Sherlock’s Musical London

The television documentary Sherlock Holmes against Arthur Conan Doyle (Gedeon Programmes 2017) was broadcast on the Sky Arts channel on Wednesday June 17, 2020. 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.”  Soul City Wanderer begs to differ…

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:

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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