn is at rest one more.
There is much in this piece that is full of foreboding and certainly the composer has used the darker tones of the orchestral palette to great effect. Certainly the music of Sibelius is never too far away.
A Quiet Tarn is one of the most evocative music descriptions of the ‘North Country’ of England and ought to be regarded alongside Maurice Johnstone’s Tarn Hows and Eugene Goossens By the Tarn as a definitive British tone poem.