George Butterworth: The Banks of the Greenwillow


George Butterworth was born in Paddington, 1885. Soon after his birth the Butterworth family moved to moved to Yorkshire. His mother was a singer, and she was his first major influence in the world of music. Butterworth began composing at an early age, whilst also learning the organ. Butterworth gained a scholarship at Eton College, where his musical promise was nurtured and grown into fruition. After he graduated from Eton College, Butterworth went to Trinity College, Oxford, where his studies in music became much more focused. Whilst there he met a wealth of inspiring people, for instance Ralph Vaughan Williams and Adrian Boult. 

Butterworth made a good friend in Vaughan Williams, and they made several trips into the English countryside to collect folk songs. The answer is, yes it can! Butterworth was also known as a professional Morris dancer, and he was a member of the Demonstration Team. Butterworth’s career began with him writing for The Times, as well as teaching at Radley College, Oxford. He also began studying piano and organ at the Royal College of Music, with his tutor being Hubert Parry, however this lasted less than a year as Butterworth realised that the academic way of life was not for him.

When World War I broke out, Butterworth joined the British Army as a Private. He worked his way up the scale and became a Lieutenant. 1916 saw The Battle of the Somme at its most intense. Amid the chaos Butterworth was shot through the head by a sniper. His men buried him in the side of the trench, and his body was never recovered for a formal burial. Butterworth was 31. After his tragic death, he was awarded the Military Cross. His 1913 composition, The Banks of Green Willow, became known for being synonymous with the sacrifices made by Butterworth’s generation. It has become an anthem for the ‘Unknown Soldiers’.


The Music

In his short lifetime, Butterworth wrote three orchestral works, with The Banks of Green Willow being the most well-known. The work is composed for a small sized orchestra.

The main melodies found in this work are based on English folk songs, which was something of a trend between Butterworth’s English contemporaries. Whilst on a trip in the countryside with Vaughan Williams, Butterworth made recordings with his phonograph of “Mr & Mrs Cranstone” of Billinghurst and David Clements of Basingstoke. Butterworth described this work as an ‘idyll’ which implies it is perhaps a pause from real life, and these 6 musical minutes represent the ideal place to be both mentally and physically. 

This piece is essentially a musical illustration of the recordings he took and the in-depth knowledge he had on folk traditions. The work is also based on a folk ballad of the same name. The ballad essentially tells the tale of a farmer’s daughter who falls in love with a sea-captain, becomes pregnant and runs away with him to sea, having first stolen money from her parents. She has a difficult labour on board the ship and realises that she will soon die. She asks her lover to tie her up and throw both her and her baby overboard. Here is the folk song lyrics below:

‘Tis of a sea-captain

Down by the sea-side, O,

He’s courted a young lady,

And he’s got her by child.

“Go fetch your father’s gold

And some of your mother’s money,

And go all across the ocean,

All along with young Johnny.”

“I’ve brought my father’s gold

And some of my mother’s money,

And I’ll go all across the ocean,

All along with my Johnny.”

Now they had not been sailing,

No not miles a great many

Before she was delivered

Of a beautiful baby.

“Go and fetch a white napkin

For to tie my head easy,

And throw me right overboard –

Both me and my baby.”

Now see how she totters,

And see how she tumbles,

And see how she’s rolling

All across the salt waters.

“Go fetch me a longboat

For to row my love back again,

For to row my true love back again,

Both her and her baby.”

“For she shall have a coffin,

And the coffin it shall shine yellow,

And she shall be buried

On the banks of green willow.”


Although this dark story is the basis of Butterworth’s work, the main idea of the work is to depict the resting place of the young woman and her baby after the events have unfolded.

The piece begins with a solo clarinet, which plays a dotted rhythm melody, which sets the pastoral scene of The Banks of Green Willow. The strings then shadow this theme, and create an idyllic and natural scene. The development section brings out all the wonderful musical colour of Butterworth’s theme. A new theme is then stated by the horns, which is warm, however once the strings enter, the mood is slightly more agitated. The oboe changes this somewhat and brings us back to the pastoral.

A to and fro musical dialogue between the winds and strings sees the two sides to this idyllic scene. The harp plays a glissando in the background, which leads us into the next development and recapitulation section. The brass and strings play a wonderfully romantic motif, which reaches a climax, and is then brought back down and slowly diluted to a quiet dynamic.

The flute then plays a delightful solo, with the harp as its only accompaniment, which contrasts the previous sections. A solo violin then takes the motif and creates a variation of it, before the string ensemble return with a warm counter-melody. The solo violin closes the piece with a delicate solo in its top register, with the string ensemble ending on a warm A major chord.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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1 Comment

A Simple Guide to Morning Time | April 2021 · 24th March 2021 at 10:52 pm

[…] You can read more about Butterworth here: Butterworth “The Banks of Green Willow” […]

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