Lost Christmas 'drinking' song by George Butterworth discovered at Bodleian Libraries

12 December 2016

Score by George Butterworth recorded and put on display at the Bodleian in time for Christmas

Image of Crown winter with green muscial score

A long-lost song by English composer George Butterworth has been rediscovered at the University of Oxford's Bodleian Libraries, a century after his death in the trenches. The three-page score is a musical setting of a short festive poem by Robert Bridges, beginning with the words Crown winter with green. It is believed to be the only surviving copy of this Butterworth composition.

Image of Crown winter with green muscial scoreThe festive find is particularly special because the body of Butterworth's surviving work is relatively small. Butterworth (1885-1916) was one of the most promising English composers of his generation, but his life was cut short when, at the age of 31, he was killed at the Battle of the Somme in World War I. Before going off to war he destroyed all of his music which he thought not worthy of preserving. His few surviving works, which include his song settings of AE Housman's poems from A Shropshire Lad and an orchestral idyll The Banks of Green Willow, are considered masterpieces.

The newly-discovered song has three verses and the lyrics speak of Christmas cheer. It begins with the words 'Crown winter with green, And give him good drink To physic his spleen …' and ends with the lines 'And merry be we This good Yuletide.' Butterworth's later music often drew inspiration from English folk music and traditions. He wrote the musical setting for this poem in the style of a drinking song, for voice and piano.

The long-lost musical score was found among a miscellaneous group of uncatalogued music manuscripts at the Bodleian's Weston Library in Oxford which had been transferred from the University's Music Faculty Library, which is also part of the Bodleian Libraries. In small letters, in the top-left corner of the first page, is written 'Music by G.S.K.B.' (the initials of the composer's full name, George Sainton Kaye Butterworth) and across the top of the manuscript someone has written 'Butterworth' in red pen. The manuscript is not written in the hand of the composer and the identity of the copyist is not known.

Listen to a recording of the song

Equally unknown is how the manuscript came to be in the Bodleian Libraries. One possibility is that Butterworth's father, Sir Alexander Kaye Butterworth, may have passed it on to Sir Hugh Allen, who was a great friend of the composer from his days as an undergraduate at the University of Oxford. Allen was Heather Professor of Music at Oxford from 1918 until his death in 1946, after which his collection of books and music was incorporated into the University's Music Faculty Library, which is now part of the Bodleian Libraries. It is possible that the song was among these papers but its significance was not noticed at the time.

Portrait of George Butterworth as a young manButterworth's musical score for Crown winter with green has been lost for close to a century but the song is known to have existed. It was referenced in a privately-printed memorial volume which Butterworth's father produced in 1918 as a tribute to his son. In this volume, his father stated that a friend had sent him copies of two of his son's early songs Crown winter with green and Haste on my joys. Both songs are musical settings of poems by Robert Bridges, the texts of which had been published in a volume of the poet's Shorter Poems in 1890. The manuscripts subsequently disappeared but Haste on my joys was discovered long afterwards in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library in London and published in 2001. The song discovered at the Bodleian has much in common with the Haste on my joys manuscript, which also bears the inscription 'Music by G.S.K.B.' in the top left corner, and is almost certainly written in the same hand.

Martin Holmes, Alfred Brendel Curator of Music

'The song's musical and technical shortcomings suggest that it is probably one of Butterworth's earlier pieces, possibly dating from his school or student days, which would have been in the early years of the 20th century,' said Martin Holmes, Alfred Brendel Curator of Music, who rediscovered the manuscript at the Bodleian.

'As a song, Crown winter with green may not be a masterpiece, in the way that Butterworth's later Housman songs undoubtedly are, but it can perhaps be seen as a small step on the path towards his musical maturity,' Holmes said.

Chris Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections

Chris Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Libraries, said: 'With more than 12 million printed items, including more than half a million musical scores, the Bodleian Libraries' collections are full of treasures but it's not often we discover a gem like this. This rare musical score adds another work to Butterworth's small but distinguished musical legacy and we are delighted to be putting in on display for all to see.'

Image of toy theatre sheet for Jack and the beanstalk by E L Blanchard.The manuscript score of Butterworth's Crown Winter with Green will be on public display in the Bodleian's Weston Library from Wednesday 14 December to Sunday 18 December, 10am-5pm (11am-5pm on Sunday). The display will be accompanied by a digital kiosk where visitors can hear a recording of the song.

The rediscovered musical score of Crown winter with green has now been catalogued and is available for study at the Bodleian Libraries.

The Bodleian Libraries hold most of Butterworth's surviving autograph music manuscripts, including all the extant orchestral works, as well as letters and other related material. This includes his wartime diary and a scrapbook containing, amongst other things, letters of condolence to his father and the telegrams informing his parents of his death in the trenches. Of particular note is the manuscript of an unfinished work, Orchestral Fantasia, which hebegan in 1914 and left incomplete when he went to war but notably did not destroy. Recently, composer-conductors Kriss Russman and Martin Yates have independently completed and recorded two different versions of the piece, giving us opportunities to hear how it might have sounded had Butterworth lived long enough to complete it himself.

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