WAR COMPOSERS: George Butterworth

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George Butterworth in Leeds, 1913. Image: Anthea Ionides

George Butterworth was part of a group of young English composers who were making names for themselves during the Edwardian era. English classical music had languished since the 18th century, but by the 1880s there was a new movement that would produce such creative geniuses as Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Holst.


Many saw Butterworth as one of English music’s great hopes. He was part of the second generation of composers in this new movement, at the time dubbed a ‘renaissance’, and like several of his colleagues he drew inspiration from English folk music and traditions. This renaissance was part of a larger ‘romantic’ movement to imbue society with a new sense of Englishness and a connection with the past.

Butterworth and several friends spent many happy days travelling the countryside, collecting folk songs from rural populations, and writing them down before they were lost forever. He was also an enthusiastic folk dancer, belonging to the famed troupe directed by noted song collector Cecil Sharp.

Described as something of a ‘gruff Yorkshireman’ (although born in London, he was raised in the North), Butterworth came from a wealthy family but struggled to find a real purpose in life. His father, Sir Alexander Kaye Butterworth, initially opposed his decision to pursue a musical career, but eventually relented, and would later regret not giving him more support.

Butterworth showed tremendous compositional ability, and his few surviving orchestral works are of high quality. He was also a noted composer of songs for voice and piano. Alas, he was dissatisfied with much of his output, and destroyed many pieces before the outbreak of the war; he was still searching for his true calling.


After some soul-searching, Butterworth enlisted in late August 1914. He declined an offer from a family friend of a safe commission, not wanting to use his social position unfairly. Instead, he joined the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry as a private, and, eventually, went to Aldershot for training.

He remained there for the first half of 1915, which frustrated him. Though he eventually received a commission, and was later made a lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry, he spent the first part of the war feeling restless and bored. Finally sent to France in August 1915, he initially saw little combat. But, after a brief return to England in early 1916, he was soon back in France, and by July his battalion was on the front line.

Butterworth was level-headed and brave in battle, and was awarded the Military Cross ‘for commanding his company with great ability and coolness’ at Pozières between 17 and 19 July 1916. He seemed at last to have found the purpose that had eluded him in civilian life. He received a shrapnel wound at the end of July, but it was not serious enough for him to be sent home. Ironically, a larger wound would have saved his life.


In the early hours of 5 August 1916, his unit was engaged in an attack on a trench called Munster Alley. It was here that Butterworth met his fate. Brigadier-General Henry Page Croft wrote to Butterworth’s father, extolling his heroism:

‘I went up to the farthest point reached with Lieut. Kaye-Butterworth. The trench was very low and broken, and he kept urging me to keep low down. I had only reached the Battalion Headquarters on my return when I heard poor Butterworth, a brilliant musician in times of peace and an equally brilliant soldier in times of stress, was shot dead by a bullet through the head. So he, who had been so thoughtful for my safety, had suffered the same fate he had warned me against only a minute before.’

Given the situation, it was not possible to recover Butterworth’s body. He was buried near Munster Alley. Although no sign of his grave now remains, the place where he died was named Butterworth’s Trench in his honour. The Thiepval Memorial nearby contains his name among the fallen. Of those dancers who were in Cecil Sharp’s troupe, half were killed in the Battle of the Somme.

Sir Alexander privately published a tribute to his son in 1918, the George Butterworth, 1885-1916, Memorial Volume. Containing letters, remembrances, praises, and other writings, it was distributed to his son’s friends and colleagues.

Butterworth was remembered as a composer of great promise unfulfilled. His devotion to the war’s cause and his heroism in battle tragically cut short his life, and has left lovers of classical music to wonder what more he might have achieved if he had returned safely.


Despite the long hours that Butterworth spent in training and eventually on the front line, he did not compose any new music, and surprisingly, seems to have abandoned it completely; his diary makes no mention of music at all.Other composers at the time reacted similarly to their experiences, though some, such as Ivor Gurney, turned to writing poetry as a different form of artistic expression. Butterworth may have felt a sense of resignation, a feeling that he would not return. Or, given that he destroyed so many of his pieces before leaving home, he may simply have felt that his work was done.

He did collect some folk songs from a group of Durham miners under his command, whom he regarded as friends, despite their different social stations. The war had an equalising effect, and class distinctions were unimportant in the life-or-death situations encountered in the trenches. This egalitarianism helped break down class divides after the conflict.

Tim Rayborn

This article is from the May 2016 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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