Friday, June 05, 2009

Did Watson like Holmes' music?

I've long enjoyed this observation about the composer Edward Elgar in Ethan Mordden's witty and comprehensive A Guide to Orchestral Music:

"[Elgar's] fame began with the `Enigma' Variations, a turning point for English music, for Elgar grew up in a country that had lost touch with a venerable musical tradition. Before the Engima Variations arrived, the national sound consisted of gentlemen amateurs imitating Mendelssohn; it is amazing that Elgar matured in so unstimulating an environment."
One of those amateurs, albeit a fictional one, was Sherlock Holmes. The Enigma Variations' publication in 1899 places them smack in the middle of Holmes' own career as consulting detective and amateur violinist. So, for all you musicians and crime fiction readers: What role does music play in the Sherlock Holmes stories? Was Conan Doyle a stodgy conservative when it came to music? Was Holmes? Did Conan Doyle throw his hero into Reichenbach Falls out of despair that advances in English music were about to pass him by?

(For more on Sherlock Holmes and music, see Ted Friedman's article "Music of Sherlock Holmes." Incidentally, I discovered as I prepared this post that Holmes never said, "Elementary, my dear Watson," at least not in any of Conan Doyle's stories.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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20 Comments:

Blogger R. T. said...

"Incidentally, I discovered as I prepared this post that Holmes never said, "Elementary, my dear Watson," at least not in any of Conan Doyle's stories." Ah, if I am not mistaken, that would have been Basil Rathbone speaking.

June 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You may be mistaken. The article to which I link in my comments cites two possible origins for the phrase, neither from Basil Rathbone. One of these is a 1929 film, the other an 1899 stage production. The phrase's origin remains a mystery.

June 06, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

"The phrase's origin remains a mystery."

The dog that didn't bark in the night, perhaps?

June 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps this affair is more like ”The Adventure of the Yellow Face,” in which Holmes guess wrong but the story nonetheless has a happy ending.

June 06, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Letting the threaded discussion wander a bit, we must also remember that Holmes was not only wrong at times (though rarely), he also was famously outsmarted by Miss Irene Adler in his short story debut, "The Adventure of a Scandal in Bohemia." Perhaps Holmes' melancholy following that incident finds its way into his musical diversions.

June 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know that story, but I have just found it here and printed a copy. I remember smiling at what Conan Doyle did with "Yellow Face." He has Holmes guess wrong, which humanizes the character, yet he confers even greater status on Holmes by having his hero draw a lesson from his own mistake. Holmes naturally takes the opportunity to give Watson a brief, didactic and moralizing lecture.

June 06, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

A delightful post, Peter. P.G. Wodehouse comes into this. In his Psmith Journalist, published in 1915, we have: "'Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary,' murmured Psmith." That's the origin.

The only works named in the canon are Mendelssohn's Lieder ohne Worte, so some would say there's a bit of Victorian stodginess here. But then we have Holmes in A Study in Scarlet: "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 his chords were sonorous and melancholy. Occasionally they were fanastic and cheerful. Clearly they reflected the thoughts which possessed him...".

Room for lots of speculation there, and there's been a lot. I particularly like Schoenbergs's notion that Holmes, who has particular knowledge of the music of Lassus, is actually playing something like the vielle or fiedel, an earlier instrument held across the knees. Someone else suggests he was practising the great Bach Chaconne, but that's a nonstarter for purely practical reasons. What I like to think is that Holmes - "a composer of no ordinary merit" - was in those moments moving beyond the Beethoven Late Quartets and the strange, essentially atonal works Liszt mysteriously produced in his last days and just a bit ahead of Schoenberg and what was soon to come from the Second Viennese School. I'm not daft enough to think he really was, I hasten to say, but I like the idea, and maybe it's not totally outlandish.

June 07, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

Big 'whoops'. I should have typed Schonberg, as in Harold, re the man with the vielle idea, not Schoenberg. Sorry for any puzzlement caused there.

June 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Schoenberg did have me scratching my head. Surely Holmes was not that advanced, even if he had passed beyond the realm of the Mendelssohn-scratching gentleman amateur.

"Fantastic and cheerful" is a tantalizing description. One wonders if Conan Doyle had some composer in mind. Perhaps he was just indulging in fantastic musical dreams -- or vicarious fantasies of composition. Was Conan Doyle a musician himself?

June 07, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

I have sown confusion. The writer who speculated on the vielle is Harold C. Schonberg. But my later mention of Schoenberg, as in Arnold, and the Second Viennese School was not an error, just an indulgence in a bit of fantasy. The fantasy lies in the fact that there's no real evidence for it, any more than there is for writers' notions about the vielle or the Bach Chaconne. And Conan Doyle, though certainly a music lover, I can't think had the knowledge for such an idea to pop into his head. But I indulged in this drop of the fantastic because, in fact, it is not wholly out of the realm of the possible, though Conan Doyle would have had to be very sophisticated musically indeed to get the notion. The last string quartets of Beethoven go to the very brink of atonality, such that musicologists have speculated on just where his music might have gone had he lived even a few more years. And there are those rarely heard last pieces from Liszt, very strange, also pushing tonal limits, and even a touch aleatory. So it's possible, but not I think from Conan Doyle knowingly, though what Watson describes in that passage could well be music of such a sort, which would explain why he didn't think it music at all. I can imagine Homes being that advanced. He was certainly up to something with the violin on his knees. At that time, Arnold Schoenberg's career as a composer was getting underway, I might say, but it would be another 25 years before atonality appeared in his works, and another dozen before he revealed the 12-tone system. But those works of Beethoven and Liszt...it was already in the air.

