London People: Sherlock Holmes’ Musical London (Part 2)

The second part of the Soul City Wanderer’s response to detective fiction writer Anthony Horowitz’s claim that Sherlock Holmes had “no interest in music”.

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box: Paganini.

While investigating the case of the Cardboard Box, Holmes and Watson are having lunch somewhere near Croydon, as you do. Holmes is once again talking about his passion for violin and how he is now the proud possessor of a Stradivarius, “worth at least 500 guineas.” According to Watson, “This led him to Paganini and we sat for an hour over a bottle of claret while he told me anecdote after anecdote about that extraordinary man.” 

And what an extraordinary man he was. Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) was an Italian composer and violinist. Indeed, the most celebrated violin virtuoso of his time. A musical phenomenon by the age of seven, he went onto master the guitar. With a dexterous use of the bow, he pioneered a technique considered unorthodox by contemporary violinists. In addition, his exceptionally long fingers meant he was capable of a unique flexible span across the strings, which was remarkable even by modern standards.

For many months, the ‘Here Comes Paganini’ marketing team carefully stage-managed the expectation of his arrival into Britain. The public were seduced by sensational but lurid reports: he was a tortured genius; a debauched gambler; a wicked womanizer; the strings on his violin were made from the gut of his murdered mistress; he had made a deal with the Devil himself.

By the time he landed in Dover he was already a ‘star’, and he played the part to perfection. His entourage was spectacular. He travelled around London in a grand black carriage pulled by with four black horses, with his pianist riding on a horse behind, and his servants as stylish outriders. He took up residence in the fashionable Quadrant in Piccadilly (where the St James Concert Hall would later open).

His 1831 London debut at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, was depicted by Royal Academy artist Daniel Maclise, no less. Over the next three-years, Paganini gave a number of performances including at the Hanover Square Rooms, where they seemed to take a rather sniffy view of him, and in front of his more adoring London public at the populist Adelphi and Drury Lane theatres.

A year after his final tour, Paganini was hailed quite literally as one of the world’s first ‘celebrities’. He was described as such when his waxwork model was one of the first to be exhibited at Madame Tussaud’s in the Baker Street Bazaar, which opened in 1835 (just down the road from where ‘221b’ would become famous).

Paganini’s appearance in itself was jarring. One ‘fan’ Henry Cole, first director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, noted his cadaverous, emaciated appearance. His tall and slender frame of ‘almost hideous leanness’ and his seemingly unnatural ability may have been a result of Marfan syndrome, which wasn’t officially diagnosed until 1896. It is interesting to note that Doyle himself may have played a leading part in recognising this condition with his description of the villain Jefferson Hope in A Study in Scarlet. Indeed, some scholars believe that Doyle had purposefully ascribed Sherlock Holmes with Marfan-like characteristics.

Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, composed 1805-09, are among the best known of his compositions and have served as an inspiration for many prominent composers including Brahms, Liszt and Rachmaninoff. The final caprice (No. 24 in A minor) is perhaps the most famous and is performed here by James Ehnes:

The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone: Offenbach: Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffmann.

In this episode, the ‘consulting detective’ actually uses music to trap his suspects.

Holmes invites two suspected diamond thieves to 221b to discuss the whereabouts of the famous Mazarin stone, and the consequences that may befall them if it is not returned. During this little passage, Holmes proudly shows off a waxwork model of himself sitting in the armchair by the window.

Holmes declares he will let them dwell on their hopeless situation for a while, while he goes to the bedroom to practice “the Hoffmann Barcarole upon my violin.” While Holmes leaves the room, and the strains of music are heard, the criminals discuss their options.

But Holmes had cleverly snuck back into the room and swapped places with the waxwork figure. When one of the crooks pulls out the stolen diamond from his pocket, Holmes suddenly leaps from the armchair to grab it.

The crooks are dumbfounded, and one sputters: “But what about that bloomin’ fiddle? I hear it yet.“ “Tut, tut!” replies Holmes, “These modern gramophones are a remarkable invention.”

The Hoffmann Barcarole that Holmes refers to is one of the world’s most popular melodies. It was written by the German-French Romantic composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-80), aka, ‘The Mozart of the Boulevards’.

Ernst (E. T. A.) Hoffmann (1776 -1822) was a German writer of Gothic horror stories, and a hugely influential figure on the Romantic movement. One of his most famous tales is the Sandman, in which a trick is played where a lifelike wooden doll is passed off as a real person. Did Doyle have this in mind when he wrote the plot for the Mazarin Stone?

(for a spooky version of the Sandman, check out Paul Berry’s Oscar-nominated 1991 stop-motion animation film: Paul Berry: or this equally spooky version by Dangerous Puppets:

Offenbach composed more than 100 operas, and his works were perennially popular in England. He made his debut London performance in 1844, and later that year was invited to give a royal command performance at Windsor Castle. In 1857, a London season was organised for Offenbach’s comic opera company at the St James’s Theatre in King’s Street, St James’s. Between 1870-75 his operettas were regularly produced and presented to large and enthusiastic audiences at the Gaiety Theatre on the Strand, and the Royalty Theatre in Dean Street, Soho. The works had a massive influence on Gilbert & Sullivan’s Savoy opera productions.

