Was Sherlock Holmes an accomplished violinist?

‘His powers upon the violin... were very remarkable but as eccentric as all his other accomplishments'

Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box", which appeared in The Strand Magazine in January, 1893. Original caption was "HE EXAMINED THEM MINUTELY."

221b Baker Street
Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous literary character, first appeared in1887 and went on to feature in four full-length novels and 56 short stories. His day job was as a ‘consulting detective’, for which he used his powers of deduction to outwit criminal masterminds, but he is also one of fiction’s most famous music lovers and violinists.

While Holmes’s association with the violin is well known through radio, television and film representations of his character, substantial allusions to his musical passions are relatively few and far between in Conan Doyle’s original books. References to his playing are rarer still, but they are sufficient to give a picture of a cultured, if unusual, player who – of course – possessed a Stradivari.

The majority of Conan Doyle’s Holmes narratives are voiced by the detective’s regular companion, Dr John Watson. In The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone (1921), Watson describes a visit to Holmes’s London residence, 221B Baker Street, and his delight at being reacquainted with ‘the scientific charts upon the wall, the acid-charred bench of chemicals, the violin-case leaning in the corner, the coal scuttle which contained of old the pipes and tobacco’.

As for the contents of the violin case, The Adventure of the Cardboard Box (1892) finds the long-suffering Watson taking lunch with Holmes, who would ‘talk of nothing but violins, narrating with great exultation how he had purchased his own Stradivarius’, which he acquired from a broker in Tottenham Court Road for 55 shillings. Holmes’s estimate in the same story is that the violin is worth ‘at least 500 guineas’. Holmes evidently got a bit of a bargain – and the detective is no slouch when it comes to stringed instrument history. The Field Bazaar (1896) finds him studying ‘a very interesting article upon the trees of Cremona and the exact reasons for their pre-eminence in the manufacture of violins’.

Paganini heads Holmes’s list of performers on his own instrument. Watson describes in The Adventure of the Cardboard Box how ‘we sat for an hour over a bottle of claret while he told me anecdote after anecdote of that extraordinary man’.

In A Study in Scarlet (1887), Holmes can be found attending a concert by the 19th-century
Wilhelmina Norman-Neruda
virtuoso Wilhelmina Norman-Neruda, whose ‘attack and bowing are splendid’, and a performance by Sarasate draws both Holmes and Watson to St James’s Hall in The Red-Headed League (1891). Sarasate was obviously to Holmes’s taste as, by Watson’s account, he sat in the concert, ‘wrapped in the most perfect happiness, gently waving his long, thin fingers in time to the music’.

As for Holmes’s own playing, he embarks on some of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words for Watson’s listening pleasure in A Study in Scarlet. In the only story where the violin plays a tangible part in the plot, The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone, Holmes fools his foes by telling them he is about to play the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann in an adjoining room. In fact he puts on a record of the same piece, but the villains of the story fail to notice that it is a recording rather than a live performance.

Was Holmes any good as a player? Here opinion seems to be divided. Although his listening tastes incorporate mainstream classical music, there are few references to Holmes actually playing such repertoire on his own instrument – and he is never described as playing from a score. Nor is there any evidence that he took part in chamber music, or even played with an accompanist. In A Study in Scarlet, Watson paints a picture of Holmes’s abilities: ‘His powers upon the violin... were very remarkable but as eccentric as all his other accomplishments.’

Watson describes Holmes in The Red-Headed League as ‘an enthusiastic musician, being himself not only a very capable performer, but a composer of no ordinary merit’. However, in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of A Study in Scarlet, the author and critic Iain Sinclair is less complimentary. He finds Holmes ‘sawing away on the violin like something out of the Incredible String Band... a boho poser, a Huysmans aesthete’.

