Arthur Butterworth's The Path across the Moors - some further thoughts
by John France
I recently wrote an appreciation of Arthur Butterworth’s excellent tone-poem The Path across the Moors, in which I suggested that in spite of it having been issued on a ‘light music’ CD, it had considerable depth and emotional content beyond what is normally considered belonging to that genre. I sent the composer a copy of my article and fortunately he approved of what I had written. However, he sent by return some additional comments which deserve to be noted for posterity. There is no doubt in my mind that Butterworth is the ‘Composer of the North Country’ (amongst many other things) - with its millstone grit, wide-open spaces and extensive moorland.
Butterworth acknowledged my thoughts about the work’s genre:
‘Yes, whilst the format of the piece is not long, and, at least superficially it falls into the category of 'light music' there was the intention - quite specifically - to evoke something, ‘beyond that’’.
He recalled walking on those ‘often-sullen hills’ where there is invariably ‘even on the balmiest summer's day, an indelible sense of long-past earlier times: the days of the beginning of the 19th century industrial revolution.’
He reminded me that ‘the great industrial centres of Lancashire and Yorkshire are never far away - artefacts of earlier farming and sheep husbandry; some of them seemingly crude and suggestive of the hard life on those hills.’
When I have stood on one of the hills above Stalybridge or on Blackstone Edge, I have been conscious of the great disparity of landscape that can be discerned. There is the cityscape of Manchester and the Northern mill-towns with the more pastoral Cheshire Plain beyond: Winter Hill, a Pennine outlier stands above Bolton and looks towards the sea and the Isle of Man. In the far distance the rolling green hills of Denbighshire and even the mountains of Snowdonia can be picked out.
Arthur Butterworth picked up on this challenge of landscape:
‘Whereas, on the softer plains of Cheshire, Lincolnshire and the south-country generally, when travelling through them, one gets the impression that life had at one time been "Merrie England" in a way that the moorland landscape had never really been. A lot of this comes from nature itself: the very difference in seasonal feelings’.
When visiting a relation in Warwickshire he invariably thinks that ‘this is not really my country! I much prefer the higher moorland where I have always felt at home’.
Having mused on Butterworth’s music for a number of years, I have been conscious that there appears to be relatively little vocal music and no operas. The composer explained to me why this was the case:
‘Years and years ago, after the première of my 1st Symphony (July 1957), Ernest Bradbury suggested in The Yorkshire Post that I was the one to write an opera on Wuthering Heights and I could see what he meant. So I bought a new copy of it; spent about eighteen months making my own libretto, making sure all the dates fitted the plot.
Some weeks later I began drafting out the music: the arrival back from Liverpool of the father, along with the rough boy, his jealous reception by the Earnshaw family. But after maybe five or six pages of musical manuscript I decided that opera, as an art for was not for me!’
However, there was to be a setting of Emily Bronte’s work:-
In 1969 the Arts Council of Great Britain, commissioned from me a song cycle which I based on Emily Bronte's poem: ‘The Night Wind’. This was for soprano, clarinet and piano, which very soon afterwards I was persuaded to score for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra which they then took on tour all over the south west of England. It had been an enormously successful work, but that was in the 1960s and early 1970s’.
He concluded his notes to me with what can be seen as an interpretive paradigm for much of his music:-
‘My expression of the Bronte stories and poems has ever been in the symphonies and other orchestral music. I have not generally pursued vocal writing: I have preferred to express what my northern environment means to me through the abstractedness of the orchestra.’
Interestingly it was the America composer Bernard Herrmann who recorded his opera Wuthering Heights in 1966, having worked on the score between 1943 and 1951. It was not given a full performance until 2011. There is also an opera of the same title with music and libretto by Carlisle Floyd.