Offenbach’s final opera was his most popular, Tales of Hoffmann, a fictional yarn about Hoffmann himself. The barcarolle, entitled Belle Nuit, ô Nuit d’Amour (Beautiful Night. Oh, Night of Love), was written as a duet for soprano and mezzo-soprano. It opens the opera’s third act, and is sung by two rivals for Hoffman’s attentions. The song was originally written for an earlier Offenbach opera Die Rheinnixen, and didn’t appear in Tales of Hoffman until 1881. Offenbach died in Paris in 1880.

This solo violin version of the Hoffmann Barcarolle is by Edmund Jacobs:

The Adventure of the Red Circle: Wagner.

In the last line of The Adventure of the Red Circle, Holmes announces, “By the way, it is not eight o clock, and a Wagner night at Covent Garden! If we hurry, we might be in time for the second act.”

The Wagner performance that Holmes is anxious to see is most probably Tristan and Isolde, based on the fact that the Red Circle was published in March 1911, and that particular opera was staged at Covent Garden a few months before by Sir Thomas Beecham, and conducted by Bruno Walter on his London debut.

The German composer Richard Wagner (1813-83) was, of course, most famous for his Ring cycle. He visited London several times, conducting his own festival at the Royal Albert Hall in 1877. He stayed at several addresses in London including Milton Street in Marylebone (now Balcombe Street, a stone’s throw from the fictitious 221b), Portland Terrace, in Regents Park, and Orme Square in Bayswater. In 1839, he stayed at the King’s Arms in Old Compton Street, Soho, where he began work on his opera The Flying Dutchman.

The first production of Tristan and Isolde outside of Germany was at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1882. Holmes and Watson would certainly have caught the final dramatic aria, when Isolde sings over Tristan’s dead body. It is entitled Liebestod (Love-death) referring to the two lovers’ passion for each other in death.

This version of Liebestod is a recording by the legendary Maria Callas:

The Adventure of the Bruce Partington Plans: Lassus.

Watson notes that Holmes had “lost himself in a monograph which he had undertaken on the polyphonic motets of Lassus.” When completed, it was “…said by experts to be the last word upon the subject.”

The Dutch composer Orlande de Lassus (c1530-94) was considered to be one of the most famous and influential musicians of the late Renaissance. Noted for his fine singing voice, he moved to Italy, where he worked for Cosimo de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. He was later feted by the Emperor Maximilian II, Pope Gregory XIII and Charles IX of France. There are claims that he travelled to England. An English version of one of his drinking songs was used by Shakespeare in Henry IV part II (Justice Silence in Act 5, Scene 3).

Lassus wrote over 2,000 works in all in Latin, French, Italian and German, including over 500 motets (choral works of interacting voices).

Here is one the most popular Lassus motets, Osculetur me Osculo (Oh to be Kissed by the Kiss of her Mouth) which he turned into a full mass:

The Adventure of the Retired Colourman: Carina.

The Adventure of the Retired Colourman is the very last Sherlock Holmes case in my Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes. As the investigation temporarily stalls, Holmes sighs “Let us escape from this weary workaday world by the side door of music. Carina sings tonight at the Albert Hall, and we shall still have time to dress, dine and enjoy.”

No musical expert has yet been able to identify who ‘Carina’ was. I guess we have to leave it as a final mystery. However, the Albert Hall did find a particularly significant place in the Sherlock Holmes story. Arthur Conan Doyle had predicted his own ‘resurrection’ at the famous concert venue a week after his death. And so, in July 1930, seven days after his passing, 10,000 people turned up, convinced that Doyle would show. They left disappointed.

Thus, from beginning to end, over 56 adventures, the claim that Holmes had “no interest in music” is as mistaken as one of Inspector Lestrade’s crime-scene conjectures. Indeed, it is easily reflected in Holmes ‘passion’ for one person in particular: the formidable Irena Adler who he encounters in A Scandal in Bohemia. In his famous index he had noted that she was a contralto who had performed at La Scala and was the leading lady at the Warsaw Imperial Opera. This was the one person Holmes truly admired, maybe even loved. And the only information he deemed pertinent about ‘The Woman’? Her musical prowess. Elementary.


Sherlock Holmes against Arthur Conan Doyle (Gedeon Programmes 2017) was broadcast on the Sky Arts channel on Wednesday June 17, 2020. It is available to watch on Amazon Prime.
Burgess, Anthony. Murder to Music. ‘The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.’ John Joseph Adams (ed) Night Shade Books, 2009.
Cooperman, E. M. Letter: ‘Marfan’s Syndrome and Sherlock Holmes’. Canadian Medical Assoc Journal. 1975 (Feb 22; 112(4): 423): Accessed 21 June 2020.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. Complete Sherlock Holmes. Penguin. 1981 (pp22; 34; 36; 165; 184; 766; 894; 913; 929; 931; 1019; 1021; 1116).
Doyle, Arthur Conan. Memories and Adventures. Wordsworth. 2007.
Miller, Thomas Kent. Sherlock Holmes in the Fullness of Time. Rosemill House, 2017.
Milsom, David (ed). Classical and Romantic Music. Routledge, 2016.
Sheppard, Peter. Thoughts on Paganini and England. Accessed 21 June 2020.
Smith, Nicholas. Henry Cole and the Devil’s Violinist. Accessed 21 June 2020.
Warrack, Guy. Sherlock Holmes and Music. Faber and Faber, London 1947.
Zaluski, Iwo, & Zaluski, Pamela. “Chopin in London.” The Musical Times, vol. 133, no. 1791, 1992, pp. 226–230. JSTOR, Accessed 21 June 2020.

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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