George Sainton Kaye Butterworth (July 12, 1885 - August 5, 1916) was a British composer best known for his settings of A. E. Housman's poems.
Born in London into a musical family who moved to Yorkshire early in his life, Butterworth received his first music lessons from his mother, who was a singer. He began composing at an early age, but his father intended for him to be a solicitor, and he was sent to Eton College, and from there went to Trinity College, Oxford.
It was at Trinity that he became more concentrated on music, for there he met the folk song collector Cecil Sharp and composer and folk song enthusiast, Ralph Vaughan Williams. Butterworth and Vaughan Williams made several trips into the English countryside to collect folk songs, and both their compositions were to be strongly influenced by what they heard. Butterworth was also an expert folk dancer, being particularly fond of Morris dancing.
Vaughan Williams and Butterworth became close friends. It was Butterworth suggested to Vaughan Williams that he turn a symphonic poem he was working on into his second symphony (the London Symphony), and he also helped in assembling the sketches for that work. Vaughan Williams dedicated the piece to him after Butterworth's death.
Upon leaving Oxford, Butterworth began a career in music, writing criticism for The Times , composing and teaching at Radley College, Oxfordshire. He also briefly studied at the Royal College of Music where he was taught by Hubert Parry among others.
At the outbreak of World War I, Butterworth signed up for service. He was killed by a sniper in 1916 at Pozières leading a raid during the Battle of the Somme. His body was not recovered, and his name may be found on the Thiepval memorial, near the site of the Somme. He was awarded the Military Cross and a trench was named after him.
Butterworth did not write a great deal of music, and he destroyed many the works he did not care for during the war. Of those that survive, it is his works based on A. E. Housman's collection of poems A Shropshire Lad, which are the best known. Many English composers of Butterworth's time set Housman's poetry, but none are as famous as these.
In 1911 and 1912, Butterworth wrote two song cycles on Housman's poems. They are rarely performed in full today, although six of the songs are often presented together, with "Is My Team Ploughing?" the most famous. Another, "Lovliest of Trees", is the basis for his orchestral rhapsody of later in 1912, also called A Shropshire Lad.
The parallel between the often morbid subject matter of A Shropshire Lad, set in the context of the Boer War, and Butterworth's subsequent death during the Great War is frequently commented upon.
A number of other short orchestral works are sometimes heard by Butterworth, Banks of Green Willow (1913), among them. It is generally thought by those who have studied his work that his early death prevented his full talent coming to light.