This is a book that, for obvious personal reasons, I have been wanting to
read for many years; That it has not been possible to do so until now is
simply that it is only recently that an obviously devoted and resourceful
author has come forward to fill this tantalising gap in the general history
of English music. It has often been something of a burden, to be an
English composer in the latter part of this Twentieth century, whose name
has almost always been overshadowed by and frequently confused with
that of his far greater namesake: the subject of this splendid book. There
was however, an occasion when this writer sought lessons from Vaughan Williams
who remarked:...."Your family name means much to me, for George Butterworth
was one of the best friends of my youth, he was a very fine composer indeed,"
The family name then, must have stood me in good stead that day, for VW did
briefly teach me and offer some of the soundest advice a young composer could
ever have had.
Nonetheless, over the years many people have asked if in some way there is
a connection with George Kaye Butterworth. This book hints at a possible
answer. It lies, still as ever tantalisingly, on page 18 of Michael Barlows
study, where the family pedigree is set out, but alas, inevitably leaves
many question marks as to distant cousins and other relations. All that one
has ever been able to deduce - from comments made in childhood - seems to
be that there was some tenuous family connection with railways in the north
of England, and that the Butterworth clan originates from Rochdale and its
environs, where my own branch of the family come from. Musically, however,
there is no evidence at all that any connection can be claimed. On
the other hand, no younger composer of the English tradition can really claim
not to have in some measure been influenced by the example of George Butterworth.
As this book makes clear, his painstaking care in the surely oft-time
laborious task of notating the very essence and character of English music
is something those of us who go along with this tradition, must be greatly
Mr Barlow's study displays something of the same meticulous care in the way
so much hitherto unpublished material has been researched. He not only
tells us things that most of us could not have known about Butterworth himself,
but about a whole host of his contemporaries, so many of whom were lamentably
of that lost generation between 1914 and 1918. There are details of the
composer's early years, Eton and Oxford and comments from those, such as
Sir Adrian Boult, who knew him well.
However, it is the account of Butterworth's enthusiastic involvement with
English Folk Song and Dance, that is probably the most revealing. The handful
of orchestral works are reasonably familiar to most British audiences, but
few could have known how extensive Butterworth's practical interests were:
his expertise in morris dancing and keeping alive what would have otherwise
soon disappeared into musical oblivion. Mr Barlow analyses with great
skill many of the features of folk song as collected and then eventually
moulded by Butterworth into exquisite song, We are given insight into the
way Vaughan Williams' "London Symphony" came about, and the especial influence
Butterworth had on its gestation.
Finally, there is the account of Butterworths short but heroic military career,
when a modest young man, one of the flower of his generation, was killed
in a battle; a loss which has been felt in English music ever since.