George Butterworth (1885-1916) is more famous for his death in World War I than for the details of his short life that preceded it. At a time when so many young lives were lost, his tragedy is singularly poignant. Not only does the evidence of his few surviving works hint at the composer he would have become, had he lived beyond the age of thirty-one, but many of his songs dwelt on the subjects of war and death. He was born in London on 12th July 1885, moving to York in 1891, where his father, Sir Alexander Kaye Butterworth, worked for the solicitors office of the North Eastern Railway, later becoming its general manager. His mother, Julia Marguerite Wigan, had been a professional singer before her marriage and, doubtless due to her influence, George showed early signs of musical ability.
In 1896 he began at Aysgarth Preparatory School in North Yorkshire, where he played the organ and composed, studying music privately in York with Christian Padel during school vacations. In 1899 he was admitted to Eton College where, under the tuition of Charles Harford Lloyd and Thomas Dunhill, he began composing seriously.
He went up to Trinity College, Oxford in 1904 to read classics and whilst there decided on a career in music, against his father’s wishes. He was president of the University Musical Society and became friends with Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp, with whom he shared an interest in folksong.
On leaving Oxford he spent a year in London working as a music critic for The Times and a year teaching at Radley College, Oxfordshire. In 1910 he entered the Royal College of Music, studying with Walter Parratt and Charles Wood, in order to improve his technique. He abandoned the course a year later, being dissatisfied with the quality of music he was studying and playing.
He spent most of the next three years devoted to the folksong revival. Having collected folksongs since he was at Oxford, he continued to travel throughout England doing so, in addition to collecting folkdances with Sharp. He took particular pride in his ability as a dancer and was part of the English Folk Dance Society’s Morris team.
At the outbreak of war he enlisted and was made second lieutenant in the 13th Durham Light Infantry. He commanded a platoon consisting mainly of Durham miners, with whom he got on particularly well. In August 1915, when orders came to move to France, he destroyed most of his early compositions, deeming them unworthy.
He was awarded the Military Cross in 1916 for commanding his company with great ability and coolness at Pozières. It was shortly after this, on 5th August 1916 at about 4.45am, that Butterworth was shot in the head in the trench that was later known as Butterworth Trench. No trace of his grave remains but his name is on the nearby Thiepval memorial.