A remarkable story lies behind Sam Sweeney’s Fiddle: Made in the Great War, which plays at the Hawth in Crawley on Wednesday, September 9, at 7.30pm.
Nine years ago Sam Sweeney, fiddle player with Bellowhead, bought a violin in Oxford. It had the appearance of a new instrument but the label inside gave the date 1915 and the name Richard S Howard.
Research revealed the violin had been made – but never finished – by a luthier and some-time music hall performer from Leeds called Richard Spencer Howard. He had been conscripted in 1916 at the age of 35 and two years later was killed during the battle of Messines Ridge. His violin had been left unfinished in his workshop.
The pieces were given to his daughter Rose as a memory of her father. On her death they were sent to an auction house. The parts were bought and the violin was finally finished by luthier Roger Claridge in 2007.
Discovery of the history behind the fiddle has inspired Sam to create a multi-media performance telling the story of the fiddle, which took nearly 100 years to complete and to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One.
“I was lucky enough to get some funding from the BBC Performing Arts Fund to further my career, and so I went to this shop in Oxford. Two other guys from Bellowhead had bought their fiddles from there, and so I tried out lots of fiddles and just immediately fell in love with this one.
“It’s a bit like Harry Potter in the wand shop. This was the one I wanted. It was only later I found out about it. Fiddles are all so different. Some have a bright tone, some are dull, some are scratchy, some are mellow, some are loud, some are quiet, and for me, this one just immediately felt right.
“But it was obvious immediately that there was something crazy going on with it. It looked brand new and still smelt of varnish and it was its first day in the shop, but it said Richard S Howard, Leeds, 1915. It was nearly 100 years old.
“My dad really went into researching this man Richard Howard and his life. It became apparent that this guy had carved the pieces of the violin in his workshop and then joined the British army and went off to fight. The battle at Messines was seen as this massive victory, but my guy sadly died.”
Sam admits he is not a great believer “in fate or serendipity”. But as he says, it’s a remarkable chain of events that has led to him now playing this violin, particularly when he took it to play by Richard’s grave.
“We took a photographer and a film crew there, and to have played by his grave for three hours was just crazy. I cried. My dad cried. The film crew cried! It was just completely amazing.”
From it all has emerged the show and Sam has worked with award-winning story-teller Hugh Lupton, fellow Bellowhead band mate Paul Sartin and concertina player Rob Harbron, as well as Bellowhead lighting designer Emma Thompson.
Sam performs the show with the actual fiddle made by the non-returning World War One soldier and includes film of the grave visit, with new information coming in all the time.
“I never thought we would find someone who had one of the other violins Richard made, but we have, and we didn’t have photos of Richard when we first started, which we have now.”
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