Sinclair’s assessment of Holmes’s playing may well be based around the description in A Study in Scarlet that Holmes would ‘scrape carelessly at the fiddle which was thrown across his knee’. In our modern parlance, referring to a Stradivari as a ‘fiddle’ would be on a par with describing Holmes as a policeman – slightly inaccurate and certainly an understatement. And the idea of him ‘scraping carelessly’ sounds at odds with the descriptions of Holmes’s musical prowess put forward in other novels. However, the dates and sequence in which the stories were written have a role to play. A Study in Scarlet is the first story to feature Holmes. It describes several aspects of the detective’s skills and character that are contradicted in later novels, and Conan Doyle may have decided to elevate his creation’s musical skills as time went on.

Holmes’s unusual practice of playing the instrument ‘thrown across his knee’ could point not to any shortcoming in abilities, but to a study of folk music (which would also be in keeping with referring to the instrument as a ‘fiddle’). It has even been suggested that Holmes wasn’t playing a violin at all. In a 1965 article in the New York Times, the music critic Harold C. Schonberg suggests that he might even have been playing a vielle, a five-string ancestor of the modern instrument.

The Ernst 1706 Stradivarius
Only small clues to Holmes’s musicianship can be found in Conan Doyle’s own life. The author claimed that his primary inspiration for Sherlock Holmes was Dr Joseph Bell, an eminent physician and amateur sleuth for whom Conan Doyle had worked in Edinburgh. Bell seems not to have had any musical inclinations of his own and although Conan Doyle’s detail of concerts and players of the time is accurate, most of the references could easily have been pulled together from concert flyers of the period. With the exception of a reference to a ‘little thing of Chopin’ played by Norman-Neruda in concert in A Study in Scarlet, there is little more than generic detail around Conan Doyle’s musical references.

Whatever scant evidence the original texts offer, Holmes is as closely associated with the violin as he is with his deerstalker hat and unusual curved pipe. Unlike those last two objects, at least Holmes the violinist is a genuine Conan Doyle creation – neither the headwear nor the curious smoking apparel are mentioned in any of the original works.

This article first appeared in The Strad in May 2009 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Is A Stradivarius Just A Violin?

A Stradivarius violin at the restoration and research laboratory of the Musee de la Musique, Paris, in 2009.

Listen to the NPR Broadcast

The Stradivarius violin gets its name from master craftsman Antonio Stradivari. When he died in 1737, his secrets died with him: No one has ever been able to duplicate the sound of the violins or violas he made.

His instruments have taken on a mythical quality. Today they fetch millions of dollars at auctions; Sotheby's will soon auction off a that it expects to sell for $45 million.

But how much of the Stradivarius' appeal is about the sound of the instrument, and how much is about the brand — about our brains telling us the sound is beautiful because it's a Stradivarius?

In 2010, a group of researchers decided to find out. They set up a blind test with a Stradivarius. They took a group of musicians up to a dimly lit hotel room and had them play a mix of new and old violins, including two made by Stradivari. They had the musicians play while wearing welding goggles, to be sure the players had no idea which instrument they were holding.

One of the violinists who took part in the experiment, John Soloninka, was convinced he could pick out the old violins from the new ones. He was wrong. "I was playing the opposite of what I thought I was playing," he says.

When the researchers totaled up the results, there was no evidence the players could reliably pick old from new. And when players were asked to pick their favorite instrument, the winner was a modern, freshly made violin.

The results of this test were extremely controversial. According to the , violinist Earl Carlyss "likened the test to trying to compare a Ford and a Ferrari in a Walmart parking lot."

So the researchers decided to repeat the experiment with more violins, better players and a better venue: Musicians got to play the violins in a concert hall instead of a hotel room.

The results, however, were basically the same. Again, there was no evidence the players could tell old from new.

In a double-blind test by professional violinists, most couldn't determine — by sound alone — which violin was an original Stradivarius and which was a modern instrument. Above, a 1729 Stradivari known as the "Solomon, Ex-Lambert."

In a way the tests were liberating. They suggested you didn't have to spend millions to get a violin with top-quality sound. But Joseph Curtain, the researcher who ran the experiment, says he was also a little sad. He is a violin maker, too.

