At the moment there is a vast amount of sport and political intrigue vying for our attention. In such a frenzied climate, I’m acutely aware of how difficult it will be for me to take you away for a few minutes; but it would also be wrong not to mark the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. I think you will find this brief passage by an Englishman to be reassuring, comforting and a welcome distraction.
It is always difficult to describe in words what a particular nationality sounds like in music. It is even harder to explain exactly why a piece sounds, for example, typically French, German, or Russian; but the same can probably be said of any other art form – prolonged exposure trains the eye or ear to know over time. I don’t know what words are right to characterise British music: merely naming British composers will not suffice, because Elgar was arguably much closer in style to the German music of Brahms and Wagner, to the extent that much of his output cannot be defined as quintessentially British in the way I imagine it. When I hear myself saying “that has to be English”, it is because what I am listening to has evoked summer gardens or landscapes, one moment bathed in sunshine, the next under a shower of rain – a day, indeed, very like today: English music sounds blissfully rural.
George Butterworth was born in 1885 and belonged to a group of composers known as the ‘pastoral school’. His output was not substantial, with his key interest being folk song, something he shared with his good friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams. He is best known for his settings of A E Housman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’, and he only wrote three orchestral pieces, all of just several minutes; but enough, I am certain, to establish that we were deprived of an enormous talent by his untimely death – as the victim of a sniper’s bullet on the Somme in August 2016. His body, like so many others, was never recovered. He was awarded an MC, and his commanding officer was not even aware that Butterworth was a composer.
The piece I have chosen to commemorate both the man and this ghastly episode is his idyll ‘The Banks of Green Willow’, based on a ballad of the same name. I am sure the tunes will be known to many of you. Its tale is a little unsavoury, but that is not what matters here: as I listen to it, it immediately transports me to those images of English countryside: it is, in short, instantly and quintessentially English. It is a work of pure charm (sun) with a brief moment of melancholy (rain), but ultimately tranquil, serene, peaceful – even heavenly. It is a fitting legacy to a life and talent cut short. We hear much, and rightly, of the works of the poets Owen and Sassoon: composers who suffered similar fates seem to be overlooked. Butterworth deserves to be ranked along with these, a fact which Vaughan Williams evidently recognised when he dedicated his ‘London Symphony’ to his old friend. This is the real sound of English music.