London People: Sherlock Holmes’ Musical London (Part 1)

Last week, Soul City Wanderer watched a programme on the Sky Arts channel entitled Sherlock Holmes vs Arthur Conan Doyle. It was about the author’s strained relationship with his own literary creation.

One of the contributors was Anthony Horowitz, an English writer who specialises in the detective mystery genre. In 2011, Horowitz was officially endorsed by the Arthur Conan Doyle estate to write further Sherlock Holmes novels, and this resulted in two books The House of Silk (2011) and Moriarty (2014).

So, it was with some surprise to hear Horowitz, of all people, say about Sherlock Holmes: “He has no interest in music… …he plays a Stradivarius, but he doesn’t listen to music in any way.” 


A Study in Scarlet: Mendelssohn’s Leider.

The very first Sherlock Holmes mystery, A Study in Scarlet, was published in the Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887. This is where Holmes and Watson encounter each other for the first time at St Barts’ hospital in Smithfield, and decide to be partners against crime working from a base at 221b Baker Street.

In a bid to get a handle on his new friend, Dr Watson lists Holmes’s limits and talents which includes, “his powers upon the violin”. “That he could play pieces and difficult pieces I knew well, because at my request he has played me some of Mendelssohn’s Lieder”. Watson also ponders whether a love of music aids Holmes thinking process.

The German Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) penned eight volumes of relatively simple piano pieces which came to be known as Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words). The first volume was published in London in 1832 as ‘Original Melodies for the Pianoforte’.

Mendelssohn was immensely popular in Britain. He made at least ten visits between 1829-47, often working to busy schedules. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert employed him for music lessons. Scotland, in particular, left an impression on his work.

On his first visit to London in 1829, he conducted his own Symphony No. 1, making pioneering use of a baton. This took place at the Argyll Rooms on Little Argyll Street in Soho (around the corner from today’s London Palladium). The venue was the home of the London Philharmonic Society which was responsible for commissioning one of the supreme achievements in musical history, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. A fire at the Argyll Rooms in 1830 forced the society to move to the Hanover Square Rooms in Mayfair.

Mendelssohn performed many times in London, including playing the organs at St Paul’s Cathedral and St Peter’s Cornhill. His favourite residence was at Hobart Place in Belgravia, opposite the newly completed St Peter’s Church in Eaton Square.

The Mendelssohn ‘Lieder’ chosen here is No 2 from Book 6 performed on the violin by Yongseok Kwon:


A Study in Scarlet: Neruda; Chopin.

The game may be afoot, but Holmes does not seem entirely focused on the matter in hand. Instead, Watson notes how his new friend, “prattled away about Cremona fiddles and the difference between a Stradivarius and an Amati.”

Even at the initial investigation at the crime scene, a murder in Brixton, Holmes is impatient to get away: “We must hurry up, for I want to go to Hallé’s concert to hear Norman Neruda this afternoon.” Afterwards, Holmes raves about Neruda’s control of the violin bow, and in his enthusiasm even bursts into song: “What’s that little thing of Chopin’s she plays so magnificently? Tra-la-la-lira-lira-lay.”

Wilma Norman-Neruda (1838–1911) was a Czech virtuoso violinist. A child prodigy from a talented family of musicians, she made her solo debut with the London Philharmonic Society orchestra aged just 11. Noted for her technical dexterity, she performed most regularly on a Stradivarius. She had a number of influential admirers of her work, including Pablo de Sarasate and Joseph Joachim, and was a source of inspiration for many subsequent female violinists.

In 1888, after her first husband had died, she married the German-English pianist and conductor Charles Hallé (1819-95). He was knighted the same year and Neruda adopted the title Lady Hallé.

Charles, founder of the Manchester Hallé orchestra, had instigated a series of concerts at the St James’s Concert Hall in London. The couple performed as a piano and violin duo with great success. She also enjoyed performing with Joseph Joachim’s quartet in several popular concerts at St James’s Hall that were attended by, among others, Arthur Conan Doyle and George Bernard Shaw.

The St James’s Hall had taken over from the Hanover Square Rooms which only had seating for about 800, to become the principal concert venue in London. Demolished in 1905, the Le Méridien Piccadilly Hotel now stands on the site.

Neruda spent much of her last years in London, where she was appointed official violinist to Queen Alexandra in 1901. She died in Berlin in 1911, aged 73.

Polish composer and pianist Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) was a child prodigy. By the age of seven he was giving public concerts. Noted for his great range of melody, he went onto become a leading figure of the Romantic era. He also composed a set of variations based on the music of Holmes’s violin hero, Paganini.

