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Sam Sweeney's Fiddle
Pavilion Arts Centre, Buxton, 14/9/2015
Buxton on a murky autumn night, low cloud and rain, is a gloomy place. This concert, which sounds like it could be the name of a lively Irish bar, is actually an exploration of one man’s life and death. Any mention of the First World War in Buxton immediately brings to mind Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’, the book that introduced my contemporaries to the tragedy of a lost generation during the Great War. It’s an appropriate setting for this performance.
Richard Howard, musician in the music halls of Leeds, violin maker, married with one young daughter, Rose, is the hero of the hour. The story of Sam Sweeney’s discovery of his violin is an example of truth being far stranger than fiction. From a half made violin, with all its parts, labelled with the maker’s name and date, via a Manchester saleroom in 1993, through to Sam Sweeney’s eventual discovery of the fiddle and its story in Oxford a few years ago.
This is a perfect story to bring home the waste and horror of the First World War, a sensitively told tale, staged in a captivating way. Sam Sweeney and his fellow musicians are well known on the folk scene, with links to Bellowhead and the Full English among others. Robert Harbron and Paul Sartin join him for this extended piece. They have worked together before. They make a great team, sometimes dramatizing the story, sometimes playing tunes and songs that carry it along. Appearing alongside them is Hugh Lupton, a master storyteller, writer and lyricist. Archive research done by Sam and his father is transformed into the tale of Richard Howard’s life story, told in Hugh Lupton’s captivating style.
The whole story is an extended metaphor, a kind of poem, from the fiddle riddle ( belly, back, neck, guts) to the horror of the corpses on the battlefield. Dismembered and remembered – as the fiddle is created from the found pieces, so life is breathed back into Richard Howard and his memory lives.
There are tears and laughter as the story moves from wartime music hall songs and banter to film of life in the trenches and explosions at the Front. The audience knows the end is coming, but it doesn’t make it any less of a shock.
The final piece of film is Sam Sweeney playing the fiddle at Richard Howard’s grave in Belgium. It is deeply moving.
Sam Sweeney is now in touch with Richard Howard’s descendants. One of his other signed violins has been identified.
The audience were subdued at the end, and I imagine the performers have got used to stunned silence rather than rapturous applause. It’s a measure of how powerful a performance this is.
My only regret is that I can’t urge you to go and see it. This was the last night of a long tour. There is, however. a CD and a website. Take a look and a listen.
As I watched the three young musicians take their bows, I was reminded that had this been one hundred years ago, they too might have fought on the western front, and who knows what their fate might have been.
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Nicky Crewe attends at the Pavilion in Buxton the last night of a very moving tour from Sam Sweeney’s Fiddle, which breathes life into the story of one man and his violin
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