Sherlock Holmes is approaching his 130th birthday. The first instalment of A Study in Scarlet, in which Holmes and Watson meet, was published in the 1887 edition of Beeton’s Christmas Annual. Since Conan Doyle’s violin-playing detective is often to be found attending recitals, visiting Covent Garden, writing scholarly monographs on early music, or outwitting his opponents with the help of Offenbach, I felt he deserved a chance to show off his musical accomplishments on MusiCB3 this week…
Watson quickly realises that his new acquaintance is a musician, if an eccentric one. Although Holmes is a remarkable violinist, he often preferred to “scrape carelessly at the fiddle which was thrown across his knee” than to play any pieces that Watson recognises, although he does then take care to make it up to his new housemate by “playing in quick succession a whole series of my favourite airs as a slight compensation for the trial upon my patience.”
Holmes is a great admirer of the virtuoso violinists of his day, often inviting Watson along to concerts. They hear a performance by Wilma Neruda with the Halle Orchestra in A Study in Scarlet, and attend a recital by Sarasate during a lull in the action in The Red-Headed League, Holmes observing that “there is a good deal of German music on the programme, which is rather more to my taste than Italian or French. It is introspective, and I want to introspect. Come along!”
Opera also features in the stories, with Holmes and Watson hurrying to catch the second half of a Wagner night at Covent Garden having solved the case of The Adventure of the Red Circle, and celebrating at the end of The Hound of the Baskervilles by taking a box for Les Huguenots.
By the time of The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, Holmes has developed an interest in early music, and is writing a monograph on ‘The Polyphonic Motets of Lassus’ in between his detective work. This naturally goes on to be acclaimed by experts as “the last word on the subject.”
Although Holmes normally has to wait until the end of a case or an uneventful moment to pursue his musical interests, in The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone it is the latest music technology that saves the day. A record of the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, played on one of “these modern gramophones” enables him to trick his opponents into thinking he is safely out of the way playing his violin, whilst of course in reality he is busy setting up a trap…
Like the deerstalker hat and the pipe, the violin has followed Sherlock Holmes through his many modern iterations. It is an aspect of his character which works particularly well on film, and most ‘on screen’ versions of Holmes – from Basil Rathbone to Jeremy Brett to Benedict Cumberbatch – take advantage of this.
Looking through the collections at the MusiCB3, I found plenty of stage works inspired by Holmes and Watson. Sherlock battles with his old arch-enemy Professor Moriarty in ‘Sherlock Holmes : the musical’, uncovers bizarre plots centring around hair colour in ‘Sherlock Homes and the Red-Headed League’, and finds himself pitted against Sir Sullivan Sinister in ‘The Curious Adventure of the Clockwork Prince’, a ‘Victorian romp’ in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Something a bit more contemporary to Holmes, from the Victorian sheet music collection, is ‘The Ghost of Sherlock Holmes’. This song has a copyright date of 1894, the year after the publication of The Final Problem (which was originally intended by Conan Doyle to be just that – the final Holmes story) and Holmes’ supposed tumble into the Reichenbach Falls.
A few more things of possible Holmesian interest among the collections at MusiCB3 include…
At the Pendlebury:
‘Zigeunerweisen’ by Sarasate – 885.D.S10
‘Les Huguenots’ on DVD – DVD.C.5
At the UL:
Barcarolle from ‘The Tales of Hoffmann’ arranged for violin – M320.a.90.421
‘Sherlock Holmes and Music’ by Guy Warrick – 9409.c.108
Quotes from A Study in Scarlet, The Red-Headed League, The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone.