Arthur Butterworth: Symphony no.2 Op. 25 (1964) – A Half Centenary Review
It is a commonplace to insist that the ‘Symphony’ was a ‘dead form’ in the mid-twentieth century. Conversely, looking at the listings for 1964 discloses that a number of important British composers were producing valuable essays in this genre. Works written or first performed in the same year as Butterworth’s Symphony no.2 included Frankel’s Third, Alan Rawsthorne’s Third, Humphrey Searle’s Fifth, Daniel Jones’ Sixth, and Kenneth Leighton’s First. The previous year had seen a performance of Robin Orr’s Symphony in One Movement and Havergal Brian had reached Symphony No. 21 in his extensive catalogue.
Arthur Butterworth has (to date) composed seven symphonies for orchestra:-
Symphony no.1 op.15 (1957)
Symphony no.2 op. 25 (1964)
Symphony no.3 ‘Sinfonia Borealis’ op. 52 (1979)
Symphony no.4 op.72 (1986)
Symphony no.5 op.115 (2001-2)
Symphony no.6 op.124 (c 2005?)
Symphony no.7 op.140 (2011)
At the time of the composition of the Symphony no.2, Butterworth had completed a number of important works. At the start of the previous year, 1963, the large-scale Moors Suite op.26 for orchestra and organ had been performed by the BBC Northern Orchestra under Stanford Robinson. The following year, 1964, saw the brass-band version of the composer’s popular The Path across the Moors played by the Yorkshire Youth Brass Band. Finally, in that same year, incidental music for the school play The Castle of Perseverance was heard at Guiseley School, near Leeds.
After resigning his post as trumpeter with the Hallé Orchestra, Butterworth was involved with music-making in the West Riding of Yorkshire. This included teaching and conducting for the local education authority. He was also associated with Ermysted’s Grammar School in Skipton and had recently become conductor of the Halifax Symphony Orchestra and the Huddersfield Philharmonic Society.
In 1957, the première of Butterworth’s Symphony no. 1, op.15 at Cheltenham was attended by Jack Holgate, the secretary of the Bradford Subscription Concerts Society. This venerable organisation had more than ninety years of association with the Hallé Orchestra and was planning the celebration of its centenary. Holgate approached Butterworth after the Cheltenham performance and there and then commissioned him to write a new Symphony for that centenary. Butterworth told me: ‘I had almost eight years, 1957 to 1965, to write this work. I had not realised at that time that the forthcoming 100th season would begin in October 1964 (not 1965!) so I had to get a move on and make sure it was ready in time.’
The composer explained to me that until his Symphony no.1 (1957) he had been, ‘avowedly, primarily influenced by Sibelius and the obvious native relationship with Vaughan Williams and English music.’ As background information to this present work he recalled a casual meeting with the critic and musicologist Deryck Cooke on the steps of the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Cooke had heard that Butterworth had been commissioned to write a symphony for the 1965 Bradford/Hallé season. The composer explained to him that it was to be a kind of ‘bi-dedication to the Bradford/Hallé connection, but also to the Sibelius centenary’. Cooke had responded, ‘Ah! But you should remember 1965 also marks the centenary of Carl Nielsen too!’ Butterworth considered this appropriate: ‘So I did indeed incorporate the notion of not forgetting Nielsen's contribution to early 20th century symphonic development. Hence, the Symphony no.2 of mine does certainly acknowledge something of Nielsen and not just Sibelius: especially the opening of the last movement, and this I acknowledge unreservedly.’
One interesting anecdote that Butterworth told me referred to the use of tubular bells in the ‘adagio’. The critic Desmond Shawe-Taylor had written to him to say that he found ‘the bells distracting …’ Nonetheless there was a reason. It was the composer’s custom to walk his dog in Heaton Park, Manchester on summer evenings: it was near to where he then lived. Butterworth recalled watching the sun ‘dip westwards behind the wide-stretching parkland and the park bell would sound so hauntingly.’ It was a ‘peculiarly evocative, romantic scene.’ The composer remarked to me that ‘What is perhaps never actually ‘said’ by instrumental music (such as a symphony) but is of course obvious in vocal music which relates a specific story through the words, is that it can - for the composer - 'tell' - or at least hint at, the inspiration behind the design of a particular passage. He may never actually reveal what has motivated or inspired it, but there is often (if not always) some specific private memory, and so it was with me’.
