Quick, Watson, the Fiddle
by Rolfe Boswell
[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in October 1948 in The Baker Street Journal. Reprinted with kind permission.]
SHERLOCK HOLMES was not a violinist, though the world has believed, according to Doyle, that he was. Perhaps some Baker Street Irregulars may regard such a dogmatic statement as unConanical, if not heretical, flouting of the time-hallowed rubric; it is not so intended. This writer merely proposes to emend what those contemporary spoofreaders, Amos & Andy, call “a typocryphal error.”
This printer’s boner crept into the first chapter, headed “Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” of Dr. John H. Watson’s original reminiscence, A Study in Scarlet, published in December, 1887. At the initial meeting of the master detective and his slightly obtuse Boswell, the following colloquy transpired:
“Do you include violin playing in your category of rows?” he asked anxiously.
“It depends on the player,” I answered. “A well-played violin is a treat for the gods—a badly-played one—”
“Oh, that’s all right,” he cried, with a merry laugh.
It is in the ensuing chapter (“The Science of Deduction”) of the same study that Watson, striving to deduce Holmes’s odd vocation, lists the various traits of his fellow-lodger. The tenth point was “Plays the violin well.”
After an intervening paragraph, Watson returned to this musical topic with:
“I see that I have alluded above to his powers upon the violin. These were very remarkable, but as eccentric as all his other accomplishments. That he could play pieces, and difficult pieces, I knew well, because at my request he has played me some of Mendelssohn’s Lieder, and other favorites. When left to himself, however, he would seldom produce any music, or attempt any recognized air. Leaning back in his armchair of an evening, he would close his eyes and scrape carelessly at the fiddle which was thrown across his knee. Sometimes the chords were sonorous and melancholy. Occasionally they were fantastic and cheerful.”
Many musicians have made easy japes of that “fiddle … thrown across his knee.” The late Harvey Officer, composer of the Baker Street Suite for violin and piano, in five movements, commented in his “Sherlock Holmes and Music”: “I defy any violinist to produce such chords…. They can only be played when the violin is held strongly in its accustomed position.”
In his Sherlock Holmes and Music (Faber & Faber, Ltd.), Guy Warrack, an English musician, speculated that “when Holmes produced chords that were sometimes ‘sonorous and melancholy,’ sometimes ‘fantastic and cheerful,’ he was practising the Chaconne. [“Chaconne à son gout,” as Irving Kolodin’s clever calembour puts it.] On the other hand, most violinists find it difficult enough to make a convincing show of Bach’s solo-violin works even holding their instruments in a more orthodox way than thrown across their knees.” In choosing just such an unorthodox position for his fiddlestickery, Holmes himself pointed to the clue for posterity to use in deducing the nature of the instrument upon which he played. Surely it must be obvious by now that every reference to a “violin” in the preceding quotations is a typographical error?
Indeed, writers who deal in musical terminology often complain that printers and proofreaders appear to be unaware that the violin’s darkling congener is spelt “viola.” There, then, is the solution to the problem of the unorthodox fiddling position. Holmes played the viola!
In connection with another problem in Sherlockiana, Dorothy L. Sayers pointed out in her Unpopular Opinions that a certain conclusion was “patently absurd, and suggests the error of a not-too-intelligent compositor at work upon a crabbed manuscript. Watson was a doctor, and his writing was therefore illegible at the best of times.”
The doctor undoubtedly wrote “viola” in his scrawling screed, failed to proofread his Study in Scarlet himself, and, the word in error, “violin,” having appeared in print, his own stubborn pride prevented acknowledgment of what actually was a typographical mistake, and not a failure in his own personal observation to distinguish between violins and violas.
The very tones of Holmes’s instrument, alluded to in later chronicles of the celebrated detective’s exploits, proclaim that his music came from the tenor of the fiddle family. In one instance there was a “low, dreamy, melodious air,” in another “low melancholy wailings,” while on still another occasion “he droned away” on his instrument.
Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Vol. V) calls the viola’s tone “of different quality from that of the violin; it is less powerful and brilliant, having a muffled character…. Everyone must have remarked the penetrating quality of its upper tones. Its tone is consequently so distinctive, and so arrests the attention of the listener.”
The good Dr. Watson and sundry bent characters who fell afoul of the Baker Street sleuth could testify as to the “clear, mellow tone, darker than a violin’s” which is noted as to the viola in another work of musical reference.”
What was Holmes doing when he was “leaning back in his armchair,” closing his eyes, and scraping “carelessly at the fiddle which was thrown across his knee”?
