For many The Banks of Green Willow (1913) – by the English composer, George Butterworth – conjures up idyllic pastoral images of lazy summer days when life passed by at a gentler pace. Actually, however, the folk song from which Butterworth drew inspiration tells the disturbing tale of a farmer’s daughter who falls pregnant to a young sea-captain, steals money from her parents and runs away with him to sea. She goes into a difficult labour whilst on board ship and, knowing she will die, she asks her lover to throw her and her baby overboard. Rather shockingly he agrees and, as she drowns, he sings a lament to “my true love, whom I once loved so dearly” and who shall be buried on “The Banks of Green Willow”.
The premiere of The Banks of Green Willow took place in February 1914, with Adrian Boult conducting in his professional debut. Six months later, upon the outbreak of the First World War, Butterworth enlisted and was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry. A brave solder, he was awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry, although he did not live to receive it. He was killed, aged 31, on 5 August 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. His Brigadier Commander wrote that Butterworth was: “A brilliant musician in times of peace, and an equally brilliant soldier in times of stress”. Butterworth was perhaps the most gifted of all the young composers who lost their lives in the Great War.