Was Sherlock Holmes Bad at Playing the Violin? #sherlock

violin4Seems to me that somebody that practices so much and buys a Stradivarius is compensating for something.  Violins and violin playing is mentioned in a lot of the original Sherlock Holmes stories and featured in most of the movies or TV productions I’ve seen.  This is not unusual.  However, if he was bad at it, or at least not as good as he claimed, Sherlock Holmes is brought down a peg or two and made more relatable.  That’s right, it would be a good thing.  He wouldn’t be the untouchable detective and have flaws like everybody else.

I’ll always remember the end of the PBS production of The Resident Patient, when Holmes is furiously trying to play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major and missing some notes.  Watson has to ask him to leave the room he’s so distracting.  In the other room, Holmes later laughs out loud upon hitting a wrong note and goes straight back to feverishly playing the piece, maybe rushing it a bit, but he’s trying to get it right.  Watson winces and shakes his head comically.  Holmes is not perfect at it and that shows.  I can’t remember any moment like that in the original stories, right?

Taking the assumption that Holmes is not a perfect violin player, I looked for evidence of this in the original stories.  Is there any?  I think my Sherlockian friends would love this kind of superperfluous research.

I laughed at this cross-examination. “I keep a bull pup,” I said, “and I object to rows because my nerves are shaken, and I get up at all sorts of ungodly hours, and I am extremely lazy. I have another set of vices when I’m well, but those are the principal ones at present.”

“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. “I think we may consider the thing as settled—that is, if the rooms are agreeable to you.”

violin1Starting with A Study in Scarlet, Holmes and Watson share things about themselves for the first time.  Watson seems concerned with peace and quiet, perhaps wanting time for himself after his service overseas.  He keeps a gun, he tells Holmes, and doesn’t like the thought of bad violin playing.  Holmes chuckles and laughs at the thought of bad violin playing.  Why?  Does he know Watson will never hear bad violin playing or is it that he is having a little joke at Watson’s expense because bad violin playing might be in his near future? Most people read it as the former, with Holmes as a good player, but it could be the latter.  Given this short bit of dialogue, there’s a little doubt in there about the real meaning, but Watson later gives another description:

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 favourites. When left to himself, however, he would seldom produce any music or attempt any recognized air. Leaning back in his arm-chair 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. Clearly they reflected the thoughts which possessed him…

Later in the story, Holmes is described as a good violin player, albeit a moody one.  The description goes back and forth between opinions about his skill, which seems considerable, but “careless” at times because of his mood.  He was probably bored and scratched out some tunes because he was restless, just like when I pound at the piano when I’m stressed.  The description doesn’t say this, but it does say Holmes scraped at the fiddle, which sounds derogatory to me.  He describes a Stradivarius like a two-dollar fiddle.  So in this case, Holmes plays the violin badly, though on purpose.

“Now, Doctor, you are looking done-up. Take my advice and turn in.”

I was certainly feeling very weary, so I obeyed his injunction. I left Holmes seated in front of the smouldering fire, and long into the watches of the night I heard the low, melancholy wailings of his violin, and knew that he was still pondering over the strange problem which he had set himself to unravel.

A chapter later in A Study in Scarlet, Watson describes the violin playing as wailing, which is a terrible description in my opinion.  I guess this could just be an analogy, but even if it is, it’s still unusual and not of good form when playing the violin.  The piece could be filled with emotion, I guess, but still.

“My fiddle would be the better for new strings,” he remarked. “Put your pistol in your pocket. When the fellow comes speak to him in an ordinary way. Leave the rest to me. Don’t frighten him by looking at him too hard.”

Holmes himself describes his violin as a fiddle, which we’ve already said has poor connotations.  This is unusual.  Holmes also observes that his “fiddle” would sound better with new strings.  Why does he need new strings?  Because he’s always scratching and pounding away at the violin?  Holmes apologists would have you believe that Holmes is just being modest at this point, but taken at face value, this could be direct evidence of Holmes admitting his violin music could be better.

My friend was an enthusiastic musician, being himself not only a very capable performer but a composer of no ordinary merit. All the afternoon he sat in the stalls wrapped in the most perfect happiness, gently waving his long, thin fingers in time to the music, while his gently smiling face and his languid, dreamy eyes were as unlike those of Holmes the sleuth-hound, Holmes the relentless, keen-witted, ready-handed criminal agent, as it was possible to conceive.

In a later story called The Red-Headed League, Watson describes Holmes as a capable performer, which is not exactly high praise, but he adds that Holmes was good composer too.  Is Holmes a better composer?  For every Liszt, there’s a Berlioz who can compose better than play.  Berlioz couldn’t play piano at all, actually.  He was better at viola.

It was late when my friend returned, and I could see by a glance at his haggard and anxious face that the high hopes with which he had started had not been fulfilled. For an hour he droned away upon his violin, endeavouring to soothe his own ruffled spirits. At last he flung down the instrument and plunged into a detailed account of his misadventures.

In The Norwood Builder, Watson gives the above quote and describes Holmes as quite tired.  This is another mention of his mood influencing his violin playing.  Holmes “droned” away uncaringly, just like before in A Study in Scarlet.  How he can soothe his mood with droning violin playing is beyond me.  He can’t, that’s why, which is why he flings it away. At the very least, this is an example of Holmes using violin playing to get out frustrations.  This usually doesn’t make for the best music.

Holmes withdrew, picking up his violin from the corner as he passed. A few moments later the long-drawn, wailing notes of that most haunting of tunes came faintly through the closed door of the bedroom.

We can see a pattern emerge as the stories continue.  In The Mazarin Stone, Holmes puts some real heart into his playing and shows an emotional quality not seen before in the other stories.  Here it’s now described as “haunting” instead of wailing, and I would argue the word haunting has a similar connotation.  He even takes up the violin when he is feeling miserable, such as in The Five Orange Pips, where the violin is a distraction from the weather.  This is another example of Holmes becoming absorbed in his music.  The text doesn’t go so far as to describe the playing, but it’s probably a safe bet he was playing with a melancholy tone.

So to wrap up, Holmes is a moody player.  He uses the violin to while away the nights and often has a sense of restlessness in his fingers.  This is not the description of a perfect virtuoso, but that doesn’t take away from his skill.  Watson complements his skill many times throughout the Canon.  It’s just that Holmes probably doesn’t have the patience to be a classical virtuoso.  He gets too bored and restless.  I think some of that restlessness and emotion lends itself to unpleasant sounding music, which is reinforced by all the wailing, droning, and scratching Holmes does all the time.  I can tell Watson is a patient guy.


–Quotes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories