Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday: For George

George Butterworth, around 1914

Silence need not fall,
Nor memories fade away.
Music will endure.

Recently, I had the honor of presenting one of my compositions at a composers circle.  The blog has been quiet lately because I have been diligently preparing for that event and a major choral event.

I started writing The Lost (for George Butterworth) after a 2016 blog post for Veterans Day.  At that time, I did more research into Butterworth than had appeared in the initial post, and his story affected me deeply.

George Butterworth was a promising young English composer.  One of his best-known works, which I quoted in remembrance of him in my composition, is The Banks of Green Willow, which you can hear here.  He was friends with Ralph Vaughan Williams, and, as noted in the blog post The Symphony Lost in the Mail, helped Vaughan Williams reconstruct his symphony score when it disappeared.

He was also a folk dancer.  There is film of him performing (in 1912!), alone, and as part of a group.  You can see it here.  At one point as four people are folk dancing, Butterworth and his friend accidentally collide, and you can see them laughing at their mistake.

Butterworth served ably in World War I.  In 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, he was killed by a sniper.  The fighting was so ferocious that the dead were quickly buried where they fell.  Butterworth’s body was never recovered.

Butterworth:  a composer, a lively, laughing dancer.  Cut down.  Lost.

The introduction of this piece expresses mourning for those lost in battle on the windswept fields of the Somme in France.  A brief four-part writing segment asks, in disbelief, whether this is how it must be, with a resigned answer of yes, which returns later in the piece.  The major key section is a paraphrase of Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow, as a half-remembered melody from long ago, twisted at the end by a bitterly mock-heroic snippet of an anthem as Butterworth must abandon his music to go off to war.  A sudden strong C minor chord represents Butterworth’s death, and the pain of that loss, followed by resignation and the return to the introductory theme.

Here is The Lost.

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Image attribution: Photograph of George Butterworth, about 1914 [Public domain], via Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Butterworth_2.jpg


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Haiku Wednesday: The Symphony Lost in the Mail

Mail truck driving off with papers flying out the back, stick figure aghast

So, George said to Ralph,
“You should write a symphony.”
He pondered the thought.

He had some sketches,
Some tone poems that would do,
And he set to work.

After the debut,
He sent it to Germany
To a conductor.

It never got there.
A war broke out; it was lost.
What would Ralph do now?

Ralph called his friend George,
Who had been reviewing it
As it was written.

And with some others,
Ralph rebuilt the symphony.
It would live again!

That’s the story of
A London Symphony of
One Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The above haiku (although simplistic) is the true story of A London Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams.  In a biography, Vaughan Williams is quoted as saying,

We were talking together one day when he said in his gruff, abrupt manner: ‘You know, you ought to write a symphony’. I answered… that I’d never written a symphony and never intended to… I suppose Butterworth’s words stung me and, anyhow, I looked out some sketches I had made for… a symphonic poem about London and decided to throw it into symphonic form… From that moment, the idea of a symphony dominated my mind. I showed the sketches to George bit by bit as they were finished…1

The Butterworth in the quote is English composer George Butterworth, a personal favorite of mine.  Vaughan Williams dedicated A London Symphony to Butterworth.

The symphony was first performed in 1914.  Thereafter, Vaughan Williams sent the score to conductor Fritz Busch in Germany.

After it was posted, World War I broke out.  In the chaos that ensued, the score really was lost in the mail.

Vaughan Williams called upon Butterworth and some others to help him rebuild the symphony from sketches and orchestral parts he still had.

Finally, the symphony was reconstructed.  But that’s not the end of the story.

This 1913 version underwent several revisions.  Vaughan Williams published the 1920 version.  He revisited it again, and the 1933 version explicitly states that earlier versions should not be performed.  He revised it again, and published a new version in 1936, and that’s the version that is performed today.

Except.

Vaughan Williams’s widow permitted one recording of the original 1913 score.  She was so happy with the recording by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox, that subsequent performances have been made possible.3

Opinions differ strongly about these two versions.  Some say Vaughan Williams said not to perform the earlier one; they say that later editing improved the symphony, giving it a tighter, more cohesive structure.

