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Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad

first performed in their final form on 20 June 1911
author of text
A Shropshire Lad

Critical opinion has generally singled out Butterworth’s settings as the finest among the many composers who were attracted to Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. They were written between 1909 and 1911 and, probably under the influence of Somervell, were initially conceived as a cycle with a loose narrative thread. In this guise nine songs received their premiere in Oxford on 16 May 1911; J Campbell McInnes was the baritone and Butterworth accompanied him. Butterworth must have swiftly changed his mind about the success of the sequence for by the following month it was the Six songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ in their published version that were performed in London on 20 June at the Aeolian Hall when McInnes again was the singer and Hamilton Harty accompanied.

It was in Butterworth’s Housman settings that English folksong was wholly and effortlessly absorbed into English art song, and no more so than in the perfection of ‘Loveliest of trees’. Its opening is a brief, magical descending phrase for piano, which seems to encapsulate both the delicacy and transience of the blossom and, by extension, of life itself. This and other snatches of melody in the song, such as the exultant outburst at the end of the first stanza, form the basis of the later orchestral rhapsody.

‘When I was one-and-twenty’ is the only time when Butterworth uses a traditional folk tune in his Housman songs. The young man’s bitter realisation of the folly of spurning the ‘wise’ man’s advice is brilliantly emphasised by a mere one-bar extension of the tune at the conclusion of the song. In ‘Look not in my eyes’ Housman alludes to the myth of Narcissus. It is set to a flowing melody in 5/4 time and has a fine moment of word painting at the end of the first verse where, on the word ‘eyes’, the music literally halts with an arpeggiated chord of C major, epitomising the forbidden long deep gaze. It is contrasted by a devil-may-care rendering of ‘Think no more, lad’, a fine piece of musical irony with a superficially carefree manner that masks the darker undertones of the poem.

A characteristic of the songs is their economy of means, something which is amply demonstrated in ‘The lads in their hundreds’ with its lilting melody, piano ritornello between verses derived from it and spare harmony. Arguably Butterworth’s greatest Housman setting, ‘Is my team ploughing?’ is a conversation between the quick and the dead with melody and harmony that are heart-rending in effect. Irony, once again, is at the heart of the poem where the ghost poses a series of questions to his living friend about his former life and lover. The poignant falling sequence of bare chords uncannily suggests the cold of the grave; by comparison the chords underpinning his friend’s answers course with life. After the chilling last response, side-stepping the truth about the fate of the dead man’s girl, the chords of the ghost fade to end the song in utter bleakness.

from notes by Andrew Burn © 2003


Housman: A Shropshire Lad
CDD220442CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) — Archive Service
Vaughan Williams: Songs of Travel; Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad
The Soldier
Studio Master: SIGCD592Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
A Treasury of English Song
This album is not yet available for downloadHYP30Super-budget price sampler — Deleted


No 1: Loveliest of trees
Track 26 on CDA67378 [2'26]
Track 2 on CDD22044 CD1 [3'11] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) — Archive Service
Track 1 on SIGCD592 [2'35] Download only
No 2: When I was one-and-twenty
Track 27 on CDA67378 [1'23]
Track 14 on CDD22044 CD1 [1'17] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) — Archive Service
Track 19 on SIGCD592 [1'23] Download only
No 3: Look not in my eyes
Track 28 on CDA67378 [2'01]
Track 16 on CDD22044 CD1 [2'13] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) — Archive Service
Track 4 on SIGCD592 [2'06] Download only
No 4: Think no more, lad
Track 29 on CDA67378 [1'20]
Track 20 on CDD22044 CD2 [1'20] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) — Archive Service
No 5: The lads in their hundreds
Track 30 on CDA67378 [2'15]
Track 24 on CDD22044 CD1 [2'02] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) — Archive Service
Track 20 on SIGCD592 [2'28] Download only
Track 29 on HYP30 [2'02] Super-budget price sampler — Deleted
No 6: Is my team ploughing?
Track 31 on CDA67378 [3'41]
Track 28 on CDD22044 CD1 [3'39] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) — Archive Service
Track 21 on SIGCD592 [3'43] Download only

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