One of England's most distinctive composers, George Butterworth was born on 12 July 1885 in London, the only child of Sir Alexander Kaye Butterworth (1854-1946), a solicitor and later general manager of the North Eastern Railway Company. George first attended school in Yorkshire before entering Eton College as a King's scholar in 1899. His aptitude for music was nurtured there as well as with Christian Padel in York. From 1904 to 1908 he was in residence at Trinity College, Oxford, where he managed a third class in the honour school of literae humaniores and was active in musical circles, holding the presidency of the university musical club from October 1906 to March 1907.
Following Oxford he worked for a short while as a music critic for The Times and also contributed to the second edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1904-1910). Following a brief teaching post at Radley College he returned to London and from October 1910 to November 1911 was enrolled at the Royal College of Music, where he studied organ and piano, as well as theory and composition.
His involvement with English folk music and dance now began and his close friendship and collaboration with a leading figure in this burgeoning movement, Ralph Vaughan Williams, which had begun in his Oxford days, was central to this. Butterworth became a collector, noting down more than 450 items, including songs, dance tunes, and dances. In 1906 he joined the Folk-Song Society and later became a prominent figure in the English Folk Dance Society, of which he was one of the founders in 1911, as well as a member of its dance demonstration team. He collected and arranged an album of Sussex folk songs and, in collaboration with Cecil Sharp, published several books of country and morris dances.
Butterworth enlisted on the outbreak of war in August 1914 and was commissioned in the 13th Durham Light Infantry. He was three times recommended for, and was twice awarded, the Military Cross. The second decoration honoured conduct on the morning of his death, 5 August 1916; when he was killed at Pozieres during the first battle of the Somme. He was buried at the front line.
Butterworth's surviving compositions date mostly from the period 1910-1914. It comprises eighteen songs, three short choral pieces, a suite for string quartet (unpublished), and four orchestral pieces, three of which are idylls partially based on folk-song material, and the fourth a rhapsody thematically connected with two of the songs in arguably his most famous piece, A Shropshire Lad.
At his death, Butterworth left the majority of his manuscripts to Vaughan Williams, the folk music and dance material of which are now housed at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library (VWML). A Kinora film of him dancing in 1912 also exists (see the YouTube video below).
The earliest known examples of English folk dance on film, featuring sisters Maud and Helen Karpeles, Cecil Sharp and George Butterworth.