The Banks of Green Willow was the third of three “idylls” George Butterworth composed. He wrote this one based on a Sussex folk tune in 1913 when he was 28 years old. It was first performed the following February in West Kirby by the Halle and Liverpool Orchestras under 24-year-old Adrian Boult, a friend of Butterworth’s from Oxford, where both were presidents of the university music club at different times.
Butterworth had composed some early works at Eton but his interest blossomed at Trinity College, Oxford. Other Oxford contemporaries included folk song specialist Cecil Sharp and fellow composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was also interested in folk song. In 1907, Butterworth wrote down several hundred and recorded some of them as well. They can still be heard today. This one was sung by a Mr and Mrs Cranstone in Billingshurst.
Like the earlier idylls, this piece is around five minutes long, starts calmly then builds up before finishing more serenely. The original song told a rather dark story. A farmer’s daughter becomes pregnant after meeting a sea captain and runs away with him after stealing from her parents. Her labour faces complications and with no help she urges her beau to throw her and her child overboard. He does this and sings a lament remembering fondly happier times.
This poignant tale echoes Butterworth’s to some degree. Later that year war broke out and Butterworth put his promising musical career to one side, signing up almost immediately. He was commissioned in the Durham Light Infantry. Two years later on 5 August 1916 he died on the Somme, aged 31.
He was shot by a sniper a month into the major offensive by the British army, which had resulted in heavy casualties. His body was never recovered and his name is one of the many on the Thiepval Memorial. In the early stages of the Somme he was awarded the military cross for capturing trenches near Pozieres.
His brigade commander and his men had not known he was an accomplished composer when he fell. However, The Banks of Green Willow, one of only three pieces for orchestra that survive, amply shows what a loss Butterworth was to music.
Vaughan Williams was left Butterworth’s manuscripts. Most now sit in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. His other famous compositions are settings of some of AE Housman’s poems from A Shropshire Lad. Other works Butterworth wrote do not survive as he was prone to destroy those he didn’t like.
Chris Spink, Violin 1