‘The Western Front Violin’; courtesy of the Imperial War Museum; © IWM

Strings From The Somme

14th October 2016

A hundred years on from the First World War, many choirs and orchestras are commemorating it in their repertoire – but Watford Philharmonic Society has a greater claim than most to use the title ‘Remembrance’ for its next concert. Jill Glenn finds out more…

When Watford Phil’s Jeanne Mann takes up her bow for the first few notes of the Méditation from Massenet’s Thäis she’ll be using a unique instrument that very few musicians have had the privilege to play: the Western Front Violin. It’s a thing not only of beauty, but of great significance.

‘Unique’ is a word frequently overused, but it certainly applies in this instance: the violin is made of sycamore and pine from trees on the battlefields of France and Flanders, the roots of which survived the carnage around the River Somme. Both the pine, which grew between La Boisselle and Authuille, and the sycamore, which was in a coppice at Bois Quarante, three miles south of Ypres, were over eighty years old when they were cut down in 1980. The violin was conceived and built by Kenneth Popplewell, former leader of Watford Philharmonic, as a unique memorial to all those who lost their lives in the fighting.

Not only was Kenneth a talented professional violinist, he was also clearly a skilled craftsman. Moreover, he was profoundly affected by the legacy of World War One, which broke out in the year of his birth, and became a prominent member of the Western Front Association. The WFA’s emblem, of crossed poppies, is inlaid on the tail piece of the instrument, and inside, movingly, is the inscription: ‘Remembering 1914-18 – Violin made from trees grown on Western Front Battlefields’.

Finished in May 1983, it was first played –by Kenneth – at the Imperial War Museum in December of that year, with Graham Garton (former conductor of Watford Phil) playing a piano accompaniment; after Kenneth’s death in 1989 it was gifted to the IWM, in whose collection it remains.

The idea of bringing the violin ‘back home’ came when Watford Phil singer Judy Newton-Davies discovered in their archives a copy of a concert programme for November 1988, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice and featuring Kenneth Popplewell as soloist in the Mendelssohn violin concerto – played on the Western Front violin. Having been moved by the story of the violin’s origins, she approached the IWM to see if it might be possible to borrow it for another commemorative concert – this time, reflecting on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

It was a big ask. The violin is occasionally played at the Imperial War Museum, as part of their annual Remembrance Day programme, but rarely leaves the building. “The IWM has been very helpful in responding to such an unusual request,” Judy says, “and we are thrilled that their Curator and Registrar are prepared to trust us to take appropriate care of it.”

Conditions for the loan are nevertheless very exacting, and Jeanne Mann won’t see the violin until the day of the concert, or get a chance to play it before the dress rehearsal. It must be a challenge, but it’s one that she’s accepting calmly. “With the Western Front Association’s motif inlaid on the tail piece, the maker’s intention was to play the violin at concerts to raise money for charities,” she tells me, “so I feel honoured to be able to fulfill this wish by playing the violin in the Remembrance Concert of the Watford Philharmonic Society. My own violin was made around the time of the First World War and in France, but to play this historic instrument which will conjure up those well known sepia images will be very moving.”

Not only will the concert pay a debt to the Great War, but, it will, of course, remember the violinmaker himself. Kenneth Popplewell ARCM was born in Hammersmith on 15 May 1914. His father was a postman. As a pupil at Latymer Upper School, by the age of 11 Kenneth had won three prizes for his violin playing including a £30 exhibition (a substantial amount then) at the College of Violinists in Westminster. Sadly, his father would not hear of music as a profession, advising the pursuit of ‘a job with a pension at 60’, and so, at the age of 14, Kenneth was apprenticed as a printer. During the second World War he spent four years in the Middle East, serving with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in the North African desert ­– but when he was demobbed, he finally had the chance to begin his career as a musician. In 1946 he played for Sir Thomas Beecham, who immediately engaged him in the first violin section of the RPO. He later also played for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and continued to perform in concerts and record with world-famous artists for almost 30 years. In 1982 he became Leader of the Watford Philharmonic Orchestra, holding the post until 1987.

Described by those who knew him as ‘a very private man’, Kenneth never married, and lived for most of his adult life in the family home in Moat Avenue, Harrow. He died in 1989, but his vision of an object of use and beauty, whose origins would connect with the fallen and perpetuate their memory, lives on.

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