Music blog

09 May 2014

The virtual life of George Butterworth

In May 2013 we posted about the folksong The Banks of Green Willow and how composer George Butterworth made a wax cylinder recording of it being sung in 1909, the tune of which he later incorporated into an orchestral piece of the same name.

The cylinder is on long-term loan from the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), which in the intervening months has completed The Full English project, cataloguing and digitising folk manuscripts to create the world’s biggest free digital archive of English traditional folk music and dance tunes. The British Library is one of seven archive partners for the project.  Our Ralph Vaughan Williams folksong collections are now fully searchable and viewable online through The Full English portal.

This kind of collaborative project demonstrates how the virtual environment can be used to intellectually and digitally unite items held in physically separate locations in different cultural institutions. Presented side by side, these items can build a meaning potentially greater than the sum of their parts and give us a wider understanding of a person, event or period in time.
George Butterworth is a good example. As well as listening to Butterworth’s recording of The Banks of Green Willow on the British Library’s Sounds website, it is now possible to see Butterworth’s original folksong transcriptions on The Full English website. EFDSS has made its own collection of Butterworth material available for all to see, and a quick search of the catalogue brings up the tune and words for The Banks of Green Willow noted down in Butterworth’s own hand.

These online resources allow us to compare versions of the same song. If we wish to go further, we can reassure ourselves that this is indeed Butterworth’s handwriting by comparing this image with another from the newest digital collection to feature Butterworth’s work, Europeana Collections 1914-1918. The Europeana Collections 1914-1918 project brings together printed and manuscript material held by libraries in eight European countries which found themselves on different sides during the First World War. The British Library has contributed a significant number of books, pamphlets, maps, drawings, diaries and other items relating to the war, among them this music manuscript written by Butterworth.

George Butterworth: Preface to Eleven Folksongs from Sussex for voice and piano (1912)
George Butterworth: Preface to Eleven Folksongs from Sussex for voice and piano (1912), British Library Add MS 54369, f. 41r

The manuscript contains Butterworth's Eleven Folksongs from Sussex for voice and piano (1912). In the preface Butterworth explains his methods for collecting folksongs from the singing of ordinary people by noting down the words and tunes.  He explains how he has collected these folk songs and kept the tunes exactly as they were sung, without “improvement”, but had to add or change some words because he believed they were corrupt or wrong. He says that “these folksongs are what Francis Jekyll and I have been collecting over the past six years”, thereby dating the period of collection from 1906 to 1912. The EFDSS manuscripts provide corroborative evidence: there, copies of The Banks of Green Willow are dated 1907 and 1908.

With these resources now online, Butterworth can be remembered, his works enjoyed and studied and his footwork appreciated.

This post is by Louise Bruton, who until recently worked as a Metadata Creator on the Europeana 1914-1918 project at the British Library.

From 10.30 to 13.30 tomorrow, the Full English Archive Open Day at the British Library will give access to some of the original manuscript folksong transcriptions of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger, with illustrated talks about the early folk revival and the collectors. - See more at:


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