"It is partly a sense of disillusion," he says. "I've spent the bulk of my adult life trying to imitate these old instruments and the question is, well, 'What am I aspiring to? What are you going to do next?' "

Sometimes when you debunk a myth, you realize part of you kind of liked the myth.

Reposted From NPR

Antonia Bianchi

Though having no shortage of romantic conquests, Paganini was seriously involved with a singer named Antonia Bianchi from Como, whom he met in Milan in 1813. The two gave concerts together throughout Italy. They had a son, Achilles Cyrus Alexander, born on 23 July 1825 in Palermo and baptized at San Bartolomeo's. 

Achille Ciro Alessandro Paganini, son of Niccolò Paganini and the singer Antonia Bianchi.
Achille was born in Palermo (Italy) on 23 July 1825.

Achille stayed with his father after the end of the love story of Paganini and Antonia Bianchi. Paganini loved him very much, he often wrote about him to his friends; a few words written by Paganini to Gaetano Donizetti from Lipzia, October 8, 1829:

“Achille my darling Achille is all my happyness. He grows up handsome and nice; he speaks German very well and he helps me with the translations; he loves me sweetly and I love him”

They never legalized their union and it ended around April 1828 in Vienna. Paganini brought Achilles on his European tours, and Achilles later accompanied his father until the latter's death. He was instrumental in dealing with his father's burial, years after his death.

Five Star Review on Tome Tender for The Devil's Violin

 "Mr. Johnson’s gift for storytelling with a taut, crisp style is magnetic."

My Review:
The Devil's Violin by Art Johnson
My Rating:  5 Stars

Travel across continents with this dark and edgy mystery thriller where the main character is an almost priceless missing violin whose case is rumored to hold unbelievable secrets. The Devil’s Violin by Art Johnson is a mesmerizing journey into the world of priceless antiquities, greed and deceit. Where possession of these papers means everything and the means to that possession has no rules.

This prized violin is said to have been the very one that was played by the man called the Devil, as his ability to play was unearthly. Dark and mysterious, twisted and deadly, two FBI agents follow the bread crumbs they gather in a trans-global race to gain the prize. Among those caught in this twisted web are a master violin forger, a beautiful, yet mysterious woman, a professional thief and, the Man in Black. Is it possible that these hidden papers could be of interest to the clandestine Illuminati, too?

Art Johnson had me from the title! I saw the word “violin” and knew I had to read this. Add the amazing journey to the finish, the history of the violin and the possible contents of these papers, as well as the furious pace that feeds small pieces of the puzzle, timed perfectly and I could not put this down!

Mr. Johnson’s gift for storytelling with a taut, crisp style is magnetic. A striking plot that is populated by diverse characters that feel flawed and real, the excitement of the chase, make The Devil’s Violin more than a simple mystery. He manages to turn this into his own concert of words.


The world’s most prized violin becomes the centerpiece of intrigue as FBI Special Investigator Chris Clarke and his partner Carlos “Chubbs” Gonzales weave their way through a maze containing a notorious assassin, Illuminati, secret documents, a master violin forger and his deceptive and charismatic daughter, a Hollywood film producer and one of L.A.’s finest and most neurotic sneak-thieves.

The chase across two continents resolves in an art gallery in the South of France for a shocker of an ending.

FBI Special Investigator Chris Clarke doesn’t like “…anything or anyone” in his way while working a case. In his seventeen years with the Bureau, he has dealt with everything from retrieving stolen works of art to tackling some of the world’s biggest scumbags.

With his diverse background of art evaluation and Desert Storm duty, Chris Clarke is ready for all comers. Only one fugitive haunts his thoughts: the notorious and ruthless assassin known only as “The Man in Black," whose trail of contract killings had never led law enforcement to anything but a figure lurking in the shadows.

One morning in August 2010, the “man in black” suddenly popped up, seen by witnesses in Cremona, Italy to have been in the area where a young violinist was found dead with his throat cut. Chris Clarke and Gonzales head off to Europe to track down the assassin while attempting to decode the mystery that lies behind the motive.