Grove’s dictionary provides a leading clue—“when the instrument (viola) is built large enough to answer acoustically to its compass, that is, so as to produce the notes required of it as powerfully as the corresponding notes on the violin, it comes out too large for the average human being to play it fiddle-wise, and only fit to be played violoncello-wise between the knees. If, however, the Tenor is to be played like the violin, and no one has seriously proposed to play it otherwise [perhaps the Holmesian experiment was in jest only], it follows that its size must be limited by the length of the human arm [there is good internal evidence that Holmes’s was longer than the average] when bent at an angle of about 120 degrees, but even the violin is already big enough! Though instruments have from time to time been made somewhat larger than usual, and that by eminent makers, such as Stradivari, players have never adopted them.”
That leads directly into the question of Sherlock’s Stradivarius. In The Cardboard Box, Watson related:
“We had a pleasant little meal together, during which Holmes would talk about nothing but violins, narrating with great exultation how he had purchased his own Stradivarius, which was worth at least five hundred guineas [$2500 in 1885], at a Jew broker’s in Tottenham Court Road for fifty-five shillings [$13.75]. This led him to Paganini, and we sat for an hour over a bottle of claret while he told me anecdote after anecdote of that extraordinary man.”
Mark well that sequence of names—Stradivari, followed by, Paganini. Why is Paganini coupled with a Stradivarian violin when it is a matter of record that the Italian virtuoso showed the fine values of a Guarnerius from the standpoint of sheer tonal beauty?
Mystery veils Guarneri’s entire life, and his work virtually was lost to the world until Paganini, in 1820, discovered Joseph Guarneri del Gesù’s violins. At Leghorn, Paganini had to part with his violin to pay a debt contracted at the gaming tables, but a Frenchman named Levron lent him a fine Guarnerius, and was so charmed by the Italian’s playing upon it that he made him a present of that fine fiddle. Paganini willed that violin to the city of Genoa; it may be seen in the Municipal Building, where it is kept under glass.
Later, Pasini, a painter, gave Paganini a fine Stradivarius, but the Guarnerius remained his favorite.
Perhaps one anecdote anent “that extraordinary man” which Holmes related to Watson was that told by Hector Berlioz, in his memoirs, in recounting the story of the French composer’s Harold in Italy, op. 16. After a Paris Conservatoire concert on 22 Dec. 1833, “a man with a long mane of hair, with piercing eyes, with a strange and haggard face, one possessed by genius, a colossus among giants, whom I had never seen and whose appearance moved me profoundly, was alone and waiting for me in the hall. He stopped me to press my hand, overwhelmed me with burning praise, which set fire to my heart and head: it was Paganini!
“Some weeks later Paganini came to see me. ‘I have a marvelous viola,’ he said, ‘an admirable Stradivarius (dating from 1731), and I wish to play it in public. Will you write a solo piece for the viola? You are the only one I can trust for such a work.’”
Warrack’s Sherlock Holmes and Music puts the question of why the master detective, in Watson’s Study in Scarlet, “prattled away about Cremona fiddles and the difference between a Stradivarius and an Amati,” but did not mention the third great family of Cremonese luthiers—the Guarneri. Grove’s dictionary (Vol. IV) supplies the answer in the article on Antonio Stradivari:
“His violas bear a more distinctive stamp of his creative genius than do his violoncellos. The changes so apparent in his violins are quite as evident in these larger instruments. Before 1690 the influence of the Brescian school, and of the Amatis, still ruled the properties of his violas, but after that year he adopted a smaller model, and to this he mainly adhered.”
Sherlock’s Stradvarius, certainly, was a viola; and it may very well have been an unusually large viola, since he is shown to have been experimenting with an alternative position for playing it.
Warrack believes that Holmes, after his lucky purchase at the pawnshop, must have hailed a hansom-cab “for a dash to Messrs. Hill’s in Bond Street, where he learns that his fiddle is a genuine Stradivarius, worth nearly two hundred times what he had paid for it.” There is some documented support for this belief:
At the beginning of Chapter III, “Stradivari’s Violas,” the three Hills of London, in their Antonio Stradivari, His Life & work (1644–1737), a monumental and exhaustive study published in 1902, the year Holmes retired to beekeeping in Sussex, commented—“Stradivari made few violas. We are acquainted with only ten examples. In an old note-book in our possession there is a reference to one, dated 1695, but we have failed to find its present owner.”
Of course they couldn’t find him. Sherlock Holmes, detective by vocation and violist by avocation, covered his own tracks as well as trailed the long-cold spoors of the enemies of society. Even now he may be sitting in an armchair in the dwelling-room of his croft amid the Sussex Downs, leaning back, closing his eyes, and scraping carelessly at the viola across his knees. Sometimes the chords are sonorous and melancholy; occasionally they are fantastic, for the retired master sleuth is experimenting with the type of bow used by Corelli and Tartini, straight for nearly its entire length, curving downward at the point. Holmes has found, as Roman Totenberg did for the violin, that such a bow makes it possible to play three-note chords as a unit, rather than as arpeggios. The combination is at once sonorous, melancholy, and fantastic.