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Program note: The Song Company Icons

  • Roland Peelman
  • Source: The Song Company Icons March 2005

Nigel Butterley - an Australian lcon
Amongst the generation of Australian composers who, by virtue of bringing Australian music into the modern era, have
now acquired an almost statesman-like figure, Butterley is without any doubt the one who found his most poignant and
personal utterance when the human voice is somehow involved. Either directly as in art songs or works for small a
cappella consorts or large choirs, or implied as in the magisterial orchestral work From Sorrowing Earth, this recurring
aspect (which sets him clearly apart from both Sculthorpe and Meale) perhaps occurred through a natural inclination
towards our much-maligned Anglo-Saxon roots including the English choral tradition, or through a deep love for poetry
in the English language, or, dare I suggest, because the composer's innate lyricism and spirituality, piousness even,
simply thrive together in the very real and imagined space of voices wafting through a resonant acoustic, an experience
both spiritual yet utterly physical because grounded in 'who we are and what we are' as well as 'aspiring to whom and
what we may become'. This fundamentally romantic notion is arguably at the heart of Butterley's creative output,
beautifully encapsulated in the title and concept of his only opera Lawrence Hargrave Flying Alone.lt also explains his
affinity for both Messiaen and Cage, composers he frequently explored as a pianist. Never really a fast composer, his
output to date is nevertheless impressive in all respects: acclaimed radiophonic work (ln the Head the Fire), chamber
music, large orchestral and oratorio work (Spell of Creation), even small occasional pieces for friends, and a series of
vocal works
ln this, his 70th year, The Song Company will revisit There Came a Wind like a Bugle, a small monument of vocal
virtuosity from the mid-8Oies as well as Paradise Unseen, a more recent setting of Kathleen Raine's poetry which
inspired him so often (both were Song Company commissions) for a special Butterley birthday celebration in early
September. Today however we are turning our attention to The True Samaritan, an early choral cycle written at the age
of 23. Whilst still much indebted to earlier English church models, the work already demonstrates a number of genuine
Butterley fingerprints such as the augmented fourth in moving triads and various characteristic melodic turns in the two
more introspective middle movements. There is no equivalent for this piece in the Australian choral literature of the
fifties, which partly explains why it took till 1976 (!) before the work was finally performed. At that point the composer
undertook some minor revisions and in that version the work gradually became well-known amongst self-respecting
chamber choirs. By the year 2003, APRA rewarded it as 'choral piece of the year'. Last year Nigel gave us free license
to adapt the work to the small forces of The Song Company.  It is with love and gratitude we undertook this task.
Roland Peelman