Weeks before, Hollywood movie-mogul Max Pendleton, who loves fine works of art, no matter how they are acquired, hires veteran sneak-thief Gus Edward Happy to fly to Europe and steal the most valuable violin in existence—the famed violin coveted by the Jimi Hendrix of the nineteenth century, Niccolo Paganini--thought to be in league with the devil because his genius was unexplainable in earthly terms.

Through a tangled web involving Illuminati, secret documents in the possession of Paganini at his death, a master violin forger and his deceptive daughter, thieves, and assassins, Clarke faces the challenge of his career as he and his partner Gonzales move across Italy to the South of France where pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place with the Devil’s Violin center stage, leading to a rapid-fire conclusion.

The Devil’s Violin Reviewed By Steve Moore of Bookpleasures

I’ll have to admit that this pleasant but rough gem about musical history, violin making, and suspense first attracted my attention because of the author’s background. I’d not heard of Art Johnson before (and I’m a fan of many musical genres, from classical to jazz and pop), but I figured that a person who’s toured with artists like Lena Horne, Barbra Streisand, and Luciano Pavarotti; won a Grammy and Academy Award; and recorded eight CDs knows enough about music and music history to make the story interesting.

The Devil of the title is Paganini. Classical music fans know him as the composer of those devilish pieces for violin only playable by him. Like Einstein’s General Theory, though, others have managed to understand and dominate the pieces after Paganini composed them, although they still remain the quintessential challenge for violinists. But, again referring to the title, this story’s main character isn’t Paganini’s opus but his violin—the authentic one. That there existed a fake, ordered by the Devil himself, complicates the search for the real one that is the theme of this story. That only the real one’s case contains something secret hidden inside adds more to the mystery.

This novel reminded me of the Preston and Child tour de force, Brimstone, which also contains a theme about violins and violin making. I like Paganini’s violin better, and I enjoyed Mr. Johnson’s walk down musicology lane more, but I found Mr. Johnson’s plot lacking—there’s just not enough tension. The characters are also a bit two-dimensional, there are too many of them (e.g. numerous FBI agents traipsing around Europe), and the author seems to think every man must have his woman. The author manages settings and dialogue very well, though, yet the reader is left dangling in the denouement (this often means the author is planning a sequel). There are also a few copy-editing issues I caught on my second read.

Part of the unresolved mystery corresponds to the secret contents of the violin case and two main characters. I don’t risk a spoiler because I never understood what was going on with them. The parts of the book associated with the secret contents seemed almost superfluous. Moreover, the reader never is told the reason behind the search for the violin beyond those secret contents.

I liked the daughter of the violin maker and her accomplice, a petty snatch-and-grab thief who is tamed by the daughter. Maybe we’ll hear more about them in a sequel? Their role in the denouement ends satisfactorily enough to make this novel a stand-alone. Everything else fails in this respect, so maybe there are content-editing issues too.

A pleasant story that doesn’t quite make it, this book is worth a read, if only for the musical history. I’ll look for more stories from this writer. He has an unusual background that allowed him to create something different.

Steve Moore

Reviewer Steve Moore: Steve is a full-time writer and ex-scientist. Besides his many technical publications, he has written six sci-fi thrillers (one a novel for young adults), many short stories, and frequent comments on writing and the digital revolution in publishing. His interests also include physics, mathematics, genetics, robotics, forensics, and scientific ethics. Follow Here for his WEBSITE.

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Reader's Review: "Had me turning pages all night long"

5.0 out of 5 stars had me turning pages all night long, May 9, 2014

Jonathan Wolstenholme
The world’s most prized violin becomes the centerpiece of intrigue as FBI Special Investigator Chris Clarke and his partner Carlos “Chubbs” Gonzales weave their way through a maze containing a notorious assassin, Illuminati, secret documents, a master violin forger and his deceptive and charismatic daughter, a Hollywood film producer and one of L.A.’s finest and most neurotic sneak-thieves. As the story progresses we follow Chris and Carlos through the streets in Europe to Southern California to find the Man in Black and track down the Devil's violin.