‘Mr Manchester’s Diary’ in the Manchester Evening News (October 30 1964) had provided a chatty approach to Butterworth’s new work. He begins by stating that a ‘country dweller…took his dog walking from his home near Skipton [West Riding]…and wrote a symphony.’ He quoted the composer as saying that ‘I get all my inspiration at night…every evening I take the dog for a walk through the fields and lanes and there I find the peace and quiet to concentrate.’ Arthur Butterworth moved from Manchester to Skipton in September 1962, so both Heaton Park and the Yorkshire Dales have left their impression on this symphony.
Interestingly, these summertime nightly strolls with his dog were not in themselves the beginning of the musical inspiration for this work, but rather it went back more than twenty-five years to 1935 (when Butterworth was nearly 12). It was a melancholy, rainy summer's evening when his mother died in hospital: being quite young, he was left in the porters' lodge whilst his father visited his dying wife. All he heard was the relentless tolling of the hospital bell signifying 'visiting time' was soon to be over. So, inspiration for this present work is a concatenation of various memories, ideas and impressions.
This essay concentrates on the genesis and reception of Arthur Butterworth’s Symphony no.2: a formal, technical analysis of this work is not appropriate here. However, a few details about the construction and progress of the symphony are of considerable interest. The source of much of this analysis is the programme notes for the premiere produced by J.H. (Jack Holgate) in consultation with the composer.
The Symphony is in three movements: an opening ‘allegro molto’, an ‘adagio’ and a concluding ‘vivace’. The ‘progression of the emotional tension’ of the work is likened to the letter “W” ‘with its various apexes corresponding to varied peaks of tension.’ As a general structural overview, it is cyclic, with thematic links between the first and second movements and the second and third. As The Times (October 31 1964) reviewer states, it is the ‘identity of thought and idiom which locks the whole work together.’
The programme notes stress the fact that there is a strict economy of material used throughout this work. Reference is made to themes derived from the Symphony no.1 which are used to create the opening statement of the ‘allegro molto’ in the Second. Paul Conway, who has made a detailed study of Butterworth’s music, has proposed that the present work ‘carries on where the volatile finale of the First Symphony left off’. He has suggested that Butterworth realised that there was ‘previously untapped potential in that seminal work’. Is it that this present work is deemed to be a ‘sequel?’
The first bar with its immediate rising glissando of a tritone followed by a long downward ‘scale’ sets the general mood of this movement. The second major theme mirrors the first with its rising scale first heard on the clarinet. These themes, after some development, are used to create what is effectively a scherzo, but without the expected ‘trio.’ The music does calm down and the opening movement concludes with a ‘calmer atmosphere’ bringing ‘clarification rather than complication of the initial material.’
The slow movement, an ‘adagio’, is clearly the heart of the work, in which the composer has invested much personal feeling and emotion. This is recognised by most critics. After a short opening phrase on the strings, the main theme is presented ‘adagio’ on a solo ‘cello. This has considerable rhythmic subtlety in its relatively gentle unfolding. The addition of woodwind and brass bring an intense moment that is intensified by the use of rising and falling scales. The main theme of the slow movement is repeated in an augmented version which has considerable passion. The composer introduces what is effectively new material in the coda of the ‘adagio’ where ‘a strongly personal feeling of poignancy characterises the mood of resignation after tension.’ Percussion used here includes tubular bells which reflect the tolling of the hospital or Heaton Park bell as noted above.
The finale begins quietly with a short passage played on bassoons and builds up towards the conclusion of the movement. This theme has dotted rhythms and a touch of syncopation which imbue the music with a degree of urgency. The ‘vivace’ develops as a ‘moto perpetuo’ although there is a break in the activity when the oboe hints at a theme derived from the ‘adagio.’ As the music becomes more expansive, the tonality seems to become more stable: the ‘opening agitation promises to be resolved into a happy ending.’ The oboe presents a pastoral version of the main theme whilst the strings give a tranquil turn to this melody. Then the intensity of the music increases towards the conclusion. The work ends with a ‘whimsical enigmatic flourish’. J.H./Butterworth notes that ‘solutions to problems are often transitory rather than final.
First Performance and Reception
Unusually for a ‘provincial concert’ there were many journalists present at the première who were celebrating the Centenary. These represented the national and provincial press as well as a number of magazines and journals and the BBC. It is strange that the BBC did not choose to broadcast or record this work.
