Long-Lost Christmas Drinking Song Discovered at Oxford

Bodleian Libraries
Bodleian Libraries / Bodleian Libraries

A long-lost Christmas song has been discovered at Oxford, and yes, it’s about drinking. The score by George Butterworth, an English composer who died in the trenches of World War I, was uncovered at the university’s Bodleian Libraries, whose researchers believe it to be the only surviving copy.

Butterworth, who was born in 1885, was an avid collector and composer of folk music as well as an early adopter of new recording technologies. His work was relatively popular by the time he enlisted in the infantry in 1914, and according to the Bodleian Libraries, he was considered one of the most promising English composers of his time. He was killed in battle at 31 years old, and most of his compositions were lost. He had destroyed much of his music before he left for the war, thinking it wasn’t worth preserving, though after his death his surviving compositions came to be lauded as masterpieces

The three-page score for the lost Christmas song was found by Martin Holmes, a music curator at the Bodleian Libraries, in a collection of uncataloged music that made its way from the university’s music department to the university’s Weston Library. The library isn’t sure where it came from, but it might have been donated by the composer’s father to Butterworth’s friend from Oxford, Sir Hugh Allen, who later became a music professor at the school. Allen’s papers were donated to the Oxford Music Faculty Library after his death in 1946.

According to the library, the song “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.'” In the vein of his other folk-inspired songs, “he wrote the musical setting for this poem in the style of a drinking song, for voice and piano,” the library’s press release continues. The song was probably written early in Buttterworth’s career sometime in the early 20th century. It's not a masterpiece, but it can provide scholars with a better idea of how his compositional talents evolved.

The manuscript score is on display at the Weston Library at Oxford through this weekend, where you can also listen to a recording of the song.