top of page

'The story of the Wilfred Owen violin' - Herald Scotland

Full ninety autumns has this ancient beech

Helped with its myriad leafy tongues to swell

The dirges of the deep-toned western gale,

And ninety times hath all its power of speech

Been stricken dumb, at sound of winter's yell ...

WILFRED Owen wrote this poem - Written in a Wood, September 1910 - when he just 17. In due course he would become the most famous, most widely read, poet of the Great War.

In May 1917, having endured the horrors of war on the Western Front, Owen was diagnosed with shell-shock and was sent for treatment at Craiglockhart, a military psychiatric hospital in Edinburgh.

It was at Craiglockhart that he befriended a fellow poet, Siegfried Sassoon. In the words of the Wilfred Owen Association, Sassoon "provided him with guidance, and encouragement to bring his war experiences into his poetry." Several landmark poems which spoke to 'the pity of war' emerged from this process, among them Dulce et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth.

Owen's life would be tragically cut short on November 4 of the following year, a few days before the Armistice, when he was killed in action on the banks of the Sambre-Oise canal.

But his time at Craiglockhart has been commemorated in a rather special way: a unique violin has been fashioned from a limb of a sycamore tree that was there when he was a patient. The Wilfred Owen violin, made by Edinburgh-based instrument maker Steve Burnett, has already been featured in concerts, with others to follow.

As Burnett puts it: Was the tree there when Owen was recovering? Yes. Did he sit under it as part of his rehabilitation? It would be nice to think so. Burnett has made a point of ensuring that the words of that poem can be found inside the violin. It does seem remarkably appropriate.

The instrument also fulfils a promise that Burnett made to himself a long time ago, ever since, as a child, he was in Edinburgh's City Hospital with chronic asthma and overheard reminiscences by First World War veterans: a promise that, one day, he would make a personal tribute of his own.

He has worked in the music business for 30 years, as a piano tuner and restorer of old pianos. "For 20 of these years I wanted to be a piano-maker, but the business is not what it was," he says.

"Twenty years or so ago, I got a violin and took it to bits, and worked how it had been put together. I taught myself the art of violin-making, never having worked with wood at all, or even having played one. I learned what it was that goes into making a violin.

"I enjoy using wood from local trees with a connection to either an historical event or a person and making an instrument as a tribute." In 2009 he fashioned The Sherlock Violin, two further violins, a viola and a cello (collectively known as the Conan Doyle Quartet instruments) from a dying, elderly sycamore that grew in the garden of one of Arthur Conan Doyle's Edinburgh childhood homes ; the future creator of Sherlock Holmes actually played in the branches of this tree.

Like many people, Burnett was touched by Wilfred Owen's poetry when he first came across it at high school. "Most of us, I think, read poets relating to the First World War and the atrocious conditions that these boys - and they were boys - found themselves in. Many of us must have thought, 'If we had been in their shoes ...' That really went quite deep with me.

"Owen's 'pity of war' was one of the main elements, but the book I read at school had that poem, Written in a Wood. That just highlights what an incredible romantic he was. This tribute [the violin] is in many ways a tribute to Keats: Owen once said that his reason for going to the Western Front was to try to preserve the English language, and the language of Keats and Shakespeare."

As it turns out, Owen was also very keen on music, especially the violin. As he wrote to his mother, Susan, on May 24, 1914: "I certainly believe I could make a better musician than many who profess to be, and are accepted as such. ...I love Music, Violin first, Piano next, with such strength that I have to conceal the passion for fear it may be thought weakness..."

The Owen tree is part of the landscape at what is now Napier University's Craiglockhart campus; the campus is home to the extensive War Poets Collection, curated by Catherine Walker.

"The branch had to come down," explains Alastair Guild, Burnett's friend and colleague, "because it was overhanging a path that was used by a lot of the students. Steve arranged for a tree surgeon to take this branch off the tree. The tree is still standing, of course, and is probably better-balanced than it was."

"I had been looking for years for some windfall to fashion a violin in memory of Owen, but it just wasn't happening," is how Burnett puts it. "The trees were withstanding all the gales. Finally, it was just good fortune that a pruning operation needed to be done to this particular sycamore."

The branch was removed a year ago this month and lay in Burnett's workshop in Haymarket until March 18, the 121st anniversary of Owen's birth in Oswestry, Shropshire. By July, after much diligent work, the Owen violin, a poignant tribute to those who fought and died in the Great War, was ready.

The instrument was taken down to Stratford-upon-Avon to be played at the Royal Shakespeare Company's carol service and during a production of a new play, The Christmas Truce, on Christmas Eve. "The Wilfred Owen Violin," said Bruce O'Neil, RSC Head of Music, "is not only a fine musical instrument in itself, but a powerful symbol of regeneration and, literally, an instrument of peace."

As for the future, Burnett says a number of musicians are looking to play the Owen violin at forthcoming events. It will also be taken into schools to encourage pupils to think about ways in which peace and reconciliation can best be served. "We want to encourage young people to research their families and to bring in their own stories of great uncles, great aunts, great-grandfathers, great-grandmothers who were caught up in the horror of such a dark, dark time over Europe," Burnett says.

The violin has also been endorsed by Maxim Vengerov, concert violinist/conductor and Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, 'as an envoy for peace and reconciliation through the power of music.'

The aim over the next three years of the centenary of the Great War is to engage with the young and public audiences through music and poetry, and in collaboration with other musicians and artists, to use the violin and the power of music as a backdrop for individuals to think and reflect.

In their own way, Owen's powerful war poems - "the monstrous anger of the guns", the soldier - "guttering, choking, drowning", dying a wretched death in a gas attack - can be said to fulfil part of that mission.

But it's a striking thought that the task is now being carried out by a musical instrument made from the branch of a tree that Owen himself may have seen at Craiglockhart, as he recovered from shell-shock all these long decades ago.


Recent Posts
Search By Tags
bottom of page