This short orchestral work was composed by George Butterworth (1885-1916) in 1913, and has become the best-known and most widely-performed of his small output. It’s a charming little work in the English Romantic tradition which is based on a number of folk songs, most notably a less-than-charming tale of a country lass who falls in love with a sailor, becomes pregnant and runs away to sea with him only to suffer a difficult labour. Dying, she asks her lover to throw her and the baby overboard, where they both perish.
Yeah, I could have done without knowing that as well.
The music starts off dreamily with a clarinet solo (or it could be an oboe: I have trouble telling the difference if I can’t actually see the instrument, so feel free to enlighten me) before building tension with a melody of Butterworth’s own, then moves into a sweet, slow section with strings, flute and harp before winding down to an almost plaintive, questioning tone which lends ‘The Banks of Green Willow’ a decidedly melancholy air.
This melancholy air is particularly poignant when one learns just a little more about Butterworth, a friend of the more widely remembered Ralph Vaughan Williams. Born in London but raised in Yorkshire, Butterworth attended Eton and Oxford. His other best-known work, a setting of eleven poems by A. E. Housman collectively known as ‘A Shropshire Lad’, was composed in 1911-12 and includes poems such as “Is My Team Ploughing?” which touch upon the then-recent losses suffered in the Second Boer War.
And then came the First World War. Butterworth joined the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry before being commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 13th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, where he developed a great admiration for the working-class men, many of them miners in civilian life, under his command, who by all accounts developed in return a sincere affection for their commanding officer. He was a courageous officer who was awarded the Military Cross on 25th August 1916.
He didn’t live long enough to receive it. In the early hours of 5th August 1916, at Pozières on the Somme, George Sainton Kaye Butterworth was shot through the head by a German sniper. He had no chance of survival. His men buried him, as many others were buried, in a hastily-scratched grave, but the site was swiftly lost and his body was never recovered.
Butterworth’s potential is clearly apparent in Green Willow, and it is all too easy to see to loss of such a talented composer as a particular tragedy rather than only one small tragedy amidst two million others.
“Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?”
“Aye, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.”
A. E. Housman, ‘Is My Team Ploughing?’