The premiere was given at Bradford’s St. George’s Hall on Friday October 30 1964. The concert also included Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony no. 5 ‘New World’ Symphony, the Concerto Grosso no.12 in B minor by Handel, and the Scherzo from An Irish Symphony by Sir Hamilton Harty. The following day, a second performance was given in Rochdale at the Champness Hall. The remainder of that programme was largely similar: I understand that the Handel was swapped for Nicolai’s overture The Merry Wives of Windsor. It is significant to note that Arthur Butterworth’s first concert as a trumpet player with the Hallé was at Rochdale’s Champness Hall on January 22 1955. (Rochdale Observer undated review, probably November 2 1964)
One major contemporary assessment was in The Times (October 31 1964) newspaper by their ‘special correspondent.’ He began by noting that the ‘enterprising committee’ had invited a ‘northern composer’ to write a new symphony. After a brief résumé of Arthur Butterworth’s career up to that point, he writes that it was a ‘happy coincidence’ that the first performance of the new symphony should be given by his former colleagues in the Hallé. He notes that this ‘personal relationship … showed itself in warm, sensitive playing’. Musically, he points out that the composer tends towards harmonic rather than contrapuntal textures. He majors on one of the most common critical assessments of Butterworth’s’ music – he is ‘refreshingly free from ‘isms’ and ‘alities’ and his music language is strongly tonal.’ It was to be this facet of the composer’s music that was to lead to him being ignored by the cognoscenti until relatively recently. The one negative side to The Times review is an offhand suggestion that Butterworth’s ‘experience as an orchestral player has betrayed him into regurgitating much that he has played and heard.’ He thought that the work is quite clearly influenced by the two dedicatee’s Sibelius and Nielsen; however he felt that it is easy to determine other sources of inspiration, such as Gustav Holst and Shostakovich. The writer’s last comment is to urge the composer to ‘develop a more individual style’.
J.H. Elliot writing in The Guardian (October 31 1964) believes that Butterworth’s Symphony reflects more the ‘spirit’ of Sibelius and Nielsen rather than their ‘traditional, but not conventional, musical outlook’. He points up the formal principles of the three movement work with a ‘closing section in the first movement replacing the separate scherzo of classical practice’. Elliot admits that there are parts of this work that are so Sibelian, especially in the finale that ‘at moments they hesitate on the verge of actual quotation.’ Yet the critic is forgiving of this homage and writes that the symphony has ‘no little personality of its own and a heartening measure of expressive warmth.’ He highlights the ‘originality and fervour’ of the slow movement. Like other critics, Elliot is highly complimentary of the scoring of this work, especially the ‘adroitness’ of the woodwind and brass parts; unfortunately he considers that the use of tubular bells ‘sound a little out of character, not to say rakish.’ He concludes his analysis by remarking that 'such well-knit and thoughtful music, even though it belongs to a tradition now in decline, or rather out of fashion, deserves a wider circulation.’
Michael Kennedy commenting in the Daily Telegraph (October 31 1964) believes that this present symphony is a ‘definite advance’ on the first, both in the ‘handling of the material and in a generally more mature approach.’ He makes a helpful suggestion that clarifies much criticism of this work: Sibelius and Nielsen have influenced Butterworth ‘not only musically but ethically in his belief that tonality is not a fully worked-out mine.’ He adds that it is ‘good to find a composer who realises that he must communicate with his audience, not blind them with science or perplex them with nonsense.’
Gerard Dempsey in the Daily Express (October 31 1964) noted that the orchestra ‘rose spontaneously to join in the applause’. He quoted the composer saying about the performance ‘It was exactly as I saw the work. It has been a wonderful night for me.’ Dempsey declared that this ‘deeply felt’ symphony was ‘cleanly scored, tense, urgent and distinctly short of melody.’
The Halifax Courier (October 31 1964) carried an impressive review of this concert. The correspondent A.W. considered that the performance was ‘obviously prepared with much thought and care.’ An interesting aside suggests the composer had told him that this work was ‘like Sibelius’s own Fourth Symphony’ it is in the nature of a ‘protest against the incomprehensibilities of our present avant-garde in the arts.’ He sensed that ‘thematically and in playing time, it is a comparatively terse work’ and there is about it ‘a taut economy of material and expression, a close-knit texture that puts great emphasis on the values of tonality.’ Interestingly, he believed that the musical language of the Symphony is both ‘personal and modern’, which is a view that goes against the grain of other critics who insisted this work to be a little out of date.
