Steve Burnett’s hopes that his violins will spread a message of peace
Steve Burnett explains how he hopes his violins will help spread a message of peace.
THIS year sees the completion of a remarkable project by well-respected professional violin maker Steve Burnett. One hundred years ago, in 1917, the poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon met – along with Robert Graves – in mid-october at Craiglockhart Hospital, now a part of the Edinburgh Napier University campus.
It was a treatment centre for shell-shocked officers. Here, Sassoon influenced Owen’s style at a time when he was just starting to write about his experiences – all of Wilfred Owen’s war poems were written between the autumn of 1917 and his death in 1918.
Steve first marked the poets’ connection with the former hospital in 2014, creating an instrument from the branch of a sycamore in the grounds – the Wilfred Owen violin.
“I was trying to get the branch for many years before that! Wilfred Owen was one of my heroes – as a romantic poet as well.”
But it wasn’t until 2014, when Steve was able to get his hands on a large branch from the sycamore, that he was able to put his plan into practice – the year that coincided with the centenary of the War’s beginning.
“Luckily I got the branch at the beginning of the year. For making a violin you must take the wood in winter time because the sap is low – it doesn’t fill up the pores and have a detrimental effect on the sound quality.”
Once finished, the symbolism of the violin saw it in high demand, appearing in an RSC production in Stratford, then a memorial to the Quintinshill Rail disaster, where over 200 Royal Scots soldiers were killed on their way to Gallipoli.
Scottish fiddler Thoren Ferguson wrote and performed a piece in commemoration of this, and played it in an area the Scottish Woodland Trust had set aside just outside Edinburgh to remember the soldiers.
Here, 216 small trees were planted by children from local schools, one for each soldier, with Princess Anne planting the last.
Violinist Maxim Vengerov, a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador, endorsed the violin itself as an envoy for peace.
“He was taken by what it stood for. Reconciliation is the most important thing. One hundred years on and the world is still caught up in terrible conflicts. If these violins can get out there and add an extra dimension to the word peace, it can maybe help people.”
Steve is a self-taught violin maker, who had long known he wanted something to do with these beautiful instruments, but wasn’t sure what.
“I had one chance when I was ten to play violin in school, but after a week of trying my teacher asked me to hand it back!”
Steve came across a box of old violin-making tools in a second-hand shop and taught himself the trade, modelling his work on the great violin makers of Italy – Stradivarius and Giuseppe Guarneri.
The remaining two violins, the Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, were made this year to commemorate the meeting with Owen.
Sassoon had narrowly avoided a court martial for anti-war comments in a letter to “The Times” – he could have faced the firing squad.
Robert Graves convinced the authorities he was suffering shell-shock and he went to Craiglockhart instead.
“Wilfred Owen had heard that this published poet author, Siegfried Sassoon, was in the building and really admired his poetry.
“He knocked on his door – a humble knock on the door – and that moment heralded one of the most important literary meetings of the 20th century.
“So the Siegfried Sassoon violin was finished from the same bit of wood as the Wilfred Owen.”
Now the Robert Graves violin has been finished and has completed the set. It was introduced to the world on October 13, the centenary of the day the three of them played a round at Edinburgh’s Baberton Golf Club.
Steve hopes that the set will continue the work of the Wilfred Owen violin, starring at commemorative events and spreading the message of peace. n
Steve, left, with Thoren on the right at the golf course.