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Book review: Moorland Symphonies — An Introduction to the Music of Arthur Butterworth

Author: Paul Conway
Lyrita Press (165 pages)
Available from 1st July


In his forensic research for this chronological compendium, Paul Conway reveals that Arthur Butterworth (1923-2014) wrote over 150 works during his long compositional career - including seven symphonies and a varied body of ensemble, chamber and instrumental pieces, many of note for the brass band medium.

Yet he remains a rather enigmatic musical figure. 

Significant dates

It is highlighted by two significant dates marked in his preface to the book: 19th July 1957 and 20th May 2008. 

The first recalls the critical impact made by his ‘First Symphony’, premiered at the Cheltenham Festival by the Halle Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli. It was a work that according to The Times special correspondent, ‘…has made the strongest impact… a creative talent of which more will be heard in the future.’ He was aged 33.

The second relates the recording to his ‘Fourth Symphony’  and ‘Viola Concerto’  with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra - ‘a most generous helping of rich treasure’ and ‘an absolute must’. He was now 84.

Half a century separates the acclaim - a span that despite his prolific output and adherence to his craft saw the majority of his other works remain almost tragically underperformed, promoted and appreciated.    

Insight

Conway offers pertinent explanations – from the vagaries of fashion and a loyalty to his musical inspirations of Sibelius, Elgar and Vaughan Williams to his own personal unforced humility and reticence for self-promotion. There is also perceptive insight – his analysis providing a cool, dispassionate reference of detailed appreciation to the hallmark compositions as well as the secondary works.  

There is also perceptive insight – his analysis providing a cool, dispassionate reference of detailed appreciation to the hallmark compositions as well as the secondary works of each period.  

A conscious consideration underpins his framing - the biographical strands (Butterworth’s own autobiography is noted) kept precise and pertinent to those which he considers ‘of special interest and note’.  It brings a welcome focus to what is an exhaustively extensive catalogue of output.

Generous

He is however generous in his assessments of Butterworth’s brass band output – calling his ‘Passacaglia on a theme of Brahms’, ‘arguably his crowning achievement in a genre he did so much to enrich’. 

Others are noted in balanced appreciation; from ‘Odin’  and ‘Maoriana’  to ‘Caliban’  (‘written off the top of the composer’s head without any great struggle’) to his early ‘Exmoor Suite’  which he wrote in memory of Fred Mortimer. 

Almost 100 years to the date of his birth, Paul Conway has helped shine a light on a composer long overdue his true acclaim.  

Ten chapters span the identifiable periods of his principal works (two cover his early musical life, a further two, an appreciation of his writing style and a pointed mini interview he gave in 1963).  

The appendices include Butterworth's own views on the brass band movement – a ‘paradox’ of ‘utter disdain’ (from its discipline to its ignorance of playing Elgar) to ‘a stimulating challenge, both technically and more importantly in the sense of pure musical invention and inspiration’.

Absorbed

That eventually saw him ‘absorbed’ as he called it, into conceiving masterful works such as ‘Odin’, ‘Passacaglia’, ‘Caliban’, ‘Three Impressions’, ‘The Mancunians’, ‘Maoriana’, ‘Paean’  and ‘Concerto all Veneziana’  as well as bring his expertise to bear on wonderful transcriptions such as Elgar’s ‘Introduction and Allegro’ (Op.47)  and Brahms’ ‘Variations on a theme of Handel’ (Op.24).

These have richly enhanced the brass band movement, yet they are also accompanied by the little gems of brass ensembles and solo work, each written with a clarity of thoughtfulness and deeply ingrained idiomatic purpose. 

Almost 100 years to the date of his birth, Paul Conway has helped shine a light on a composer long overdue his true acclaim.  

Iwan Fox 


To purchase the book (From July 1st):  https://www.wyastone.co.uk/

To purchase the CD of Arthur Butterworth Symphonies Nos 1,2 & 4: https://www.wyastone.co.uk/arthur-butterworth-symphonies-nos-1-2-4.html

To purchase the CD of Arthur Butterworth Brass Band Music (Doyen CD 130) go to: https://www.worldofbrass.com/22007

To enjoy the CD on wobplay go to: http://www.wobplay.com

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