The iconic image of Sherlock Holmes is one in which he is playing the violin. References to his musicianship are limited, but they are abundant enough to give us a picture of a cultured, atypical player who, of course, played a Stradivarius. You might recall that he purchased his Strad at a pawn shop for 45 shillings. At that time, it would have been worth 500 guineas.
As for Holmes’s repertoire, there are no direct references to Holmes playing from a score. However, he does play some of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words for Watson’s listening pleasure in A Study in Scarlet. In his review, Watson says: “His powers upon the violin… were very remarkable but as eccentric as all his other accomplishments.”
The only story where Holmes’s violin plays a part in the plot is in The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone. Here Holmes fools his foes by telling them he will play the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann in an adjoining room. However, he puts on a record of the same piece. The scoundrels fail to notice that the music is a recording, rather than a live performance. This allows the master detective to listen in on their clandestine conversation and unravel the mystery.
Is Holmes a good musician? Here opinions are wide-ranging. While Watson is occasionally annoyed by Holmes’s playing, in The Red-Headed League, Watson is rather complimentary. He says that Holmes is . . . “an enthusiastic musician, being himself not only a very capable performer, but a composer of no ordinary merit.” Regardless, Holmes was obviously a music lover . . . especially fond of opera and German music. This is evidenced in the story The Adventure of the Red Circle wherein Holmes and Watson enjoy a Wagner night at Covent Garden.
However, we may be missing the mark if we focus solely on Holmes’s musical ability. It seems clear that Holmes uses his violin playing as a “distancing method.” As many scientists, and creative individuals, will tell you, when they encounter a problem whose solution is not immediately apparent, it’s best to focus on something else in order to let your subconscious mind come into play. This would seem to born out by that fact that, shortly after Holmes plays his violin, we find him, once again, on his way to solving the mystery at hand.
While I did not ask Holmes to play for us in any of the five tales I wrote for Sherlock Holmes - The Golden Years, I used his interest in music and the violin to draw him out of a deep depression. In The Maestro of Mysteries, a violin virtuoso, Fritz Kreisler, is brought to Watson’s apartment, where Holmes is staying. Fritz Kreisler was a real person—a contemporary of Holmes and Watson. And, as I attempt to make all my stories historically accurate, Fritz Kreisler had recently played at Wilton’s Music Hall in London near the time my story is dated. In my story, Kreisler plays Dvorak’s Humoreske, which (not coincidently) he played as an encore at his performance at Wilton’s Music Hall.
In The Maestro of Mysteries, Fritz tries to coax Holmes into joining him in Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins. But, Holmes laughs and replies. “In the shadow of such genius it [my violin] would not dare leave its dusty bin.” Kreisler replies: “Genius comes in many forms, Mr. Holmes. It is incumbent upon us to exercise those gifts that we each possess. You, my dear sir, are the maestro of mysteries.”
If you want to read The Maestro of Mysteries, and the other four stories in the Sherlock Holmes- The Golden Years collection, go TO AMAZON or other good on-line and on-street bookstores.