George Butterworth dances

May 1 2014

This post contains a remarkable YouTube discovery.

George Butterworth is famous for having written music of extraordinarily high quality which seems to be about AE Housman’s land of lost content.

“Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.”

And for having died, at the Schubertian age of thirty-one on August 5 1916, in the Battle of the Somme. We may call Housman second-rate (I like second-rate poetry of this period), but I do not think we can use that word about Butterworth, limited though his range may have been.

I wrote about him in this post on Housman. Butterworth is the ghost of English music. A presence, an absence. Would he have been able to develop or was his whole style formed by a presentiment of war and of his death?

Housman wrote the poems in A Shropshire Lad twenty years before the end of the peace. Nearly all the music of Butterworth which survives is from 1910-13.

It is startling and moving to find him on film.

The film is taken from Kinora spools made in 1912 which are now in the possession of The English Folk Dance and Song Society.

Who said or did not say “Try everything once except incest and Morris dancing”? Beecham probably. It is, on the whole, the world’s least sexy dance. But this delightful film would incline me to exclude only incest. Here, at least, performed by the leaders of the folk revival, it does not look ridiculous. First we see (the silent film tells us)

Maud Karpeles dancing part of Princess Royal (Bampton version), then

George Butterworth dancing extracts from Molly Oxford (Field Town jig), then

Maud and Helen Karpeles dancing extracts from Lumps of Plumb Pudding (Bampton version), then

Maud Karpeles dancing the first part of Jockie to the Fair (Headington version), then

Cecil Sharp, George Butterworth, Maud Karpeles and Helen Karpeles dancing Hey Boys Up Go We, and at the end

Butterworth dancing something which is not identified.

The YouTube poster, pabmusic1, tells us that

“the music (which of course has been added later) is Ribbon Dance (rec. 1933), The Triumph [my link] (rec. 1927), The Queen’s Jig (rec. 1934), Sellinger’s Round (rec. 1938) and Hunt the Squirrel (rec. 1938). The music bears no relation to what they are dancing, but there’s no record of what music was being used.”

Cecil Sharp was the founding father of the folklore revival in England. Many traditional dances and much folk music owe their continuing existence to his work in recording and publishing them. I’ll say more about this and about Morris dancing in another post.

I can’t say much on the esoteric subject of the dances and tunes, but Sellinger’s Round is famous from Glenn Gould’s recording of William Byrd’s variations on it and from the modern variations written collaboratively in 1952 by Lennox Berkeley, Benjamin Britten, Arthur Oldham, Humphrey Searle, Michael Tippett and William Walton to celebrate the coming coronation of Princess Elizabeth.

The music is, anyway, charming, and as a commenter says: “even though the film and the accompanying music as we are receiving it in this video have no direct relationship, whoever put these two elements together did a marvelous job of it so that the feeling we get is that of total compatibility.”

The moment in the film where Sharp comes in (to Sellinger’s Round) is especially delightful. Maud Karpeles was his collaborator and biographer (not wife, though he was married), Helen was her sister.

Butterworth went to Eton (like Thomas Arne and Hubert Parry) and met Sharp while at Trinity College in Oxford. He became a close friend of Vaughan Williams.

“Whether any of Butterworth’s friendships were more than platonic is uncertain; although he seems generally to have preferred the company of men, his sexual orientation remains unclear. His modesty, kindness, and natural gifts of leadership were commented on as early as his prep school days. He was a good-looking man, of medium height and build, dark-haired and with the full moustache fashionable in his day, and the most notable feature of his face in photographs [there are really only two] is the sensitive and humorous cast of the eyes.” Sensitive remarks by Alain Frogley in the Dictionary of National Biography.

4 Responses to “George Butterworth dances”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Piece on Cecil Sharp in The Guardian:

    In 1908 Percy Grainger obtained the tune Country Gardens from Sharp, though he did not fashion it into a performable piece for another ten years. The lyrics are presumably traditional too.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    There is presumably something Islamic (Sufi?) behind Morris dancing.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Sharp bumps into Butterworth and they laugh.

  4. davidderrick Says:

    You get a strong sense here of the clothes of 1912.

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