Classical Connections: Rivers of Life

George Butterworth in 1914.

“A river,” wrote Laura Gilpin, “seems a magic thing … a magic, moving, living part of the very earth itself.”  Now Laura Gilpin you might recall, was an indefatigable American pioneer photographer remembered not only for her expressive portraits of Native Americans, but also for her monochrome photographs of south-western landscapes.  As a child, her mother encouraged her to study music, and she even spent five years at the New England Conservatory of Music.  As it turned out, her musical talent did not blossom as anticipated but instead she became one of the great names in photography who in addition, became one of the finest exponents of platinum printing.

In his short piece River of Life, the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell wrote, “The more we live, more brief appear our life’s succeeding stages.”  Anyone over a Certain Age will recognise a melancholic ring of truth in that.  “Life is like the river,” Emma Smith wrote; “Sometimes it sweeps you gently along and sometimes the rapids come out of nowhere.”  I suppose most of us have experienced that sort of thing.  Comparisons between rivers and life it would seem are hard to resist.

Battles have been fought over rivers or at least, close to them.  The Battle of the Somme was a horrific and tragic episode during the First World War, involving British and French troops against those of the German Empire.  The battle began in July 1916 and raged for over four months on both sides of the River Somme in France.  By the following November, over a million soldiers had been killed or wounded.

One of them was 31-year-old George Butterworth, a Lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry who had already been awarded the Military Cross for bravery.  On 5th August 1916 in the muddy trenches near the river, he was killed by sniper fire.  Few other soldiers, including his commanding officer were aware that Butterworth was one of the most promising young English composers of his generation.

George Butterworth (1885-1916): The Banks of Green Willow. National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain, cond. Roger Clarkson (Duration: 06:34; Video: 480p)

Although he was born in London’s Paddington district, the family soon moved to Yorkshire so that his father could take up an appointment as General Manager of the North Eastern Railway.  The boy received his first music lessons from his mother and he began composing at an early age, playing the organ for services in the chapel of his elementary school.  He won a scholarship to Eton College and later in life became a close friend of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The Banks of Green Willow was written in 1913 and it’s a pastoral piece, based loosely on a folk song that Butterworth heard and wrote down in Sussex.  The title implies a musical picture of a river somewhere in England, but we don’t know exactly where.  The work is given a lively performance by the National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain, a well-established organisation in the UK.  Hearing these young musicians playing with such commitment and maturity it is hard to believe that they are all less than thirteen years old.

Like so much of the music by Delius and Vaughan Williams, this work sounds utterly English.  It’s a picture of the England that Butterworth loved so much and for which, like so many others, he fought for – and paid for – with his life.

Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884): Die Moldau. Chamber Orchestra of Europe, cond. Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Duration: 14:38; Video: 360p)

Unlike Butterworth’s meandering English river, we know exactly where this one lies.  Bedřich Smetana is known today as the grandfather of Czech music because he pioneered a totally national musical style.

Má Vlast, meaning “My Homeland” is a set of six symphonic poems that Smetana wrote during the 1870s and one of the movements is called Vltava, also known by its German name Die Moldau.  It describes the journey of the Vltava River from its source in the Bohemian mountains through the countryside to the city of Prague.  The Czech name probably comes from an old Germanic expression wilt ahwa, meaning “wild water”.  The piece contains Smetana’s most famous melody, an adaptation of a borrowed Moldavian folksong which is strikingly similar to the tune of the Israeli national anthem.

Despite the slowish tempo, this is one the most expressive recent recordings I’ve heard.  It’s beautifully timed and phrased with responsive playing from the orchestra.  It starts with a musical impression of two springs, with water bubbling out of the earth, which eventually leads into the main theme.  There are musical snapshots of a hunt in the forest, a peasant wedding, water-nymphs in the moonlight, St John’s Rapids and finally the concluding section in which the river triumphantly enters Prague and then flows majestically away into the distance.