Obituary: Arthur Butterworth, MBE, composer and conductor

Arthur Butterworth MBE: Prolific composer and conductor who had a deep love for Scotland
Arthur Butterworth MBE: Prolific composer and conductor who had a deep love for Scotland
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Born: 4 August, 1923, near Manchester. Died: 20 November, 2014, in Yorkshire, aged 91

Arthur Butterworth was a prolific composer whose works reflected his English background and who was often inspired by his love of the English and Scottish countryside. He also wrote widely for brass bands. His symphonies gained a considerable following and the conductor Sir John Barbirolli championed his music as early as the 1950s – at the 1958 Proms, Barbirolli conducted Butterworth’s 1st Symphony. He loved the open spaces of Yorkshire and his Dales Suite captured a feeling for their rugged beauty. He said of his 4th Symphony: “It is a nature work, a rugged craggy piece – conceived one cold, clear November day on the high Yorkshire moorlands.”

From 1949 to 1955 Butterworth played in the brass section with the Scottish National Orchestra, then under the baton of Walter Susskind.

In his early years with the SNO Butterworth often used to rehearse the orchestra, especially prior to the arrival of visiting conductors. Susskind gave him some concerts to conduct and the last one was in 1954 in the Usher Hall. Almost ten years ago he returned to the RSNO to record his own 4th Symphony and Viola Concerto.

Butterworth delighted in telling the story when Alexander Gibson had scheduled a performance of his 1st Symphony in 1961 but the conductor confessed that he had a problem. There was a serious illness in the trumpet section and Gibson begged Butterworth to stand in and play the second trumpet part.

So Butterworth played his 1st Symphony in the Usher Hall and graciously accepted the applause when Gibson asked him to take a solo call as the composer.

Arthur Eckersley Butterworth was born into a musical family, singing in the local church choir and playing trombone and trumpet in the village brass band.

On leaving school at 15, he worked in the legal department of an estate agent and was then called up into the Royal Engineers – part of the 51st Highland Division. He did much of his service in Dundee and it was at this time that his passion for the Scottish hills and countryside was born.

In an interview, when visiting Glasgow in 2008, he ended the conversation with a bright smile, saying: “I just love coming back to Scotland.”

After being demobbed, Butterworth studied the trumpet and composition at the Royal Manchester College of Music.

He composed prolifically in his student days and in 1950 Ralph Vaughan Williams agreed to give him some lessons. In 1955 he left Glasgow and joined the Hallé Orchestra. While playing with the Hallé, Butterworth composed his first symphony which led to the conductor and orchestra performing it at the 1958 Proms.

The acclaim he received for the symphony encouraged him to give up playing and concentrate on composing and teaching composition at Huddersfield School of Music.

He was commissioned to write for many of the local brass bands and gained a considerable reputation for his understanding of brass section playing. Such works as The Dales Suite, Odin and Caliban all proved popular with brass bands and one composition which was often played (and gave him a particular pleasure) was the concerto for trumpet and band.

Butterworth conducted professional and amateur orchestras throughout Yorkshire and from 1964-93 was principal conductor of the Huddersfield Philharmonic and from 1975 chief conductor of the National Youth Brass Band. He also had a particularly close relationship with the Settle Orchestra in Yorkshire. Butterworth was appointed its conductor in 1969 and in 1990 its vice-president.

Butterworth remained active in music-making into his eighties. He returned to Glasgow to conduct and record with the RSNO in 2008.

Colleagues remember him with much pleasure: “Arthur was a lovely, warm-hearted gentleman. We recorded a number of his works for the Dutton label, including his 4th and 5th symphonies and the Viola Concerto with Sarah-Jane Bradley.”

He continued to compose and displayed a keen understanding of chamber music, composing charming pieces for a string quartet, piano quintet and sextet and two piano trios. There were also several works for brass instruments and Butterworth completed both his 6th and 7th symphonies.

His connection with Scotland remained with him all his life as he married an Aberdonian. In 1952 he was waiting to rehearse a piece and sat in the hall listening to Dennis Brain and Peter Pears rehearsing Britten’s Serenade for Tenor & Horn.

“I spoke to the pretty girl sitting by me,” Butterworth recalled. “The result was that Diana Stewart and I were married six months later: so my connections with Scotland were thus even more firmly secured.”

Butterworth, who was awarded an MBE in 1995, is survived by two daughters. His wife died in 2012.