Holmes and His "Fiddle":
A Fiddling Distinction

by Stillman Drake

When Holmes and Watson agreed to take rooms together, Watson was warned that he would have to put up with a certain amount of amateur playing of the violin. Before many days were out, he was listing among the accomplishments of Holmes that he "plays the violin well." In this, as in other regards, he remarked that the powers of the great detective were remarkable but eccentric. "That he could play pieces, and difficult pieces," said Watson, "I know 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 recognised 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." This passage has inspired derision from several commentators on the canon, who have pointed out the virtual impossibility of extracting any music whatever from a violin held in this manner. Accordingly they have not hesitated to put the whole thing aside as a romantic extravagance of Watson's, rather than as a sober and interesting fact.

No doubt Watson had his shortcomings, but canonical scholarship will not gain stature by invoking them and even multiplying them in order to account for every seemingly puzzling or contradictory passage. As scholars, we are obliged first to examine carefully the precise textual words before we dare to question their authenticity, or doubt the accuracy of the chronicler. Now the passage cited above is taken from an elaborate notebook in which Watson was attempting to set down for his own analysis the most accurate picture he could muster of Holmes's accomplishments, and in so doing he erred more in the direction of stolid unimaginativeness than in that of romantic embellishment, as the further events of that same morning were clearly to reveal. Although it is true that in chronicling the progress of the case so introduced, as in many other instances, Watson tended to overdramatize the events, there is no evidence of his having done so in setting forth his first observations of his strange roommate. It therefore behooves us now to re-examine his precise words and to attempt a new appraisal of them.

The paragraph in question begins with an allusion to the violin. Inasmuch as Holmes had preciously told Watson that he played the violin, and subsequently revealed that he owned a valuable Stradivarius which he had purchased at a great bargain, there is no doubt that Holmes did play the violin. But was that the instrument which he was wont to throw across his knee while slumped in an armchair? Certainly Watson does not say it was, for he distinctly calls that instrument a "fiddle." It is our own habit of failing to credit Watson with elementary intelligence or accuracy that has led us to assume that the two instruments, mentioned in succeeding sentences, are one and the same; for the very change of terminology should have warned us that Watson must have intended some distinction by it. Perhaps it is the deplorable but common use of the words "violin" and "fiddle" in English as if they were interchangeable that has seduced commentators into this unwarranted assumption. Musicologists in our ranks have remarked on the physical impossibilities implied by that identification in this instance; yet even they appear to have supposed that by "fiddle" Watson intended merely to allude to the violin with that faint contempt associated with this term in our day. Research discloses, however, that it was not always thus, and indeed that historically we are dealing with two different families of instrument.

Inasmuch as the facts are not generally known, I shall cite the eleventh edition of the Britannica. Looking first under the article "Violin," one finds the word "fiddle" first introduced in this way:

The viols probably owe their origin directly to the minnesinger fiddles. ... The parentage of the fiddle family may safely be ascribed to the rebec, a bowed instrument of the middle ages. ... As a treble instrument, the rebec or geige did duty until the invention of the violin.
Turning accordingly to the article "viol", one learns that "The chief characteristics of the viol family were a flat back, sloping shoulders, C-shaped sound-holes, and a short finger-board with frets. ... The viols, of which the origin may be traced to the 13th and 14th century German Minnesinger fiddle, characterized also by sloping shoulders, can hardly be said to have evolved into the violin. ... The viol family consisted of treble, alto, tenor and bass instruments, being further differentiated as da braccia or da gamba according to the position in which they were held against the arm or between the knees." It is, I suppose, scarcely necessary to add that in no case was a viol tucked under the chin, a feat which could not be accomplished by anyone with a neck of ordinary length, because of the great thickness of the viols; nor would there have been any conceivable advantage in holding the instrument so.

Thus in the viol we have a bowed instrument with fretted finger-board, capable of being held in a variety of positions along the arm or resting on the or between the knees when being played, the choice of position depending on the size of the instrument and the convenience or idiosyncrasies of the performer. Doubtless few would choose to play in a reclining position if other people were present, as such an attitude would not exhibit the proper appearance of common courtesy, let alone convey that impression of skill, alertness, and difficulty which musicians like to give to their listeners. Holmes, however, is not said to have played in this position except when "left to himself"; presumably Watson had noted him doing this only when he happened casually to pass through the sitting room from time to time. The important point, however, is that there is nothing in the instrument as such to preclude this use of it, without sacrifice of tonal accuracy because of the fretted fingerboard. Large viols are usually held with the base away from the player, as is the cello; small viols are customarily played with the base toward the performer, like violins. Thus we may presume that Holmes's fiddle was not his Stradivarius violin, but rather a viola da gamba of medium size.

It is true that in Holmes's day, instruments of the viol family, with the exception of the bass viol, had long since passed out of general use, though the great Arnold Dolmetsch was even then laboring in England to restore them to favor. It is interesting to know that Holmes was a member of the avant-garde in a movement which since his time has been crowned with such conspicuous success at the hands of other brilliant amateurs, a success extended by the resourcefulness of industrialists intent upon supplying inexhaustible supplies of records to hi-fi enthusiasts. The fondness of Holmes for ancient music is amply evidenced by his study of the polyphonic motets of Orlando di Lasso, and it is only natural that this interest was accompanied by a fondness for the ancient instruments. In view of the relative oblivion into which viols had fallen at that time, it is no disgrace to Watson that in the early days of his acquaintance with Holmes he could not accurately identify the unfamiliar instrument with which the detective beguiled his hours of solitude. On the contrary, it does Watson great credit that he duly distinguished this instrument from the violin by a separate name, and moreover by one that was appropriate to its historical evolution.

  Burlingame, 26 December 1960

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