June 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You have not sown confusion. I understood that the second mention of Schoenberg referred to the father of the tone row. Context made that clear ("what was to come soon."). It is fascianting to speculate about where Conan Doyle's musical imagination might have taken him, especially if he was not a musician.

I have read about those strange last pieces of list -- in Ethan Mordden's book -- but I have not heard them.

June 07, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

I think Conan Doyle's vagueness - whether intentional or not - works fairly well in comtributing to Holmes's mystique. While it's fun to imagine a virtuoso Holmes playing, say, Paganini Caprices or something Alkan-esque, that's conceivably too flashy and perhaps unnamed future-inflected improvisation works better. (Though for someone for whom "Irene Adler was always the woman," I doubt Holmes would have approved of the personal goings-on among the Second Viennese School!)

Incidentally, re: "Mendelssohn-scratching gentleman amateur," an increasing number of domestic musicians were female (French publishers for one had an entire line devoted to such works), and
would more likely have been plink-plonking than scratching, given the Songs without Words. And I don't think all this did a great deal of good for Mendelssohn's own reputation - history hasn't always treated him kindly. (Was it George Bernard Shaw who complained about his Victorian cultural insularity? I know M's taste was fairly conservative, but...)

Oh, and if there's a hint of late Liszt in the air, it would be an appropriate counterpoint to an air of Mendelssohn-esque stodginess - Felix didn't like the former's works and wasn't all that fond of his personal style either.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

And this topic has reminded me of an old jokey comparison - I've occasionally envisaged Poirot, if he played the piano, working his way methodically through The Well-Tempered Clavier while Hastings begs him to play something more lively!.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, Ethan Mordden defends Mendelssohn against the accusation of stodginess. He cites several instances of formal innovations that indicate more of the Romantic in Mendelssohn than the composer might have admitted.

I had not realized that scratching was such a genedered term; thanks for the lesson in musical-social history.

As for musical tastes among early fictional detectives, I'd like see to how a Berlioz-loving consulting detective would go about his job. Berlioz, though, might be the composer of choice for any number of hard-working but dissipated fictional detectives of a later time than his own.

And yes, it's probably Conan Doyle's vagueness that allows the room for such airy and entertaining speculations as these.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

Sorry - I didn't mean to imply scratching was gendered, more that you'd scratch a violin but plink-plonk on the piano! (The gender comment came from the "gentleman" reference.)

Re: Mordden, I'd agree to a point, but I've also seen a fair few comments disparaging Mendelssohn as too Romantic, so it seems the poor fellow can't win! (Wearing my professional hat, I'd probably argue that a certain amount of Mendelssohn reception veers rather close to racism.)

A Berlioz-loving detective would be great! I can see the parallels between Paganini as Berlioz's benefactor and a glamorous celebrity hiring a private eye... I wonder if Inspector Alleyn might be a fan, given Ngaio Marsh and the theatrical connection, but he's probably too civilised. (Unless you give R. Alleyn the taste and his less-than-bright brother the dissipation.)

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, I don't know. The comment could have been gendered. I understand that the piano was once part of a proper education for girls.

Interesting take on Mendelssohn. Could some of the sniping have come from jealousy, as well, since he seems to have led an easy life (though jealousy stemming from his descent from a philospher and a banker, presumably responsible for that easy life, could play right back into that other, uglier possible reason for unfavorable comment on Mendelssohn).

I don't know the piece in question, but that story about Paganini, Berlioz and Harold in Italy even suggests at least a subplot for our Berlioz-Paganini crime story -- a good source of tension between two friendly rivalry, or rivalrous friends.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

I'm not an expert on the life of Berlioz, but if I remember correctly you've got a ready-made crime plot with him. After his fiancee called of their engagement, Berlioz came up with an elaborate plot to kill her, her eventual husband and her mother! (Thankfully he calmed down before doing anything.) Possible title: The composer, the piano maker, his wife and her mother.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Was that fiancee Harriet Smithson, the muse of the "Symphonie Fantastique"? As I understand it, he tried to kill his passion for her by writing the symphony and, when that didn't work, married her instead.

I recently heard the Philadelphia Orchestra (with singers, of course) perform the complete "Damnation of Faust." That performance, the program notes and Mordden's entry in Berlioz make me want to read his autobiography.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

The fiancee mentioned above was Marie Moke, a musician in her own right, who ended up marrying the piano-maker Camille Pleyel.

And Berlioz's autobiography is definitely worth reading (and I say this as a rather jaded researcher who's read at least 25 musical autobiographies in the last few months!)

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mordden quotes a funny string of headings from Berlioz's autobiography to the chapter that includes his courtship of Harriet Smithson. The last two items in the list of headings, which is much in the style of the heading/summaries popular in 18th- and 19th-century books, are "Breaks her leg -- I marry her."

June 09, 2009  

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