Ernest Bradbury (Yorkshire Post October 31 1964) cites a long-running problem in British concert-life: ‘It is something of a disgrace that … [With the exception of Butterworth] no living composer is represented in the Bradford Subscription Concerts Centenary season.’ He then points out that Butterworth’s Symphony no.2 is only ‘brand new… in the historical sense’. He advocates that ‘musically it is not exactly new, in that it leans markedly on the examples of earlier composers.’ He believes that the work is ‘none the worse for that’ and submits that to ‘proclaim, nowadays, allegiance to two such composers, (Sibelius and Nielsen) constitutes an open act of defiance against the Establishment (more dreary than many people know) of the so-called avant-garde serialists’. He concludes that ‘they will be foolish critics who jump in immediately with the assembly-line opinion that Butterworth is therefore and necessarily, a mere unimportant reactionary.’
Bradbury states categorically that the new work ‘shows itself fascinatingly more interesting than the already admired Symphony No.1’. He adduces three reasons for this opinion. Firstly that the musical argument utilises a ‘thematic compression’ which ‘argues a more logical and clear-sighted scheme than in the somewhat rhapsodic, atmospheric… earlier work’. Secondly there is the unusual form, which nods to Sibelius, and thirdly in the unconventional instrumentation which stems from Nielsen. It is the ‘symphony’s underlying sense of unity, its intuitive purpose and its clearly directed cumulative progress’ that defines its success. Finally, Bradbury detected some ‘grey, austere colour of the northern (English) landscape’ in this symphony as well as the ‘North’s hard, unyielding qualities’.
The Rochdale concert was reviewed by A.C.H. in the local paper (Rochdale Observer op. cit.) The author expressed delight at the practical aspects of the performance itself, noting that it is not often that ‘we get the composer of a work appearing on the platform when the Hallé Orchestra gives a concert [in the town] …’ He cited the ‘interesting spectacle’ of the composer congratulating the conductor, Sir Adrian Boult. Condescendingly, he writes that the ‘sight of this novelty did add a little something extra … the applause accorded was undoubtedly appreciative, as was the listening’ which was ‘attentive.’ The reviewer noted that there is ‘very little melodic interest’ in the two outer movements, with these being dominated by ‘percussive rhythms.’ He believed that the ‘lyrical’ central adagio ‘had a particular appeal of its own.’ A.C.H. reflects that this movement has ‘a poignancy which appears to spring from some deeply felt spiritual or emotional experience’. Finally, he notes the ‘complex’ orchestration and suggests that the influences of Sibelius and Nielsen can be heard in the brass fanfares and the use of the timpani.
Arthur Butterworth has suggested to me that the Symphony no.2 as a whole might benefit from ‘some shrewd revision: especially the fearfully dissonant opening bars’. Having listened to this work a number of times - albeit on a less-than-perfect recording - I feel that little needs to be done to make this a valuable and ultimately successful addition to the British symphonic repertoire. In spite of the fact that Sibelius and Nielsen are clearly dual influences, this is not a parody or pastiche of those composers’ music. Arthur Butterworth has a powerful voice and has composed a profoundly individual work. Paul Conway has suggested to me that this is a ‘Moorland’ Symphony in all but name, with definite North Country roots in spite of its part-Scandinavian dedication. There is little warmth in this work, with the possible exception of the almost tragic ‘adagio’ however, even here the powerful emotion of these bars does not give respite to the listener. The Symphony is ultimately positive in its effect but this confidence is hard-won.
It is unfortunate that Arthur Butterworth is poorly represented on CD. In the present ArkivMusic catalogue there are only seven discs devoted to his music; a number of other works appear in compilations (review ~ review ~ review). In recent years, three of his symphonies have appeared on disc, with two versions of the ‘First’ being available (review ~ review). A selection of orchestral (review ~ review) and chamber music is also obtainable on Dutton Epoch. There is an elusive CD featuring some of Butterworth’s brass band works (review). A number of private recordings of his music – often from radio broadcasts – circulate amongst enthusiasts. At present the Symphony no.2 is only available in an unidentified broadcast performance by the BBC Scottish Orchestra.
The most important task at present must be to complete Arthur Butterworth’s cycle of symphonies on CD.
With grateful thanks to Arthur Butterworth for much help and encouragement in writing this article. Also to Paul Conway (by email, 21/08/14) for a number of extremely helpful insights into this Symphony.
Musicweb International Butterworth page
75th Birthday Tribute By Richard Noble
Arthur Butterworth in conversation with Chris Thomas