This book had me hooked by page three. I admit it I was reading far into the night. Mr. Johnson had me guessing and second guessing my way through this book . Between the history of the violin and the intrigue. The mixture of the sacred documents that come up and then throw in the Illuminate and you are going to go on the ride of your life. Which is exactly what happened when I was reading it. The book moves so fast and the characters are so well written, You can't help but cheer for the main characters.

The characters are all bound one way or another to each other , as they cross paths with the ill fated violin. You can feel their desperation and what they need to get done to survive . The man in black is just evil , you cheer for Chris and Carlos as they unravel the mystery. You want to figure it out as badly as Chris does.

So if you love tightly written novels full of intrigue and mystery this is the book is for you . I am so happy that I took the chance on this book. I want to read more from this author. If the first book is any indication , we are going to be reading great things from this author . I hope that you all take a chance on this book . You will not be disappointed and you will have fun trying to find out who , what and where.

Diversity is no longer an enemy

Yehudi Menuhin
There was a time, not so many years ago, when stepping ‘outside the box’ could be detrimental to your career as a classical musician. This particularly applied to classical violinists.  To take part in a film score, or to perform or record music that was not considered a part of the established repertoire was considered taboo. 

Yehudi Menuhin, the child prodigy from the early part of the 20th century who managed to extend his career as a classical violinist long into his adult years, was one of the first classical stars of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s and beyond who broke down the barrier.  He was fascinated by jazz violinists and gypsy fiddlers that he ran into while touring through Eastern Europe in the middle of the century.  It blew his mind to have dinner in a restaurant in Romania and be serenaded by an outstanding violinist with impeccable technique who when questioned, shyly admitted to the maestro that he had never had a lesson and was not a practitioner of scales and arpeggios.

When Menuhin founded his violin school in England in the sixties, he insisted that improvisation be part of the program.  After all, where in the hell did cadenzas for the major concertos for violin come from?  The violinist performing these works made them up utilizing the themes and the modes of the composers’ piece.  Later on they were written down and then became an actual component to the concerto itself.
Stephane Grappelli
Menuhin invited Stephane Grappelli to his school to play for the students.  This launched atwo album project with several TV spots included as the two giants in their separate fields came together to play jazz:  unheard of prior to Menuhin’s bold step. Along the way one brilliant student of the school, Nigel Kennedy, or as he prefers to be called just Kennedy, went even further.  He studied with Stephane and while attending Juilliard, stayed out late at night hanging around in jazz clubs, sitting in.  He is now known as much for his jazz and pop albums as his exquisite renderings of that bundle known as the ‘established repertoire’.

Stuff Smith
Little known facts:  The great and legendary African-American jazz violinist “Stuff” Smith, while working in Harlem jazz clubs in the thirties and forties would often look out into the audience and see Fritz Kreisler or Heifetz standing in the shadows listening intently to the most swinging fiddler who ever lived.  It is also rumored that Heifetz sat in one night and played piano behind “Stuff”.  

Very few people know that Heifetz when he passed away, left behind a large folio of popular standards he had composed under another name; his versions of Gershwin and Cole Porter.

Today, thank God, because of artists like Menuhin, the floodgates have opened and violinists such as Josh Bell, the Ebon string quartet and nearly all classical fiddlers under the age of fifty are quite exceptional improvisers to one degree or another and have crossed-over the borders of classical, to jazz and folk music.