Some, however, say the removal of nearly 20 minutes of material from the 1913 version totally changed the character of the work.  In its original version it is more like the tone poems it derived from, less like a symphony, and it is a darker, more contemplative work.  They say Vaughan Williams cut out some beautiful melodies for the sake of conciseness.  But then Vaughan Williams himself described one removed passage as “a bad hymn tune.”2

I’m not sure where I stand on this.  I can see both sides.  I’ve listened to both, and I’ll give you links to performances of both.

Regardless of which you prefer, you will be treated to a picture of a bustling London through its day, and, in the end, through the ages.

I hope you will enjoy it.

Here is a performance of the 1913 version, conducted by Richard Hickox.

Here is a performance of the standard version.

References

  1. Lloyd, Stephen, in Ralph Vaughan Williams in Perspective, ed. Lewis Foreman, Albion Music Ltd, 1998.  “The quoted text in (a) is a portmanteau of two originals, the bulk being from a letter to Sir Alexander Butterworth, father of the composer” via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_London_Symphony.
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_London_Symphony.
  3. McGregor, Andrew, “Vaughan Williams. A London Symphony. Review” http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/88cz/
  4. You can see the revised score at http://imslp.org/wiki/File:PMLP60779-Vaughan-Williams_-_Symphony_No._2_(orch._score).pdf.

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Image attribution: C. Gallant, 2017.


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Veterans Day

Veterans Day poster of silhouettes of soldiers against a sky

Today we remember those who have served in the armed forces; in some parts of the world this is called Remembrance Day or Armistice Day.

I have already written about the music written for those who made the ultimate sacrifice.  Music has also been written for those who survived, but who paid a terrible price.

In The Wound Dresser, John Adams sets the poetry of Walt Whitman, who as a volunteer nurse cared for Civil War soldiers.  You can hear John Adams talk about his composition here.

The pianist Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm in World War I.  He approached a number of composers, commissioning works written for the piano using the left hand alone.  Ravel wrote the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.  Erich Korngold wrote a piano concerto that Wittgenstein liked so much (Op. 17), he commissioned a second, a suite for two violins, cello, and piano (Op. 23).  Benjamin Britten’s Diversions for piano left hand and orchestra (Op. 21) was also written for Wittgenstein, as was Prokofiev’s Concerto No 4.  In all, Wittgenstein commissioned around 40 pieces for piano left hand.

Frank Bridge wrote Three Improvisations for his friend Douglas Fox who lost his arm in World War I.

Leoš Janáček (Capriccio for Piano and Winds) and Bohuslav Martinů (Divertimento for Piano and Chamber Orchestra) wrote music for Czech pianist Otakar Hollman, whose right hand was permanently injured in World War I (Hollman plays in the links given above).  For more on the genre of piano left hand music, see the articles referenced below, and the lefthandpianomusic YouTube channel.

The music I want to feature today is by George Butterworth, considered one of the promising composers of the early 20th century.  I was surprised in my research to find film of Butterworth dancing—he was a Morris dancer.  The film dates from 1912.  Butterworth was cut down by a sniper’s bullet during the Battle of the Somme in World War I.  Here is Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow.

A heartfelt thank you to all those who have served, and may all those who now serve come home safely.

Freedom isn’t free.

References

http://www.classicfm.com/discover/music/left-hand-piano-music/

https://crosseyedpianist.com/2012/05/14/guest-post-a-history-of-left-hand-piano/

Photograph of the blogger's father as a soldier, 1945

My father, 1945

Wounded Warriors Family Support http://www.wwfs.org/wounded-warriors-family-support/information-main/about-us

Fisher House Foundation https://www.fisherhouse.org/about/

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) http://www.taps.org/about/

Image attribution: Detail of poster created for Veterans Day 2008 by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (http://www1.va.gov/opa/vetsday/gallery.asp) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AVeterans_day_2008_poster.jpg