Saturday, 1 August 2009

George Butterworth: Firle Beacon for piano solo

The other day I heard George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow on Classic FM. Now, I think this is a great work, and have loved it since I first heard it on an old Decca Eclipse record some 35 years ago. However, it is sad to note that this is the only piece by the composer scheduled in their play-lists. In fact it has been played three times in the past week!
Butterworth’s catalogue is exceedingly small – three short choral pieces, four orchestral works, some eighteen songs, and an unpublished Suite for String Quartet. In addition to this list, there are a considerable number of folksongs and Morris Dances that were collected and edited by the composer: many of these are still in manuscript. Furthermore it is known that he destroyed a number of pieces before going to fight on the Western Front in 1915. He died there on 5th August the following year at Pozières.
A number of his folksongs were collected whilst on tramping holidays in the Sussex Downs. About four and a half miles due north of East Blatchington, and not far from Seaford and Newhaven, there is a fine local landmark. This is Firle Beacon. This hill is connected to the Downs where they run south to Beachy Head. It is part of a landscape that is littered with ancient monuments and burrows. Rudyard Kipling has alluded to this timeless landscape in a little couplet:-
“Firle, Mount Cabiarn and Mount Harry
Go back as far as sums'll carry."
In the last century local residents had, and may still have, a little weather rhyme:

When Firle Beacon wears a cap
We in the valley gets a drap ;
When Firle Beacon's head is bare
All next day it will be fair.
George Butterworth was obviously inspired by this landscape – he composed a piano piece called simply Firle Beacon. Michael Barlow notes that it was completed sometime before 1911. There is no manuscript, it was never published and there is no history of a public performance.

However there is a reference to the piece in short tribute to the composer by Ralph Vaughan Williams. He writes:
"One of my most grateful memories of George is connected with my London Symphony, indeed I owe its whole idea to him. I remember very well how the idea originated. He had been sitting with us one evening talking, smoking, and playing (I like to think that it was one of those rare occasions when we persuaded him to play us his beautiful little pianoforte piece, 'Firle Beacon'), and at the end of the evening, just as he was getting up to go, he said, in his characteristically abrupt way, 'You know, you ought to write a symphony.' From that moment the idea of a symphony—a thing which I had always declared I would never attempt-- dominated my mind. I showed the sketches to George, bit by bit as they were finished, and it was then that I realized that he possessed, in common with very few composers, a wonderful power of criticism of other men's work and insight into their ideas and motives. I can never feel too grateful to him for all he did for me over this work and his help did not stop short at criticism".
Geogre Butterworth (1885-1916): Memorial Volume 1918 - privately printed memoir and appreciations.

Firle Beacon will never be recovered. Yet it remains one of those lost works that I would live to have heard. There is something evocative about the title that suggests it would have been an attractive piece. There is no way of telling what its stylistic parameters were. It may have owed something to the style of John Ireland or Frank Bridge. On the other hand, it could have been a folk song rhapsody. All we can tell is that R.V.W thought that it was a beautiful little piano piece.


Mathias Richter said...

thank you for this lovely bit of Butterworth-research.
You may be interested to know that the suite for string quartet has in fact been published by a German publisher, Jürgen Heinrich:
According to Heinrich this is a reprint of the edition published by the UK music publishing organisation Modus Music:

John France said...

Thanks for that! That is news to me! I will investigate....


Mathias Richter said...

Sorry, but I gave you a wrong name, John: the German publisher is called Jürgen Höflich, not Heinrich. I see that the URL has been skipped. You can find the site here and click through:
Höflich has published more or less the complete output of Butterworth. But concerning the Suite you can of course as well contact the British Modus Music.
Glad that I could help!

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