Arthur Butterworth (1923 - 2014) 'A Lakeland Composer'

It was sometime in 1998 that Chris Gibbs, a composer based in Grange over Sands, was chatting to Arthur Butterworth, and the idea of forming a group of likeminded composers to meet together in each others’ homes was first mooted.

These meetings were not just to be a pleasant way of having a coffee, but a chance to discuss the contemporary music scene, each others’ work and anything else along the way. Others joined, the late Roger Cann, Adrian Self, Roland Fudge, and I learned about the group and joined up the following year. I had not met Arthur before, although I had read some of his articles, which had always attracted my attention; as for his music, it was at that time a closed book to me.

We were all delighted when he agreed to be our president, but also surprised that he was willing to drive in all weathers, not from a local Lakeland town, but from near Skipton, often to listen and not say much. And this was a man now in his 80s.

There was always an informal attitude adopted for our meetings and this was reflected in the fact that our normal attire was jeans and a scruffy pullover This did not apply to Arthur however. I complimented him once with a little glint in my eye on his being “very dapper” that day, he shrugged and said “well, of course” with a faint smile.

We had our first concert as a group in 2000 in Kendal and most of us had a piece done, Arthur an early, Lakeland inspired, impressionistic piano work. It was not the sort of ‘tough’ northern piece I had expected. After that we spent many an hour discussing the next concert, and money and venues and dates and all sorts of boring but necessary things. We would each put forward a piece that we wanted to have done. Arthur would stay quiet so we would eventually ask him “and what about you Arthur?”. “Well,” he might say, “ I don’t know if I have anything suitable” or he might say with great modesty “I don’t need another performance, it’s more important for you chaps to hear your things”.

Whilst in the midst of these conversation Arthur would often chirp up with an anecdote of such fascinating irrelevance that it would throw our banal chat utterly off course. And these comments would concern some famous now long dead conductor he had known at the Halle or indeed something that Vaughan Williams had said to him as a student or a piece of his or someone else’s that had evoked a memory of the days when just demobilised or a holiday he took in northern Scotland which had inspired a symphonic movement. Then we would move on again to the business, but much refreshed by the unexpected interjection.

For one concert at Crosthwaite Church we managed to twist his arm to dust off his trumpet playing. He gave us his Wedding Music for trumpet and organ Op 99. Afterwards he announced that he would not be playing in public again. His performance was recorded and seems pretty smart to me.

Arthur orchestrated colourfully but he, very fairly, criticised an orchestral work of mine for overdoing the percussion in the last bars. Arthur also had distinct views on vocal music. If I understood him correctly he felt that a composer was in danger of inflicting his own interpretation onto the text too much, probably a greater text than the music that would be composed for it. A fair point, but, as a composer half of whose output is vocal and choral, I could not really grasp his thinking. It’s worth adding, though, that he gave me a copy of a CD on which is his Ancient Sorceries for countertenor, recorder and harpsichord Op 49, settings of Walter de la Mare whom he thought “perfect for a composer”. One evening he drove over to Penrith quite unexpectedly to listen to the first performance of a ten minute choral work of mine called ‘The Bishops’ Prayer’, a setting of words by the Bishop of Carlisle who was present. After the performance Arthur shook my hand and said, “I can see that this is definitely your strength”. I was immensely touched.

There are other stories but I won’t go on. It was an extraordinary privilege to get to know Arthur Butterworth. There are so many more things I would have liked to ask him as he knew so much music, and so many musicians both alive and no longer with us, but one must be contented with the memories one has. Reading his programme notes for his own music, it is clear that he did not believe in saying more than was necessary, so I will abide by his advice and end with “Thank you Arthur for giving of your time with us. We hope that you also enjoyed the experience of being a Lakeland Composer”.

Gary Higginson

Listen to Arthur's music