Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Missing Composer

Sherlock

In the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, Dr John Watson spends some time trying to crack the enigma that is his new friend, Mr Holmes. He decides to adopt the deductive approach that his subject has already described for him, beginning by making a list of Sherlock’s qualities. Number 10 on this list is “Plays the violin well”.

Holmes, then, was an accomplished musician, at least by Watson’s estimation. On this point, Watson later elaborates.

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 armchair 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, but whether the music aided those thoughts, or whether the playing was simply the result of a whim or fancy, was more than I could determine. I might have rebelled against these exasperating solos had it not been that he usually terminated them by playing in quick succession a whole series of my favourite airs as a slight compensation for the trial upon my patience.

Music lovers would, of course, expect that Holmes, with his sharp, analytical mind would favour Bach as a composer. I am no Holmes scholar, but, as far as I know, there is no moment in any of the Conan Doyle stories where he attempts to play Bach. A plot twist in The Mazarin Stone hinges on his playing not J.S., but Offen Bach [joke (c) Victor Borge] but other than that, the only named composer that Holmes is heard performing in the stories is Mendelssohn*.

This would make sense. The divine Felix was hugely popular in late Victorian England, so it is unremarkable that Watson would request from Holmes (as an antidote to the great detective’s distracted noodling which the old soldier found trying) “some of Mendelssohn’s Lieder”. I can’t help wondering what particular Mendelssohn tunes were in Holmes’s repertoire. It’s not impossible that he included, in his informal recitals, melodies drawn from Mendelssohn’s many songs. And, if this were the case, it is pleasing to speculate that the tunes heard might have included some composed by Felix’s sister, Fanny. Amongst the songs published under Felix’s name were included numerous, unattributed, compositions by the talented but neglected Fanny.

It is more likely, however, that the Lieder referred to by Watson were the Lieder ohne Worte that Mendelssohn wrote and published throughout his lifetime. These Songs without Words were short piano pieces published in sets of six and much prized by amateurs for home music-making as well as being popular in professional recitals. These much loved pieces, however, have perhaps done the composer’s reputation a disservice. In the preface to his indispensable book Mendelssohn: a Life in Music, R. Larry Todd writes:

[…] the piano miniatures that became celebrated in middle-class parlours … the vast majority of which Mendelssohn published without specific titles, acquired from their publishers in the second half of the nineteenth century all manner of insipid titles – “Consolation”, “May Breezes,” and the like – titles that Mendelssohn never would have authorized but that ultimately reinforced the view of him as a purveyor of maudlin piano music.

Todd, rightly, takes issue with the “persistent idea of Mendelssohn as a genteel lightweight”. I do, too, but refer you, as a corrective, to Todd’s book, where the battle against Felix’s detractors is fought with far greater scholarship, and crisper prose that I can muster. I shall merely present myself as grunting enthusiastic canon-fodder in the campaign he is waging; a campaign that is gaining ground, I’m pleased to report.

As we’re on the subject of war, and to get back to Baker Street, I want to mention the series of Hollywood films that appeared from 1939 onwards in which Basil Rathbone impersonated Sherlock Holmes in great style. His sidekick on these cinematic excursions was Nigel Bruce; not an ideal Watson, but a cherishable one. These low-budget B-movies shifted the World’s Greatest Detective from Victorian London to the present day, and had him apply his mighty intellect to problems of international espionage, and the sinister goings-on in Europe that were more likely to preoccupy audiences of the time. In short, these films pitted Sherlock Holmes against the Nazis.

I’ve only seen a couple of these film over the years, but they have great charm, and can certainly be recommended.

Sherlock Holmes as Britain’s secret weapon during World War II is an appealing notion, and, to an extent receives sanction from the detective’s creator. Conan Doyle went on writing Sherlock Holmes stories right up to the First World War and, in His Final Bow, has Holmes foil the plans of a German agent. For all his individuality and lack of deference to authority, Holmes had a patriotic streak and was pleased to set his piercing gaze upon his country’s enemies. Had he been alive in the 1940s, and still hale and hearty in his ninth decade, it would be natural for him again to place his talents at the disposal of a beleaguered nation.

Since we’re given licence, let’s imagine, then, what might have happened had Holmes been in Germany in the run-up to the War, where he might have found himself engaged by a mysterious occurrence involving the composer whose melodies he played so well on his fiddle.

R Larry Todd refers to this incident in his book. In 1936 the London Philharmonic Orchestra was touring in Germany. The Orchestra’s conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, paid a visit one afternoon to the Leipzig Gewandhaus and saw there the statue of Felix Mendelssohn that had stood outside the Hall since 1892, proudly commemorating the great composer’s association with the city. But when Beecham returned the following day, with a delegation of musicians, intending to lay a floral tribute at the statue’s feet, they discovered to their astonishment that the monument had vanished.

