George Butterworth was the best-known of a generation of prominent musicians whose careers or lives were cut short by the hostilities of World War I. His reputation as a composer rests on a handful of exquisitely fashioned small-scale works which were strongly influenced by his studies in English folk song.
Butterworth was the son of a talented singer (Julia Wigan) and a prominent railway executive (Sir Alexander Kaye Butterworth, head of the North Eastern Railway). His mother gave him his first musical instruction as a child in Yorkshire, and so fertile was the ground in which the seed of music had been planted, that by the time Butterworth was a schoolboy at Eton, the school orchestra had given a performance of his Barcarolle, in 1903. Nevertheless, it was the gray and solemn life of a solicitor for which George was being groomed, and upon his matriculation at Trinity College, Oxford, he began the requisite study of Greats.
While at Trinity, however, Butterworth encountered two musical "greats," the seminal folk song collector and editor Cecil Sharp and the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. They encouraged his very evident musical abilities, and soon Butterworth was accompanying Vaughan Williams on folk song-collecting excursions into the English countryside. As might be expected, law was quickly abandoned in favor of music.
Leaving Oxford for London, Butterworth threw himself into a welter of activity, studying for a short time at the Royal College of Music, teaching, writing music criticism for the Times, and composing. He was also active with the English Folk Song and Dance Society. His friendship with Vaughan Williams, meantime, had deepened both personally and professionally, and it was in the latter realm that Butterworth performed an invaluable service for the older composer when he helped reconstruct, from assembled orchestral parts, the full score of Vaughan Williams' A London Symphony, the autograph of which had been sent to conductor Fritz Busch in Dresden in 1914 and had been lost at the outbreak of war. Butterworth also wrote the program notes for the symphony's premiere later that year under Geoffrey Toye. Vaughan Williams afterward dedicated his symphonic masterpiece to Butterworth's memory.
Despite his successes, Butterworth was plagued throughout his short life by a sense of purposelessness. The eruption of war in 1914, however, seems to have catalyzed him. He enlisted immediately in the Duke of Cornwall's Durham Light Infantry, and his brazen valor in battle soon brought him a lieutenant's rank. Butterworth was posthumously awarded the Military Cross for his bold defense of a strategically important trench network, which was later named for him. He was killed at Pozieres leading a raid during the Battle of the Somme.
George Butterworth's most famous work is his orchestral rhapsody A Shropshire Lad, inspired by A.E. Housman's poetry and thematically related to his earlier Housman song cycle of the same name. Its premiere in 1913 at the Leeds Festival under Artur Nikisch was a gratifying success for the young composer. Other works include Two English Idylls and The Banks of Green Willow for small orchestra. The slender catalog of Butterworth's music, in which a refined and elegiac sensibility is informed with the poignancy of English folk song, was reduced further when the composer, just before leaving England for the trenches in 1915, destroyed those manuscripts which he deemed unworthy of survival.