The reverse is also applicable.  My ex-boss and friend, Mark O’Conner, a monster bluegrass, Texas style and jazz violinist who is an incredible contemporary classical composer and performer has been receiving criticism for his new recording of a portion of the Bach Solo violin sonatas and partitas:  the Holy Grail of classical players. He has interpreted these works with a fresh view of what was actually folk music or dance music in Bach’s day.  Personally, I love it!  It is fiddlers like O’Connor that will keep dead composers alive in the hearts and minds of the young.  Until next time - Art

Paganini's Il Cannone Guarnerius

Il Cannone Guarnerius on exhibit at the Palazzo Doria-Tursi in Genoa, Italy

Paganini was in possession of a number of fine string instruments. More legendary than these were the circumstances under which he obtained (and lost) some of them. While Paganini was still a teenager in Livorno, a wealthy businessman named Livron lent him a violin, made by the master luthier Giuseppe Guarneri, for a concert. Livron was so impressed with Paganini's playing that he refused to take it back. This particular violin came to be known as Il Cannone Guarnerius. On a later occasion in Parma, he won another valuable violin (also by Guarneri) after a difficult sight-reading challenge from a man named Pasini.

Paganini brought his violin to luthier Jean Baptiste Vuillaume's workshop (the best in the world!) for improvement and tonal adjustments. Today, we are still not sure what Vuillaume altered on Paganini's instrument to improve its sound, but he probably put in a new bass bar and raised the neck angle. Throughout much of the 19th century, Vuillaume did lots of work for soloists like Paganini to create better sound from their instruments, even through the smallest adjustments. Vuillaume repaired the violin, and he also made a replica of it. The replica was so precise that Paganini himself could not identify which was the real one until he played them. Paganini's student, Camillo Sivori, played on the replica.

Salvatore Accardo playing "Il Cannone" 

Words and music: what’s the difference?

Beth's Music Notes
W.A.Mozart once commented that “…music was the perfect language; it needed no translation.”  As a musician, lyricist and author, I have often been asked where does the inspiration come from for these different modes of expression?  My answer has always been—from the same place, that delicate balance between heart and mind.

To understand and delve into the Tradition of the medium in which you wish to express yourself will strengthen or educate you imagination.  The word ‘education’ comes from the Latin, ‘educare’ which means to ‘draw out’ of the individual what is already gifted prior to birth.  Some artists (I use the term pre-Picasso, for after his generation only painters have been acknowledged with the term), are what we call gifted, or naturals.  These rare individuals need very little discussion.  They are the Wunderkinds who play Bach at the age of six with the perceptions of an adult.  They are Arthur Rimbaud who had spent his energies by the time he was in his mid-twenties.  These flames burn brightly and occasionally run the full course but generally they burn out from understanding too quickly the fate of their creativity.

Let’s leave them alone and talk about you and I.

I started the guitar at seventeen.  A bit late I’ll grant you, but my drive and discipline made up for lost time. My personal dedication was all consuming.  I couldn’t spend a day without music during this period.  By the time I was twenty four years old I was living in Los Angeles and breaking into the jazz recording and performance scene.  I was anything but a natural or gifted musician.  I just had to succeed in my own way, by my own rules which followed the Tradition, but were not limited to the past.  The now was and always is on my mind.

I began to write poetry in 1979.  I was thirty-three.  After ten years of being a Hollywood musician, touring and recording with the stars, I needed something to balance out my imagination.  I discovered William Butler Yeats and his circle and influences and I took off again, now in my thirties, with the same drive that I experienced with the guitar at seventeen. Ten years later, my first book of poems was published in L.A.  It was after this two decade period of music and words that I discovered for myself the secret to kindling the flame for both of these areas of creative expression.  DON’T THINK—JUST DO! 

So much of our self-doubt system is conjured up by insecurity.  “I’m not good enough”, “I’ll never be as good as (pick your favorite artist), and so forth. These comparisons are dangerous.  You are you and that is all you can be and it is enough! 

I began the violin at the age of forty-nine!  Really stupid. But once again that same enthusiasm that I had at seventeen kicked in. I made up for lost time by dedication and discipline, all moving along with the capacity to imagine myself as a violinist.   Seven years later I was standing on stage with Mark O’Connor performing a two jazz violin concert.

No, I am not gifted.  I have been all of my life a curious person and this curiosity has led me through life.  If you love writing, composing and playing music then don’t put it down. 

Don’t think—just do.