Serenade to Spring with George Butterworth and Ralph Vaughan Williams


During the summer months, I anticipate I’ll be offline more than on. For the moment, here are photographs of Innisfree Garden taken May 22, 2015, and music by George Butterworth and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

George Butterworth (1885-1916) is represented on the listening list by Two English Idylls (with grateful thanks to Bert Carter at the Great Composers Appreciation Society for making us aware of these lovely works)

From 1900 to the later 1920s, there was a concerted effort by composers and musicologists headed by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp to preserve the unique ‘traditional’ music of England which had been part of an unwritten oral tradition passed down between generations of singers and families. . . . After meeting Ralph Vaughan Williams at Oxford, George [Butterworth] became a keen collector of these folk songs, joining the Folk-Song Society in 1906 and eventually collecting more than 450 items including songs, dance tunes and dances . . . .

George was particularly keen on traditional English folk dances, and he became a founder member of the English Folk Dance Society in 1911. He was part of a team that demonstrated these dances around the country . . . . [citation]

Butterworth was killed in the Battle of the Somme on August 5, 1916.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) is represented on the listening list by Serenade to Music.

Early in 1938 Henry Wood asked Ralph Vaughan Williams . . . to compose a piece that would be performed on October 5 at a concert celebrating Wood’s golden jubilee as a conductor. Happy to oblige, Vaughan Williams asked if he had in mind a poet whose words would be appropriate. Wood gave him free rein, saying the words should not be specifically an ode to himself but suitable for many an occasion. He amplified in a telephone call that he wanted something for sixteen solo singers—all associates from his long career—and Vaughan Williams settled on a text he had always wanted to set—the scene in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (Act V, Scene 1) when lovers Jessica and Lorenzo discuss music by the light of the moon as they await Portia’s return from Venice.

The gala performance . . . took place at the Royal Albert Hall with the sixteen singers . . . [and] contingents from the BBC Symphony, London Symphony, London Philharmonic and Queen’s Hall Orchestra all conducted by Wood. Rachmaninoff, who had performed his Second Piano Concerto on the first half [of the program], later wrote a letter that Wood shared with Vaughan Williams, saying that he had never before been so moved by a piece of music as by the Serenade. [citation]


Listening List

The inspiration for this listening list came about on listening to the Great Composers Appreciation Society selections for this month, on the theme of “Folk Music in the Concert Hall.” Our main selections for the month, once again ably chosen by our helmsman, Brian Long, include Zoltan Kodaly: Concerto for Orchestra; Ralph Vaughan Williams: Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus”; Leos Janacek: Taras Bulba; and Bela Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste.

On Spotify: Butterworth, Two English Idylls (1911) (London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Adrian Boult), and Vaughan Williams, Serenade to Music (1938) While not entirely clear from the available information, it appears that Serenade to Music is performed in the original version for 16 soloists and orchestra by Felicity Lott, Lisa Milne, Rosa Mannion, Yvonne Kenny, Ann Murray, Diana Montague, Della Jones, Catherine Wyn Rogers, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, John Mark Ainsley, Toby Spence, Timothy Robinson, Stephen Roberts, Christopher Maltman, Michael George, Robert Lloyd, Duncan Riddell, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Roger Norrington. [citation; see #36 on the list]

On YouTube:

Butterworth, Two English Idylls (1911)

Vaughan Williams, Serenade to Music (1938)

Text for Serenade to Music:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb that thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear,
And draw her home with music.
I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
The reason is, your spirits are attentive –
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Music! hark!
It is your music of the house.
Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
Silence bestows that virtue on it
How many things by season season’d are
To their right praise and true perfection!
Peace, ho! the moon sleeps with Endymion
And would not be awak’d. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

(passages for chorus in italics) [citation]

Bonus Track: Film footage of Butterworth and others demonstrating various folk dances in full morris gear. (To see Butterworth dancing in the film, go to 1:00 and 3:24. Also, watch closely at around 3:54. The “sound track” is not, unfortunately, the music to which Butterworth and the others are dancing.)


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Credits: All quotations may be found at the sources linked in the post. As always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, the photographs, of Innisfree Garden, May 22, 2015, are mine.

8 thoughts on “Serenade to Spring with George Butterworth and Ralph Vaughan Williams

  1. shoreacres

    Your photos are the very essence of spring — delightful. And I couldn’t help but smile at the Morris dancing. I never can hear “Morris dancing” without thinking of Barbra Streisand singing about a Morris chair. (She always added, “What in the world is a Morris chair?”)

