Two other orchestral works from the early 1970s reveal Butterley’s thoughtful but idiosyncratic response to high-profile occasions. The piano concerto Explorations was commissioned to mark the bicentenary of James Cook’s voyage to the east coast of Australia in 1770; he received his premiere in the presence of royalty. However, it is not a crowd-pleasing celebration, but one of Butterley’s most uncompromising and hard-hitting scores: rather than focusing on Cook as an Imperial emissary, it instead focuses on his accomplishments as a meticulous cartographer and outstanding seafarer. The performance was apparently met with some dismay. More pleasant, perhaps, was the commission for the exuberant fire in the skiescelebrating the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973. Butterley is inspired here by the Australian landscape poems of Christopher Brennan and Judith Wright, as if to connect this new “sacred space” for the arts to the ground on which it stands.
While the massive climaxes and dense sound waves of these works make a powerful impression, the contrasting passages of stillness and delicate lyricism are equally important, and the latter would prove characteristic of Butterley’s later music.
A decisive shift in tone and general style occurs with the 1976 song cycle Sometimes with the one I love. This work features the poetry and prose of Walt Whitman for soprano, baritone, spoken voice and six instruments; it explores romantic and sexual love, as well as the vocation of the artist. It represents a deeply personal statement for the composer, a creative consideration of his identity and orientation, as well as his estrangement from formal religious expression. Its opening bars feature a pair of cellos playing intertwined lines, their intimacy and tenderness signaling the arrival of Butterley’s mature voice.
While the relaxed and bright optimism of Sometimes with the one I love can also be found in some of Butterley’s later works, including his Third and Fourth String Quartets and Emily Dickinson’s Virtuoso Cycle There came a wind like a bugle (1987), other works are darker or more ambiguous. An example is his only opera, Lawrence Hargrave flying alone. Once again Butterley subverted the expectations attached to a celebratory commission, in this case marking the 1988 bicentenary of European settlement in Australia. Aviation pioneer Lawrence Hargrave makes a decidedly odd national hero: a quixotic visionary whose brilliance has been eclipsed by defeatist idealism, troubled relationships with his family, and completely flawed scientific ideas.
Butterley’s next big project after opera was the 1991 orchestral piece Of the Earth in mourning, a deeply moving one-movement journey from apprehension to consolation to crisis. It may be Butterley’s only work to carry a political and environmental message, but even here the focus is on individual human experience and transformation. It bears an epigraph from the work of the English poet Kathleen Raine, which was to be Butterley’s main source of literary inspiration for the rest of her career. Raine’s work closely matches the composer’s music in its combination of gentle nature-mysticism, distrust and understatement.
creation spell (2000) for voice and orchestra is a crowning achievement and in some ways a summary of Butterley’s entire career. It juxtaposes vibrant expressions of religious faith, Christian and other traditions, with Raine’s poetry that is riddled with doubt. The music is by turns grand, ecstatic and intimate, but ends shrouded in mystery. Herald critic Peter McCallum described it as “probably the most important choral work ever written in this country”.
Nigel Butterley’s personal life and circumstances were relatively stable and generally free of dramatic incidents. He has lived in the same house in Stanmore, Sydney’s central west, for most of the past six decades, where he and his partner Tom Kennedy have always welcomed visitors. After leaving the ABC he took up a post at Newcastle University, where he taught composition from 1973 to 1991; later he also took on students from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Declining health gradually slowed Butterley’s production after creation spellwith his last completed work published in 2014.
Butterley was widely respected and admired among his colleagues, friends and students, both as a composer and as a person. He was witty with irony, self-mockery, sometimes mischievous and full of wisdom and compassion. Composer Chris Williams is typical in recalling his generosity and humility as a teacher, his propensity to treat students as “fellow researchers”, as well as his tendency to go beyond discussing the details of the piece by question towards a philosophical consideration of the wider world. Musicians find his work challenging but deeply rewarding to learn and perform.
The epic works of 1963-1974 tend to be Butterley’s pieces most cited as formative influences by younger generations of Australian composers. However, for the first listener unfamiliar with Butterley’s music, some of the shorter pieces from the 80s and 90s might be better places to start – like the mercurial solo piano work. Pronounce happy leaves (1981), or The wind is blowing gently (1993), a contemplative duet inspired by Kathleen Raine for flute and cello.
Butterley’s music is generally understated and gentle, and often only reveals its secrets gradually, through repeated auditions. Partly for these reasons, it’s been slow to find acceptance with a wider audience – and sadly, that’s not likely to change soon, in this age of instant like/dislike judgments. But those of us who have been blessed with it have been enriched and transformed by the experience, and will continue to be its advocates for years to come.
Elliott Gyger is Associate Professor of Music (Composition) at the University of Melbourne. He has written extensively on the music of Nigel Butterley, including a book published by Wildbird Press in 2015.