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"His powers upon the violin… were very remarkable" [STUD]

Most Sherlockians know that the iconic deerstalker and curved pipe associated with Holmes were really the props used by the famous actor William Gillette when he brought the world’s first consulting detective to the stage in 1899. But we also know that Holmes is clearly and properly associated with his iconic musical instrument – the violin. Watson mentions Holmes’ violin playing many times in the Canon – the word ‘violin’ – singular and plural – appears 20 times. The violin is so strongly associated with Holmes that few die-hard Sherlockian mavens can name a Sherlockian play, film or pastiche which does not have a scene with Holmes and a violin.

Watson describes Holmes boasting that he “had purchased his own Stradivarius, which was worth at least five hundred guineas, at a Jew broker's in Tottenham Court Road for fifty-five shillings.” [CARD]

In the Holmes apocrypha "The Field Bazaar," Holmes is found studying “a very interesting article upon the trees of Cremona and the exact reasons for their pre-eminence in the manufacture of violins,” and of course in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes "prattled away about Cremona fiddles, and the difference between a Stradivarius and an Amati."

Watson tells us that Holmes attended concerts by the 19th-century virtuoso Wilhelmina Norman-Neruda, whose “attack and bowing are splendid” [STUD], and a performance by Sarasate finds both Holmes and Watson at St James’s Hall [REDH].

Music "has charms" not only to "sooth a savage breast" [often misquoted as "a savage beast" - Ed.] but also and less frequently quoted, "to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak," according to seventeenth-century playwright William Congreve (and not Shakespeare to whom the quote is frequently attributed).  However this essay will turn that phrase around and proclaim that bending a knotted oak (or more precisely a sycamore, as we shall see) has the power to charm Sherlock Holmes!

Discovering the 'Sherlock' Violin

On a recent visit to Edinburgh I was privileged to give a presentation at the Arthur Conan Doyle Centre, home of the Edinburgh Association of Spiritualists, housed in a beautifully restored Victorian townhouse built by the very successful brewer, William McEwan (whose own connection with ACD will be explored in another essay). I learned from a trustee of the Centre, Ann Treherne, that on the one year anniversary of the opening of the Centre, October 23, 2012, a very special violin had been played – the Sherlock violin, a violin normally held at the Museum of Musical Instruments at the University of Edinburgh.  Of course my Sherlock-y sense immediately tingled, and I enquired, “What is this ‘Sherlock violin’?”

To answer that question let us enter our time-travelling Tardis and journey back to Edinburgh between 1865 and 1869. A young Arthur Conan Doyle moved to the outskirts of that great city to board at Liberton Bank House under the care of Mary Burton, who lived there from 1844 to 1898. Mary Burton was a trailblazing social and educational reformer, the first woman Governor of Heriot-Watt College and a prominent advocate of women's suffrage. Her promotion of educational equality and access led her to bequeath, with foresight, a sum towards the campaign "for the admission of women to sit as members of parliament."

Doyle ostensibly came to live there to attend the nearby Newington School but also to gain respite from a dysfunctional family life due to the alcoholism of his father. He became great friends with Burton’s nephew, William K. Burton, with whom he often climbed a large sycamore tree on the property next to the house. The two years Doyle spent at Liberton Bank House were influential in his development.

We can return, not yet to the present time, but to the beginning of our 21st century. Liberton Bank House continued to be used as a residence until 1993 but fell into disrepair. Almost demolished to make way for a fast food hamburger restaurant (yes, McDonald’s – at least it has a Scottish name), it was saved from that ignominious fate by Conan Doyle and Burton enthusiasts and eventually became a listed property by Historic Scotland in 2000.

Feasibility studies suggested that the best use of the property would be as school for students with learning difficulties, medical concerns or social, emotional or behavioral problems and the building was eventually restored in time for the 2007-2008 school year. However, as the fate of the property was being debated, it was found that the large 170 year old sycamore tree on the property had failed because of rotting roots and could potentially fall and damage the building. Of course this was the very tree that young Arthur Conan Doyle climbed and played in as a boy.

Ever mindful of their heritage, their duty to preserve, and of native son Conan Doyle, staff at the Dunedin School felt that even if the tree itself could not be saved, the wood from the tree could be and ‘wood’ be. And what better use could be made of that wood than to honor the young Conan Doyle, who had spent important years of his childhood actually climbing in that tree?

Joan Foulner, a history teacher at the school said:
“We had no alternative but to knock down the tree, as the rotting in its roots were so severe. It’s been here for so long, and with its connections with Arthur Conan Doyle, there was no way we could just knock it down and have it turned into woodchips. We had been looking for an idea for some kind of tribute to Sherlock Holmes when one of the garden volunteers read an article about a local violin maker.  We’ve raised the money to pay for the violin through donations.”  
Dunedin School staff contacted luthier Steve Burnett, a local Edinburgh instrument maker and commissioned him to create from that wood what is now known as the Sherlock violin in time for the 150th anniversary of the birth of Doyle in 2009.

Steve Burnett, with his creations
The Conan Doyle quartet

According to Watson, Holmes often stated “You know my methods” (mentioned at least fourteen times in nine stories) and Steve Burnett has his methods as well. Burnett is no ordinary luthier, and the honor of creating this unique instrument came to him in part due to his unique methods.

