Arthur Butterworth: Composer whose work was suffused with his love of the landscapes of northern England and the Scottish highlands

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Arthur Butterworth's major works for orchestra span his career − seven symphonies, a violin concerto played by Nigel Kennedy, a viola concerto recorded by Sarah-Jane Bradley, a guitar concerto for Craig Ogden, a notable organ concerto premiered by Gillian Weir in 1973 and others for cello and bassoon. His work was always informed by his deep love of the north of the country.

He was born near Manchester in 1923. He referred to his childhood as "idyllic" though he was an only child whose mother died when he was 12. His father was secretary of the local church choir, his mother played the piano and he sang in the choir. In his village there was a brass band, who asked for volunteers among the choristers; he was allocated the trombone, later changing to trumpet. Still a teenager, he played with the celebrated Besses o' the Barn Band and started taking conducting lessons.

He regularly attended Hallé concerts, learning the repertoire. Pressed unwillingly by his father into a non-musical career, he left school at 15 and spent two years in the legal office of a Manchester estate agent. He hated the business, a life ended by his call-up in 1942. He joined the East Yorkshire Regiment and served in the Corps of the Royal Engineers.

His regiment crossed the Rhine in 1945 and he stayed in Germany until 1947 engaged in postwar reconstruction; he heard the Hanover State Opera and an orchestra in Flensburg. This showed him what music-making could be.

Demobbed, he rejoined the Besses o'the Barn Band, but after Germany it now seemed disappointing. He studied trumpet, and composition with Richard Hall, at the Royal Manchester College of Music. He composed intensively as a student, early works including the impressive Sinfonietta of 1949 and the Romanza for horn and strings of 1951, possibly his most-played score. In 1950 he wrote to Vaughan Williams, who agreed to give him some lessons.

Very early on he developed a wide-ranging sympathy with the North, visually and musically; Scotland became a "magic gateway to a northern sensibility". Playing the trumpet to earn a living he joined the Scottish (now Royal Scottish National) Orchestra in 1949, and found that walking in the highlands in winter was an inspiration to composition. In 1955 he moved to the Hallé Orchestra as second trumpet.

Between 1952-57 he worked on his First Symphony, which would establish him: "I was released from the Army in that fearfuI winter of 1947 and vividly recall coming across the North Sea from Cuxhaven to Hull in the most bitterly cold weather. So cold was it that there were ... quite extensive ice floes and small icebergs floating down from the north. Some six or seven weeks later it was still cool, but fresh and exhilarating in the brilliant sunshine, and one day I had an energetic cycle ride. Reaching home I heard a radio performance of Sibelius's Sixth Symphony. This seemed exactly to capture the mood of that marvellous early-spring day."

This stimulated him to start his symphony, which he completed in 1956 and showed to Sir John Barbirolli, conductor of the Hallé. Its first performance was at Cheltenham on 19 July 1957; it was heard in London on 29 August 1958, his only appearance at the Proms.

He gave up playing to concentrate on composing and conducting, and taught composition at Huddersfield School of Music. He built a reputation in the brass and wind band world, with brilliant and approachable works such as The Dales Suite, Odin, Caliban, and a concerto for trumpet and band, reflecting his first-hand knowledge as a player.

His symphonies and concertos are striking and personal conceptions, overlain with non-musical autobiographical resonances. Throughout his oeuvre Butterworth celebrates his experience of the north, with titles such as September Morn, Beowulf, Winter Music, Tundra, Odin, Northern Light, Ragnarock and Haworth Moor. His Third Symphony, first performed in 1979, has the title Sinfonia Borealis, while before a broadcast of his Fourth Symphony in 1986 he described it to an interviewer as "a nature work, a rugged craggy piece... conceived one cold, clear November day on the high Yorkshire moorlands."

His song cycle The Night Wind sets three poems by Emily Bronte, the poet of Yorkshire and the moors. "Like Emily Bronte I have always been deeply under the spell of the remote and lonely moorlands of the north of England," he wrote, "and much of my music has been influenced by their oftimes forbidding desolate loneliness." Perhaps his love of wild country is most popularly exemplified in his short tone poem The Path Across the Moors.

There is also a substantial catalogue of chamber music, including a string quartet, piano quintet and sextet and two piano trios; sonatas for violin, viola, oboe and saxhorn as well as many for miscellaneous brass groups.

Butterworth appeared widely as a conductor in the north of England, directing professional and amateur groups. From 1964-93 he was Principal Conductor of the Huddersfield Philharmonic, and was also associated with the Slaithwaite Philharmonic. Other local orchestras included the Haffner Orchestra of Lancaster and the Settle Orchestra.

Living in North Yorkshire, Butterworth was in demand by a wide constituency, from the Hallé Concerts Society to local schools, festivals and performing groups. He was remarkable for his robust constitution, his late eighties conducting recording sessions for his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. His wife Diana's arthritis meant that he was her full-time carer until she died in 2012. His last years saw a new outpouring – after each work he would confide that it was his last – including his Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. Almost his last work was his Elegy for Diana, his eloquent memorial for string orchestra to his companion of 60 years.

He rather overdid it when conducting a concert for his 90th birthday and suffered a heart attack. I telephoned to wish him well, and sympathised, saying, "The trouble is, like you I think I'm still 29!' He replied: "Oh I'm a lot younger than that!"

Arthur Eckersley Butterworth, composer, trumpeter and conductor: born New Moston, Manchester 4 August 1923; MBE 1995; married 1952 Diana Stewart (died 2012; two daughters); died Embsay, North Yorkshire 20 November 2014.

Comments