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.

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