There are delicious possibilities here for fiction: the music loving Holmes, and England’s most famous conductor – noted as much for his tart wit as for his skills with the baton – paired up in Leipzig to solve the Mystery of the Vanishing Composer.

Alas, though, it hardly needs a Sherlock to explain the disappearance of Mendelssohn’s statue from that Leipzig square. Already in 1936, Mendelssohn’s music had pretty much disappeared from German concert halls, and it would be many years before it was heard again.

In 1947 a bust of Mendelssohn was placed pro tempore on the site of the destroyed statue. But it wasn’t until 1993 that a new statue was unveiled. Mendelssohn is taking his place in the pantheon of the great composers, overcoming the prejudice that has been clinging to him since the days when his sweet, frank melodies were used to assuage the disgruntlement of an Afghan-hand in a Marylebone sitting room.

Note: the image that I have used above was found here. It is an illustration for The Sign of Four by Ugo Matania and appeared in a 1948 Italian edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

* As I said, I am no Holmes scholar so would be pleased to receive a correction on this point.

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Posted in Classical music
5 comments on “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Missing Composer
  1. T E Stazyk says:

    Very interesting question. And sorry I can’t help you. In “The Red Headed League” Holmes tells Watson “Sarasate plays at the St. James Hall” and invited Watson to join him. He further says “I observe that there is a good deal of German music on the programme, which is rather more to my taste than Italian or French. It is introspective and I want to introspect.”

    Suggestive but not conclusive by any means. Also, to further complicate matters, at the concert Watson observes: “My friend was an enthusiastic musician, being himself not only a very capable performer but a composer of no ordinary merit.

    I don’t think anyone has ever tried to speculate what a Holmes composition might sound like.

    • T E Stazyk says:

      PS–Of course it’s possible that Sarasate played some Sarasate which could make him by inference another named composer?

      • G.H.Bone says:

        Thanks TES. The only pieces by Sarasate that I’ve heard have been crowd-pleasing virtuoso pieces: probably beyond the technical scope of an amateur player, even one as intellectually brilliant as Holmes. But who knows? Perhaps Sarasate was in Holmes’s repertoire (though hardly Germanic and introspective!)

        I had picked up that Holmes also dabbled in composition. And, yes, it is certainly mind-boggling to consider what sort of music Holmes would have created. There are some hints, though, in the piece that I quote in my post, where Holmes is described as scraping carelessly at his fiddle which was thrown across his knee. Perhaps these extempore fantasias were the precursors or “workings out” for his compositions. Watson says of them “Sometimes the chords were sonorous and melancholy. Occasionally they were fantastic and cheerful. Clearly they reflected the thoughts which possessed him”. I like the idea – fanciful I know – that these fiddle-scrapings were producing a musical paradigm of the detective’s mental processes. In which case they could have only sounded like … well, Bach!

  2. JDB says:

    GHB, Of course I hope you know I enjoy all of your posts, but I especially like your ruminations on pieces of music that are mentioned in works of literature, and this is another gem: music and literature and film and peri-WWII era history to boot! While I consider myself a fan of Mr. Holmes, I’m certainly not what you’d call a deeply knowledgeable one, and I hadn’t even remembered that Holmes was a Mendelssohn admirer. Your speculation that he might rightly have admired Bach intrigued me, so I noodled around and found this very interesting mini-monograph on Holmes and music, which you might already have discovered on your own. It mentions Sarasate, which you and TES have touched on above, as well as one of Meyerbeer’s operas, Wagner, and Paganini. If you’ve not yet seen it, I think you’ll get a kick out of it.

    http://ignisart.com/camdenhouse/scholars/SHOLMES_AND_MUSIC.pdf

    I also smiled at your reference to Victor Borge. I saw him perform once eons ago, when I was a pre-teen if memory serves, and I’m sure several of quips and puns went right over my end, though not all of them.

    Thanks for a wonderfully interesting and entertaining post.

  3. G.H.Bone says:

    Well, thank you, JDB. That monograph is excellent (and good fun). It seems to confirm that Mendelssohn is the only composer that we can be absolutely sure of, though there is a possibility that Offenbach is in there as well. I’m glad that Oliver Mundy agrees with my contention that the “Lieder” referred to are not Mendelssohn’s songs (or even Felix’s sister’s songs) but the far better known piano pieces, “Songs without Words” (there was, by the way, one Song Without Words for cello and piano, but all the rest are for piano solo).

    As for Victor Borge, I saw him at the Barbican Hall here in London about 20 years ago. He was quite elderly then, and largely trotted out all the old routines, but he did it in great style, and it felt like a privilege to be in his presence. For my money there’s no doubt that he was one of the truly great funny men of recent years.

    Thank you, as always, for your kind words. How’s the Ravel Pavane coming along, by the way?

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