In 1837, Chopin made his first visit to London where he played at the house of English piano maker James Broadwood in Bryanston Square, Marylebone. The Broadwood company produced 2,500 pianos a year at their Horseferry Road factory. Doyle owned a designer Broadwood piano.

Chopin did not return to London until 11 years later, arriving primarily to escape the 1848 revolution in Paris. He embarked on a tour of Britain which included performances in Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

In London, he gave private recitals at Eaton Place, St James’s Square and Stafford House (Lancaster House) where Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were in the audience. He attended concerts given by the Philharmonic Society at the Hanover Square Rooms, Belioz at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and Halle at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket.

He lived in several residences during this time, including Bentinck Street, Dover Street, Great Pulteney Street and St James Place. It was from the latter that he left in November 1848 for the Guildhall in the City of London to give his final public performance. He died a year later in Paris at the age of 39.

So, just what was “that little thing of Chopin’s” that Holmes referred to. Well, Sherlockian scholars have been arguing on that score for decades, now, and there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer. It could be the well-known Nocturne in E flat. But for me, that leaves out a “lira”, and I’m sure the music-loving Doyle would have been more accurate. I tend to go with Scottish composer Guy Warrack’s proposal in his 1947 book Sherlock Holmes and Music: Nocturne in F minor: not too melancholic or serious, arrangeable for piano and violin, and with just the right rhythm and strong melody to imagine Holmes trilling “tra-la-la-lira-lira-lay.” This version is a variation by Chad Lawson for piano, violin and cello:


The Red Headed League: Sarasate.

Once again, Holmes is distracted from the matter in hand by the promise of a musical interlude: “Sarasate plays at the St James’s Hall this afternoon.” He also gives us an insight into his musical preferences: “I observe there is a good deal of German music on the programme, which is a rather more to my taste than Italian or French.”

Later, Watson reveals Holmes melodic talents: “My friend was an enthusiastic musician, being himself not only being a very capable performer but a composer of no ordinary merit.” He also suggests that attending such a recital was all part of the Holmes method: “When I saw him that afternoon so enwrapped in the music at St James’s Hall, I felt that an evil time might be coming down upon those whom he had set himself to hunt down.”

Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908) was a Spanish violin virtuoso and composer. He appeared in his first public concert at the age of eight and made his London debut as a concert violinist in 1861. He did not return until 1874 when he appeared at St James’s Hall. By the 1880s in he was appearing regularly in British capital. His portrait was painted by James Whistler in 1884.

Known for his purity of his tone, he influenced Bizet and Saint-Saëns. Some critics thought his sound clean but thin, or smooth but steady. He was also said to have had a nonchalant style. However, George Bernard Shaw said that Sarasate: “left criticism gasping miles behind him”.

Sarasate appears as a character in Anthony Burgess’s Murder to Music which features in The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of Holmes stories by other writers.

Perhaps the best known of Sarasate’s violin works is Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs). It was premiered in 1878 in Leipzig, Germany. The version chosen is performed by Itzhak Perlman:


The Hound of the Baskervilles: De Reszkes; Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots.

One foggy November evening in Baker Street, Watson is determined to clear up the discrepancies in the Hound of the Baskervilles saga. After admitting that there still some mysterious aspects of the case that he is unable to solve, Holmes digresses, and his thoughts tune into a more pleasant channel for the evening: “Dinner and a concert. I have a box for ‘Les Huguenots’. Have you heard the De Reszkes?

The Polish de Reszkes were another talented musical family. Jean de Reszke (1850-1925) was a tenor. His younger brother Édouard was a bass, and their sister, Josephine, a soprano.

Jean was the prominent performer. He sang for the first time in London in 1874 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, as a relatively unknown baritone. But his fame as a tenor dates from an impressive 1879 opera performance in Madrid.

In 1887, Jean returned to Drury Lane as Radamès in Verdi’s Aida. But it was his appearances in Meyerbeer’s operas held at Covent Garden in 1888 that propelled him into stella orbit. Indeed, some claim they were responsible for the revival of the opera as a fashionable art in London.

Between 1888 and 1900, Jean made over 230 appearances at Covent Garden, including around 15 appearances as Raoul in Les Huguenots. During this time, he also gave three royal command performances at Windsor Castle on the invitation of Queen Victoria, an ardent admirer.

Jean de Reszke retired to teach singing in 1904. His mantle as the world’s most famous tenor was taken up Enrico Caruso. Jean died in Nice in 1925 aged 75. Unfortunately, only a few primitive recordings of his work survive.

This version of Raoul’s ‘Plus Blanche Que La Blanche Hermine’ from Les Huguenots is performed by the Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda:


Part 2 of ‘Sherlock Holmes’s Musical London’ tomorrow.

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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