As mentioned previously, Holmes had a Stradivarius but Burnett was more influenced by the famous Italian maker Guiseppe Guarnerius del Gesu (1698-1744) based in Cremona and a rival to Antonio Stradivari. Burnett based the Sherlock violin on a design which the great violin-maker provided for Nicolo Paganini about 1740. He eschews the convenience of modern wood preservatives in his craft by returning to old organic resins and oil varnish recipes for wood treatment. He feels that his custom crafted violins harken back to Guarneri’s instruments which possess “a dark, responsive, sonorous, powerful and sweet tone. . . very much sought after by many leading soloists.” He states
“What I am doing is going back to some of the varnish mixes that produced the sound from instruments that survive today and sound so good.  My violins may look a little less refined than some but they produce a wonderful sound which is louder and sweeter than other instruments.”

His preferred wood preservatives and his carving and woodworking expertise were not the only ‘methods’ Burnet had to use in crafting the Sherlock violin. The tonal qualities of a violin are obviously affected by the wood used and its condition. The nature of the type of wood, its density and grain characteristics, the thickness of each individual piece – all these contribute to the final character of the sound.

Ordinarily wood used in instrument making may be aged for years before it is actually carved and crafted to make a stringed instrument. The moisture content must stabilize before the luthier can choose the pieces of wood used for the various components. Steve Burnett had a deadline of less than a year to make a very special instrument, and he did not want the audible characteristics of this violin to change substantially as it aged. Making a violin is an art which requires specialized experience.  He not only used his years of experience with traditional methods but was forced to experiment with ways of accelerating the ‘aging’ of the raw sycamore wood – techniques which are now proprietary.

Steve Burnett's work: the Sherlock violin

The deadline was met and the Sherlock violin made its debut at a concert at the school on the 150th anniversary of Doyle’s birth, May 22nd, 2009. Sherlockians might be content just to know that this commemorative violin was made and played then. But that would leave out the ‘rest of the story.’
There are violins and there are violins. The remaining Stradavari and Guarneri violins in this world are insured for hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars because of their sound in the hands of a skilled violinist. What about the sound of the Sherlock violin? Is it to be noted merely as a nice gesture to Conan Doyle because it was made with wood from a tree in which he once played?

Dr. Jenny Nex of the Musical Instrument Museum, University of Edinburgh

Violinists who have played the Sherlock violin (and other stringed instruments crated by Burnett) have uniformly praised it as sounding more like the pre-1800 violins made in Cremona. One review of a charity event to raise money for the Haiti Orphan Appeal appeared in The Scotsman, May 16, 2010. The Sherlock violin was played in Usher Hall by Armenian string prodigy Ani Batikian in a
“varied programme . . .  designed to show off the colours and textures of the instrument as well as the versatility and talent of violinist Ani Batikian. Together with the St Patrick’s Baroque Ensemble, she took Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons at a brisk pace revealing the violin’s quicksilver qualities. Then with pianist Helena Buckmayer, Batikian played works by Elgar and Gershwin demonstrating the warm, honeyed tones of the instrument, while Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances revealed its more fiery nature.  However, it was the beautiful sweeping melodies of Jay Ungar's Ashokan Farewell for violin and ensemble that really highlighted the gorgeous tones of this magnificent instrument.”  

Because of the violin’s connection to Doyle it also performed in the world premiere of Elsie and Frances by Scottish composer James Clapperton – named for the two young girls responsible for the 1920 Cottingley Fairies hoax, in which Doyle remained a believer until his death in 1931.

In the fall of 2010 the Sherlock violin was turned over to the Musical Instrument Museum at the University of Edinburgh from where it is lent out to various organizations such as UNICEF to play for children’s and environmental charities worldwide. I was able to visit the MIM in the summer of 2015 and actually handle the Sherlock violin and hear it as played by one of the curators.  I am not an expert on the sounds of violins and cannot offer an expert opinion on its audible characteristics, but as a Sherlockian I was delighted to see on the inside of the violin the marking,

“Sherlock, 150th anniversary, birth of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, wood from sycamore at Dunedin School, former childhood home, Edinburgh, 22/05/2009.”

You can find YouTube videos of the Sherlock violin being played as well as a commentary by Steve Burnett himself has more information on the construction of the violin and sound clips demonstrating it – links can found on his website.

While this may end this part of the narrative, it is still not ‘the rest of the story.'  Part 2 will tell a tale of the Watson violin plus a viola and a cello.  When combined with the Sherlock violin they comprise the Doyle string quartet – all made from the same sycamore tree.  The story continues with the only public playing of the Doyle quartet to date at the first year anniversary of the opening of the Arthur Conan Doyle Centre in Edinburgh in 2012.  And this occasion premiered the only performance of The Sign of Four (a quartet for strings, naturally), especially written for the ACD Centre by a Scottish composer and retired woodwind player with the London Symphony Orchestra.  Stay ‘tuned’ for more!

And in case you wondered what's left of that sycamore tree, here are some shots from the Liberton Bank House grounds: