Lost Christmas 'drinking song' discovered | University of Oxford
Butterworth
A portrait of George Butterworth as a young man, taken from the Bodleian Libraries' Butterworth collection

Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Lost Christmas 'drinking song' discovered

Matt Pickles

A long-lost song by English composer George Butterworth has been rediscovered at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, a century after his death in the trenches.

The three-page score is a musical setting of a short festive poem by Robert Bridges, beginning with the words Crown winter with green. It is believed to be the only surviving copy of this Butterworth composition.

It was found among a group of uncatalogued music manuscripts which were transferred from the library in Oxford University's Music Faculty to the Bodleian's Weston Library.

The festive find is particularly special because the body of Butterworth’s surviving work is relatively small. Butterworth (1885-1916) was one of the most promising English composers of his generation, but his life was cut short when, at the age of 31, he was killed at the Battle of the Somme in World War I.

Before going off to war he destroyed all of his music which he thought not worthy of preserving. His few surviving works, which include his song settings of AE Housman’s poems from A Shropshire Lad and an orchestral idyll The Banks of Green Willow, are considered masterpieces.

The newly-discovered song has three verses and the lyrics speak of Christmas cheer. It begins with the words ‘Crown winter with green, And give him good drink To physic his spleen …’ and ends with the lines ‘And merry be we This good Yuletide.’ Butterworth’s later music often drew inspiration from English folk music and traditions. He wrote the musical setting for this poem in the style of a drinking song, for voice and piano. 

It is not known how the manuscript came to be in the Bodleian Libraries. One possibility is that Butterworth’s father, Sir Alexander Kaye Butterworth, may have passed it on to Sir Hugh Allen, who was a great friend of the composer from his days as an undergraduate at the University of Oxford. Allen was Heather Professor of Music at Oxford from 1918 until his death in 1946, after which his collection of books and music was incorporated into the University’s Music Faculty Library, which is now part of the Bodleian Libraries. It is possible that the song was among these papers but its significance was not noticed at the time.

‘The song’s musical and technical shortcomings suggest that it is probably one of Butterworth’s earlier pieces, possibly dating from his school or student days, which would have been in the early years of the 20th century,’ said Martin Holmes, Alfred Brendel Curator of Music, who rediscovered the manuscript at the Bodleian.

‘As a song, Crown winter with green may not be a masterpiece, in the way that Butterworth’s later Housman songs undoubtedly are, but it can perhaps be seen as a small step on the path towards his musical maturity.'

The manuscript score of Butterworth’s Crown Winter with Green will be on public display in the Bodleian’s Weston Library from Wednesday 14 December to Sunday 18 December, 10am – 5pm (11am-5pm on Sunday). The display will be accompanied by a listening post where visitors can hear a recording of the song.