George Butterworth dances

If you’re a fan of British classical music, there really is something quite special about seeing the EFDSS’s Kinora film transfers of George Butterworth morris dancing.

I remember the first time I found these while writing the first War Composers post about him I was absolutely astonished. I mean, these Kinora films date from 1912, so are over 100 years old; what are the chances of finding a moving picture, essentially a “home video” of a composer from that period?

Rather than just a document of folk dancing techniques that the films were originally created as, I think the reason I find them so utterly compelling is that they remind us that George Butterworth was alive; not just a composer from 100 years ago but a sprightly, athletic young man with a sense of humour.

That might seem an odd, even sentimental thing to say, but sometimes there is a tendency to look at a historic composer and his oeuvre rather dryly without considering the person behind the name or the music. That’s why when writing on the site I chose to refer to them by their first names or even nicknames when discussing biographical details (George rather than as “Butterworth” or Ernest rather than “Farrar”), and use surnames only for discussing their compositions.

It might seem an odd editorial decision, and one that given the rigid etiquette of their time would probably have seemed inappropriate to them. However, by referring to them just by a surname it can turn them into just a name on a page, and if this website achieves anything I want it to remind readers that these were all people not unlike us with real-world concerns and aspirations.

If you read the surviving diary accounts of George Butterworth going around collecting folk music, they’re actually quite funny. A friend of mine read the 1977 Russell Wortley & Michael Dawney article “Butterworth’s Diary of Morris Dance Hunting” and said she couldn’t help feeling it was bit of an excuse to cycle around the countryside visiting pubs, albeit all in a good cause of preserving British heritage.

I think there’s a certain truth there, and his wry portraits of the old people he met in the pubs and their antics recreating dances for him to note down add to this feeling: I can almost imagine them being turned into a little TV play not unlike Alan Bennett’s A Day Out (1972) or even, dare I say, Last of the Summer Wine.

If you do get a chance to read his morris dance diary, or just watch the Kinora films, I highly recommend them, as they turn George Butterworth into a person, as well as the composer of A Shropshire Lad.

George Jerrard Wilkinson

We’re now well into 2014, and as the centenary of WWI looms, I’m slowly adding pages about composers who fought in the conflict.

However, finding information about some of them, especially those that have been largely ignored so far, is quite tricky for obvious reasons – whereas George Butterworth is well known, for example, it’s often while reading articles about these more famous composers that one finds a reference to another much more obscure figure.

A good example is George Jerrard Wilkinson, a composer and folk dancer who was a friend of George Butterworth. Very little has been written about Wilkinson, or at least that I have found at the moment.

So far, all I know is that he was born in 1885 and, according to Stephen Banfield in his Sensibility and English Song wrote some songs with “Edwardian charm”. He was part of Cecil Sharp’s folk dance demonstration side alongside George Butterworth. He’s the one on the far right of the photo featured on the Butterworth biography page. It’s always nice to put a face to a name.

According to an article by Mrs Helen Wilkinson (one of the dancers in the Kinora film on the Butterworth article), published in the English Folk Dance Society News in May 1924 (available online at the American Morris News website

“Mr. G. J. Wilkinson was killed in the Battle of the Somme, 1916. He was a musician. His arrangements of some of Mr. Sharp’s folk-songs with pianoforte and string accompaniments are probably known to a good many readers. He was able to devote a good deal of his time to teaching folk-dancing, and he inspired people in many places who still keep up the dancing to this day. His dancing was a lesson in perfect finish and accuracy.”

Following the outbreak of the war, he became a sergeant in the 16th Middlesex Regiment which was a signalling battalion tasked with storming Hawthorn Redoubt on the 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. He was killed that day and is commemorated on the Thiepval monument. Via a forum post about the Middlesex Regiment, there is a posting of a scrapbook by a member of the regiment which features this rather good pencil sketch of the composer, which comparing it with the morris side photograph is undoubtedly the same man.

It appears that an article “Unsung Hero: George Jerrard Wilkinson – A Beautiful Accurate Dancer” was written about him by Georgina Boyes in the journal English Dance & Song; Autumn 2012, Vol. 74 Issue 3, p20, mention of which is on this website. The abstract states that the composer’s father was vicar of St. John’s Church, Ladywood, Birmingham while his mother was the daughter of the Bishop of Brisbane. It states he studied music at Cambridge and worked with Cecil Sharp on arrangements of country dance tunes aged 19. This gives a useful clue to finding other information about him. For example, the Cambridge University connection yields that he was a student at Gonville & Caius College, as he is listed on their war memorial.

In terms of original compositions works, nothing has been recorded that I can see. Titles of published works listed by the COPAC database of academic and research libraries include the Choric Song from Tennyson’s “Lotos Eaters” (1916) which is presumably his largest work, being scored for baritone solo, male chorus and orchestra, Four Songs about Children for voice and piano (1916), Nine Songs and Duets (1913), which are settings of various Japanese poems which the blurb claims he translated (was he a Japanese speaker, or did he translate the German?), and “Suzette” a song with words by E. B. Piercy [?] (1916).

Most seem to have been published in 1916 which implies a posthumous publication. Did he write any other music that was considered uncommercial to publish? All these songs are only available in the British Library, which itself tells me that they were not widely disseminated; the BL is generally a “last resort” for inter-library loan requests as they are a place that often holds the only surviving copy of certain scores. While this is unlikely to be true for Wilkinson, certainly his works are not really known at all.

Unfortunately, this isn’t really enough information for an article at the moment. I shall keep looking…

UPDATE: I have now posted an article about G J Wilkinson on the main site.

War Composers blog

This is the blog attached to the website, which as the name suggests is a website looking at composers with a connection to the First World War.

Despite the title of the website, I have been trying not to make it a site about the War. Plenty of military and social historians have already done that, and much as WWI is the thing that ultimately binds this collection of young musicians together, the war is almost always a small percentage of their lives, and with a few exceptions the one time when they were not involved in music-making.

Whereas the war seemed to bring out an extraordinary flourish of poetry, one can only imagine how much more difficult it would have been to write music under military conditions. This what makes those rare examples of compositions written at the Front – including pieces by Frederick Kelly, Cecil Coles, Ivor Gurney, Ernest Farrar – even more penetrating.

This blog is intended to feature some of the highways and byways of the research on this project, with mention of things that are perhaps related, interesting facts, updates, and questions that readers may be able to help me with.