    I have no idea what you musical sorts think of it, but I do love Vaughn Williams’s “English Folk Song Suite.” Every time you mention his name, I have another listen, and inevitably move on to another selection or two. The Suite is cheerful, and cheering.

    I suspect you may be doing more travel? I hope so. We’ll be happy to accept any reports that come our way.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: I’d forgotten entirely about that Morris chair line! (I used to own a Morris chair, in actual fact. La-Z-Boy had nothin’ on Morris when it came to recliners.) “You musical sorts” had me laughing. I hardly think I qualify as such, but I am happy to report I’m enjoying the VW Suite–listening now. Britten wrote a nice Suite on English Folk Tunes, also. (And here’s a little bit of back story on the Britten Suite, mentioning the VW Suite along the way: The names alone are irresistible:

      I: Cakes and Ale
      II: The Bitter Withy
      III: Hankin Booby
      IV: Hunt the Squirrel
      V: Lord Melbourne

      We’re not doing a Big Trip this year, but we will take a smaller Stateside trip, and no doubt photographs will be taken along the way. We’ve vowed this year to get the veg garden “in shape” (right now, it looks as if a weed couldn’t possibly grow with all the mulching work we’ve done–but I’m sure you know how that’s bound to go). Anyway, I’m easing off on internet time in service of that and other out-of-doors activities, particularly after being so cooped up this winter!

  2. David N

    Wonderful images of spring in bud, bloom and leaf – peonies I can’t identify, fabulous shots in and by the water – and is that a kind of iris at the top?

    Strictly speaking the time is past but John Foulds’s April – England, the rarity in Saturday night’s concert, is a riot of awakening nature: gets a bit steroidal in the middle, but maybe that’s right.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: The flower in the head photograph is, I believe, false indigo, still in bud. I’m so pleased you enjoyed the photographs. Innisfree, always photogenic, seemed particularly so that day. I’m sorry I’m not a better namer-of-flowers, which you always do so well your way. I seem to get captivated by the colors and shapes and get no further than that–although today I was out walking with a friend in Riverside Park (NYC) and when we stopped at a lovely community garden, I was surprised at how many of the flowers I did know (though not particulars, e.g., not what type of peony).

      The Foulds is a delightful piece, and as we are a good month behind your spring, it certainly seems fitting to think of it here. I enjoyed that concert on BBC Radio 3 very much, by the way. While my knowledge of the pieces and musical memory for other versions is limited, Tapiola, particularly, seemed to me to be entirely fresh, as if I were hearing it for the first time. I thoroughly enjoyed the Oramo/BBCSO Nielsen 6, also. That is such a great piece, isn’t it? And I sure can picture Shostakovich being attracted to it. I wasn’t able to get the full measure of the Rach performance–technical problems with my set-up sometimes cause a plague of buffering–but what I heard sounded very good indeed. (For anyone who is interested, I’m popping in links both to the concert and your great review on The Arts Desk:

  3. Friko

    The Innisfree pictures aren’t working for me which is a great shame.
    I hope you are having a lovely early summer with lots of outdoor activity.

    One of Jeremy’s quartet friends discovered a lost piece by Butterworth and they performed it for the first time in public in C. Church several years ago. A music critic from a Birmingham newspaper came and various other bods from the music world. It made a small splash, I remember, and we had a big party afterwards at our house.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: So sorry you weren’t able to view the photos, but then you have such a beautiful garden, who needs more! I’m glad, nonetheless that you came by to share that Butterworth story. I’m wondering whether the string quartet was the one referred to as “a recently discovered large-scale suite for string quartet” here:, which, while published now, doesn’t seem to have been recorded, though I did spot that it was performed very recently (May 24) at the English Music Festival:

  4. hilarymb

    Hi Susan … enjoy the summer and creating that veggie garden. Innisfree always looks so amazing and I’m glad you mentioned the false indigo. The photos are working for me – so I had a lovely time checking in … One day I will get to the music, but am so pleased to have the words here for the Serenade to Music … they describe nature so wondrously.

    Happy gardening, going out and about and photographing much you see .. cheers Hilary

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Thank you, Hilary. Glad the photos worked for you. I’m sort of not holding my breath on you getting to the music, since you’ve been noting that since year of the flood, but should you decide finally to dip in, try the Butterworth English Idylls. They’re really lovely . . . as is the Serenade to Music, I think you’ll find.

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