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All My Life’s Buried Here.The Story of George Butterworth
A film by Stewart Morgan Hajdukiewicz
Region 0 (PAL & NTSC)
Picture Format: 16:9
Sound Format Stereo 2.0 HADJUKINO PRODUCTIONS Blu-ray [97:00]
In 2019, on the afternoon of my birthday, my wife packed me off to our local independent cinema (her treat) to watch a showing of Stewart Morgan Hajdukiewicz’s film, All My Life’s Buried Here about George Butterworth. Maybe she just wanted me out from under her feet but the real reason, I’m sure, was that she knew of my interest in Butterworth’s music and expected that I would enjoy it. She was right, and I’m delighted that the film has now been released on DVD and Blu-ray.
George Butterworth (1885-1916) was one of the wasted generation cut down in World War I. He was killed by a sniper on 5 August 1916, one of many casualties of the Battle of the Somme. His body was never recovered. The place where he fell was outside the small French village of Pozières in the Somme department. That much I knew. What I was completely unaware of until I saw this film was that the citizens of Pozières commemorate him every year on the anniversary of his death. The event mixes commemoration with a community party. The villagers celebrate his memory and flowers are laid on a small but handsome memorial stone inscribed to him. It would be remarkable enough that this small French community honours the memory of fallen British soldiers more than 100 years later; what is even more remarkable, though, is that Butterworth is the only fallen soldier they memorialise. Perhaps he was the sole British casualty in the vicinity of their village? Nonetheless, their gesture of remembrance is moving. It’s heartening to see a British soldier honoured by a small French community in this way. I wonder how the tradition began.
In the film we see the ceremony that took place, I believe, 100 years after Butterworth’s death: the guest of honour was the composer’s cousin, and in a short speech he refers to the centenary. I was amazed to see that among the events at the ceremony four local residents perform, in George Butterworth’s honour, a Morris dance that they have learned specially for the occasion – and they are dressed appropriately.
The documentary that follows takes us through George Butterworth’s life. His mother, the former Julia Wigan, was an accomplished soprano who gave young George his early education at home, including music lessons. After preparatory school in Yorkshire he went to Eton and I was interested to see evidence that an orchestral Barcarolle by him received its first performance at a school concert there. He went up to Trinity College, Oxford to read Classics and Greats – music was not then available as a first degree subject but in any case the choice of subjects may reflect the desire of George’s father that he should follow him into the legal profession. He was President of the Oxford Music Club but we learn that he didn’t write much music during his time at Oxford.
His friendship with Vaughan Williams from 1906 helped open the principal door in his musical formation as they explored folk song together. Between then and 1913 the pair made many excursions around England to collect traditional songs and the film is particularly strong in the way it tells us about Butterworth’s discovery of folk song and how he came to use it in his music. This portion of the narrative is liberally sprinkled with very evocative black and white photographs of the country people from whose ranks were drawn the singers who supplied Butterworth and VW with such a rich seam of musical material. The soundtrack includes a good selection of the tunes that Butterworth collected. The manuscripts on which he wrote down the words and the music are housed in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library and it’s evocative to see many pictures of those manuscripts as we hear the music itself.
In 1911 Butterworth attended the Festival of English Folk Dance at Stratford on Avon. Though he may well have been acquainted with folk dance before this, the Festival seems to have been another epiphany for him and he became heavily involved in the English Folk Dance Society which Cecil Sharp founded at the end of 1911. Though the majority of the contemporary pictures used in the film are, perforce, still photographs, some short moving-picture films survive of Butterworth and others dancing and good use is made of this material.
Butterworth’s mother died of cancer within six months of the family moving to a house in London and he felt her loss keenly. Within a fortnight of her death he had set Oscar Wilde’s Requiescat as a solo song: a line in Wilde’s poem supplies the title of this film. Interestingly, though, Butterworth’s biographer, Anthony Murphy observes that Julia’s death seems to have “opened the floodgates of creativity”. Prior to her death George had neither published any music nor had anything by him been performed professionally. Between 1911 and 1914, however, all the works by which we know him now were composed.
There’s a very good section on Butterworth’s orchestral pieces. The Rhapsody, A Shropshire Lad was premiered at the prestigious Leeds Festival of 1913 under the baton of Artur Nikisch, no less. The composition of the work may possibly have been more straightforward than the choice of title: Butterworth first thought to call the work ‘The Land of Lost Content’, then ‘The Cherry Tree’ and finally settled on A Shropshire Lad (As an aside, I noted with interest the programme for that concert. Proceedings began with the Verdi Requiem but that was only the first half. After the interval the audience heard Butterworth’s piece, a Bach cantata and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. My fellow Yorkshiremen and -women expected value for money in those days!)
