Obsessed with Handel: Samuel Butler’s special collection

Many people have heard of the utopian satire Erewhon, but few are aware that its author, the Victorian polymath Samuel Butler (1835–1902), was driven to creativity by a lifelong obsession with George Frideric Handel.

‘Of all dead men Handel has had the largest place in my thoughts’, Butler wrote in his notebook in 1882, aged 47. ‘In fact, I should say he and his music have been the central fact in my life ever since I was old enough to know of the existence of either music or life.’

Samuel Butler at the piano

Samuel Butler at the piano. By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge.

During his lifetime Butler published sixteen books, advocated then later attacked Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy, and captured some of the most striking photographic images of the nineteenth century. Through all of this activity Butler was accompanied by Handel, whose works played continually in his mind: ‘All day long – whether I am writing or painting or walking – but always – I have his music in my head, and if I lose sight of it and of him for an hour or two, as of course I sometimes do, this is as much as I do.’

Something of his passion is preserved in the extensive Butler Collection held at St John’s College Library, which includes a significant number of books and volumes of printed music that once comprised Butler’s personal library. Handel of course dominates, and many of the scores are annotated with Butler’s recognisable, impassioned pencil scribbles, which highlight his favourite elements of a work, or identify sections that were left out of a particular performance he had attended.

Novello’s Original Octavos became the staple affordable edition of printed music in Britain from around the mid-nineteenth century, and Butler owned many of these. He also possessed some significantly earlier editions, several of which were presented to him by aunts and friends who appreciated his love of Handel. John Walsh’s engraved scores, some dating to the 1730s, provide nice examples – particularly those bound together and inscribed to Butler from Julian Marshall (1836–1903), the amateur musician and music collector and husband of composer, conductor and Handel biographer Florence Ashton Thomas (1843–1922).

Following his father’s death in 1886, Butler gained the financial independence he needed to dedicate his time to practising and composing music. In collaboration with his friend Henry Festing Jones (1851–1928), Butler wrote the words and music for Narcissus: A Dramatic Cantata, a ‘jeu d’esprit’ charting the fate of a shepherding couple who abandon pastoral pursuits to speculate on the Stock Exchange. George Bernard Shaw, who often championed Butler’s work, wrote in a private letter that the music was invested with ‘a ridiculously complete command of the Handelian manner and technique’.

Samuel Butler’s annotations, in Sonatas or Chamber Aires for a German Flute Violin or Harpsichord: Being the most Celebrated Songs and Ariets Collected out of all the late Operas Compos’d by Mr. Handel (London: I. Walsh [1770?]). By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge.

Narcissus was published in 1888. Whilst working on their next piece, Ulysses (eventually published in 1904), Butler joined Jones in taking counterpoint lessons with the celebrated music teacher, writer and fellow Handel enthusiast William Smyth Rockstro (1823–1895). Butler’s personal notes from these lessons, as well as various manuscript versions and early editions of Narcissus and Ulysses, are preserved in section VII of the Butler Collection. Part of the collection is already catalogued on Newton; the rest will appear there, and on the Januscatalogue, in the coming months.

Gerald Gifford, Honorary Keeper of Music at the Fitzwilliam Museum, has recently made use of the collection in preparing a new Handel edition, due next spring. Plans are underway to celebrate the edition with a performance event at St John’s – which will revive some of Butler’s own keyboard compositions, as well as indulge his love of Handel.

Lots more information about the Samuel Butler Collection at St John’s can be found on the Butler Project website.

Rebecca Watts
Butler Project Associate, St John’s College Library

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