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February 2nd, 2009

George Butterworth

I was driving home this evening after a solid day of work listening to the local classical music station.
The station played a five minute piece called "English Idyll No. 2", by George Butterworth. You can hear this piece by going to this page:

English Idyll No. 2

I liked its spare, evocative simplicity--like a memory of a place to which one has never been, but would love to visit someday.

I determined to look up its composer when I arrived home. I found a page or two on the world wide web to inform me about his life.

George Butterworth "caught" folk songs--he helped preserve 300 of them for future generations. He also was a skilled folk dancer, especially practiced in the traditional art of Morris dancing. He was a school teacher, and a music critic. He followed the fashion of composers of his era to set music to the Shropshire poetry of A.E. Housman. I think that Housman's poetry also somehow fits.

I read, too, about how Butterworth spent his thirties. He spent the few of them that he had as a lieutenant in the British Army, leading soldiers in the madness we know now as World War One. He won a Military Cross, post-humously, for leading a group of soldiers on a raid during a battle called "The Somme". He died in sniper fire. He was not alone to die in that battle. All told, if one totals the losses from both sides 1,000,000 men also died at the Somme. As the German officer Friedrich Steinbrecher wrote: "Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word".

So I'm alive and aware tonight to the senselessness of senseless things, and the beauty of short melodies.
I look up verses from A.E. Housman's "A Shropshire Lad":

"I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell
And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.

But now you may stare as you like and there's nothing to scan;
And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old".

I think, as I ponder, of young men cut down, when their melodies had just begun.