Another work from this period is The Banks of Green Willow. On the surface, this seems an untroubled English pastoral idyll. However, two very interesting points are brought out in the film. Vic Gammon, an authority on English folk music, points out that the words of the song on which Butterworth based his piece, tell a tragic tale. More than this, Malcolm Taylor, the former Director of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library draws our attention to the fact that the years leading up to the outbreak of World War I, far from being a tranquil era in British history, was actually a period during which there was a lot of social turbulence under the surface. Since Taylor points out that both Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp were Fabian socialists, I doubt that Butterworth could have been unaware of all these social undercurrents. However, his biographer, Anthony Murphy is surely right to say of The Banks of Green Willow that the music transcends its period.
When war broke out in August 1914 Butterworth was quick to enlist and he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 13th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry. The men under his command were mostly miners from the Durham coal fields. However, it is clear that Butterworth, the Oxford-educated, upper middle-class young man got on well with his comrades in arms. The film provides a good overview of his war service. I was interested to learn that once he had joined up Butterworth abandoned music: he was too busy. That’s something of a contrast with Ivor Gurney who managed to compose a few songs and write poems while serving at the front. Butterworth was given home leave in June 1916 and Anthony Murphy speculates that he had an inkling that he might never return home again. Ever self-critical, during this period of leave he destroyed a lot of music that he considered below the standards he had set himself. What was lost in that creative bonfire, I wonder? Was Butterworth right to be so self-critically destructive? We shall never know. On his return to France, the Battle of the Somme began on 1 July and eventually Butterworth and his comrades were called to the front line where he met his tragical, untimely end. To conclude, the film cuts back to the ceremony at Pozières where a young girl reads, in French, Laurence Binyon’s celebrated lines, ‘They shall grow not old…’ and the Last Post is sounded. It’s poignant to get a final reminder of the contemporary commemoration of a gallant soldier – Butterworth was awarded the Military Cross for bravery – and greatly gifted musician.
Throughout this sensitive and comprehensive portrait of George Butterworth we hear aptly chosen music. Quite a number of folk songs are heard, some in archive recordings. Butterworth’s orchestral works are played, using the wonderfully sympathetic Lyrita commercial recordings by Sir Adrian Boult (review). Two of the songs from A Shropshire Lad are heard in fine performances recorded specially by Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside: ‘Loveliest of Trees’ and ‘The Lads in their Hundreds’.
The visual side of this enterprise has been carried out with exceptional care and no little skill. There’s a good deal of modern footage, including a lot of to-camera comments about Butterworth and his music by various contributors, all of them excellent. The way in which all the contemporary black-and-white pictures, many of them of Butterworth himself, have been edited in alongside the up to date footage evidences great care. Moreover, the images from Butterworth’s day have been discerningly chosen. Words, music and pictures are woven into a seamless narrative. On my Blu-ray copy the picture quality was excellent, as was the sound.
We hear from a number of eminently qualified commentators, some of whom I’ve already mentioned. All make valuable and insightful comments. One contributor deserves special mention: Hugh Butterworth (1930-2019), the composer’s cousin. He has several illuminating observations to offer. He died last year and, very fittingly, the film is now dedicated to his memory.
The film itself lasts for 97 minutes – though it never feels long, still less does it outstay its welcome. For the DVD/Blu-ray release a few bonus items have been added. There’s a short film in which the social historian Alun Howkins (1948-2018) talks about the Edwardian folk song and dance revival with particular reference to one singer, William ‘Merry’ Kimber. In the second short film the folk-dance expert Michael Heaney discusses the 1912 films, on Kinora Reels, which show Butterworth and others dancing. Both Howkins and Heaney are also important contributors to the main feature. As further bonuses, the disc contains audio files of three folk songs. There’s a very good booklet containing no less than four specially commissioned essays on aspects of Butterworth’s life and music. All four are well worth reading.
This is an outstanding film portrait and I’m delighted not only that I’ve been able to see it again but also that I can now return to it at leisure. As a small independent film production company, I’m sure Hadjukino Productions were right to release it first through cinema screenings but now that I’ve seen the film again in domestic surroundings, I think it makes an even stronger impression in this version. The portrait of George Butterworth that emerges is a fascinating and ultimately moving one. I’d venture to suggest that with this film Stewart Morgan Hajdukiewicz has done for his subject as great a service as Tony Palmer did for Malcolm Arnold (Toward the Unknown Region) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (O Thou Transcendent). Hajdukiewicz’s film is of comparable quality and perception. I urge anyone with an interest in the music of George Butterworth to see it.
The film is available on either DVD or Blu/Ray in region-free UK PAL format. If you don’t have a PAL compatible player, I understand that the disc can be played back on any computer with a DVD/Blu-ray drive.
Subsequent to the
publication of this review, we have been advised that an NTSC version has
been launched which will be compatible with players in North America and all
other regions where NTSC is the standard home video format.