Arthur Butterworth: The Path across the Moors, Op.17 (1958)
by John France
When ASV Records released the second volume of British Light Music Discoveries (CD WHL2126) in 2000, I was delighted to find Arthur Butterworth’s attractive tone poem The Path across the Moors (1958) included alongside music by composers such as Malcolm Arnold, William Blezard, Anthony Hedges and Philip Lane. I am not convinced that The Path is ‘light’ music except in so far as it is tuneful and approachable. On the other hand, it cannot be claimed to be at the cutting edge of musical adventures in 1958, the year of its composition.
Arthur Butterworth (b.1923) has become increasingly valued for his particular musical style, which consistently acknowledges the broad tradition of ‘tonal’ music, as exemplified by mid-20th century composers, such as Arnold and Leighton, but without completely ignoring more radical developments in contemporary musical language. It has been wisely suggested that much of Butterworth’s music derives its inspiration from a deep empathy with ‘the North of England’. In fact, the composer has extended this inherent ‘northern-ness’ to include the furthest reaches of the forests, mountains and lakes of Scandinavia.
Arthur Butterworth’s music written at this time included a number of works that were clearly inspired by this extended ‘Northern Landscape’ including the The Quiet Tarn: Malham (1960), Three Nocturnes: Northern Summer Nights (1958) and the ‘Moors’ Suite for organ and large orchestra (1962). His early triumph with the powerful First Symphony in 1957 reflected the strong impact of Jean Sibelius.
I asked Arthur Butterworth to explain the genesis of The Path across the Moors, Op.17. He told me that it was conceived when he was living in Manchester in 1958. It was on an early spring day – late February - whilst sitting at his piano, just ‘strumming’. His late wife, Diana, suggested that she liked the tune, and asked what it was. Butterworth recalled to her that it was ‘something I remember from years ago – when, with two other boys from school, we used to go walking over the Pennine moors between Oldham and Huddersfield.’ Butterworth describes this landscape as:-
‘…wild, exhilarating moorland terrain, deep in heather, grouse and remote paths. On a rather windy day, with damp clouds and drifts of rain it is marvellous walking country. In the pre-war days …it was not bisected by the M62 but the old main road, the A62, could be seen like a thin ribbon, with motor lorries, like toys, far below us, piled high with cotton bales between the mills of Lancashire and the far off West Riding.’ (email: 19 May 2014)
Butterworth recalled that one day he and his friends came across ‘some rusty, derelict farm machinery and one of us took a photograph of it’. The main theme of The Path was inspired by mature reflection on these boyhood adventures.
The Path across the Moors is presented in an arch form – however, there is no defined climax as such. Most of the work’s progress is relatively restrained, rarely rising much above ‘forte’. The music opens with some dark, almost eccentric, woodwind phrases that quickly establish the legendary nature of this music. The strings take over, accompanied by an ominous sounding beat on the timpani. Repeated brass notes followed by a gloomy chord announce something a little more impressionistic in mood, yet the menace in this music is never totally denied. The chords are insistent and create an edginess that becomes almost sinister: the moors between Manchester and Huddersfield can be scary places with little light emerging from the gloom. The millstone grit can impress dark thoughts on the mind.
Dissonant brass chords suddenly dissolve into a more relaxed temper, before a reappearance of the prevailing woodwind melody. There is an anguished moment after which the music dies down to a reprise of the opening melody. A flute tune reminiscent of Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, brings the music to a quiet close. Throughout this work the orchestration is dominated by effective woodwind writing which emphasises the haunted nature of the piece.
The Path across the Moors was well received by reviewers at the time of its release on CD. The Gramophone (September 2000) suggests that it is ‘memorably haunting’ and notes that ‘orchestra treads steadily and nostalgically, and at the close (after simple horn calls) generates an almost profound melancholy.’ I do wonder if ‘nostalgic’ is an appropriate adjective: to my ear the prevailing mood is melancholy.
Rupert Kirkham in his blog has drawn attention to the ‘the subdued tones of the scoring, favouring the alto and [the] bass-register, [which] are dark but various owing to the use of many blendings-together of woodwind and strings, reinforced… by brass - particularly horns and trombones - and timpani. The quirky theme passes through shiftings of tonal light and shade like a walker who has much on his mind but is not oblivious to nature about him’.
Ian Lace writing on MusicWeb International in June 2000 gives an attractive review of this piece: he describes it as ‘vividly evocative of hikers plodding up steep, stony slopes (with ‘Mrs Ramsbottom’ [Albert’s mother from Albert & the Lion perhaps?] puffing and panting in the rear?) There are also intimations of bleating sheep, thunder-claps and winds. All seems to be worth the glorious view from the peak. The work ends quietly as the walkers fade into the distance leaving the landscape empty and still.’ I am not convinced that this music is meant to be pictorial to this degree: I have more sympathy with Kirkham’s largely interiorised interpretation.
Finally, Rob Barnett on MusicWeb International has noted the strong influence of the composer’s ‘heroes’ Arnold Bax and Jean Sibelius. He considers that The Path ‘is one of the most accomplished and serious pieces’ on the CD.
I, too, was reminded of Bax, not in detail, but in legendary mood – of his The Tale the Pine Trees Knew.
The Path across the Moors is available on ASV CD WHL2126 with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Gavin Sutherland. The music was published in its brass band version by Edition Peters: Hinrichsen Edition, 1970. I understand that the orchestral score remains unpublished, but is available for hire. I was unable to find a reference to the work’s premiere, but the composer told me that it was first performed in February 1958 by the BBC Northern Orchestra — now the BBC Philharmonic under the baton of George Hurst. Butterworth indicated that The Path received many radio broadcasts during the 1960s and early 1970s.
Arthur Butterworth writes - a seriers of articles by the composer on various musical topics