By Leslie S. Klinger (1)

Dr. Watson reports in Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans that in late November 1895, Sherlock Holmes "lost himself in a monograph which he had undertaken (2) upon the Polyphonic Motets (3) of Lassus." But was this monograph completed?

Orlando di Lasso, known also by his Latin name Orlandus Lassus and as Roland De Lassus (b. 1530/32, Mons, Spanish Hainaut-- d. June 14, 1594, Munich), was a Flemish composer whose music stands at the apex of the Franco-Netherlandish style that dominated European music of the Renaissance. Of Lasso's more than 2,000 compositions, many appeared in print between 1555, when his first book of Italian madrigals was published in Venice, and 1604, when a posthumous collection of 516 Latin motets (religious choral works), Magnum Opus Musicum, was published by his sons. Certain volumes stand out as landmarks in his career: His first collection of motets (1556) established his mastery in a field to which he contributed all his life; a comprehensive anthology of his chansons, or French part-songs (1570), helped to consolidate his position as the leading composer in this genre. In addition to his madrigals (Italian choral pieces) and chansons, he published seven collections of lieder (German part-songs). Probably his best known work is his sombre, impressive collection of penitential psalms, Psalmi Davidis Poenitentiales (1584). Its rediscovery and edition in 1838 by S.W. Dehn initiated a revival of interest in Lasso's works.

Harvey Officer points out in "Sherlock Holmes and Music (4)," "The motets of di Lasso...are written for voices ranging in number from two to twelve. One cannot hear these motets today anywhere in the world. One cannot play them, for they are meant for voices only, and would be meaningless if played on instruments. One can only do what Sherlock Holmes must have been able to do, i.e., read them, and then with the ear of the mind hear their complicated web of sounds."

"Musicians have often wondered why Holmes evinced special interest in the motets and seemingly paid no attention to the approximately 2,500 other liturgical and secular works with which this master enriched our musical heritage," writes Benjamin Grosbayne, in "Sherlock Holmes--Musician." (5). "Perhaps Holmes returned to Lassus on his bee farm and wrote other monographs on the masses, the madrigals, the villanelles, the chansons, and especially, on the Psalmi Davidis poenitentiales.... Where are extant copies of the monograph to which Watson so apodeictically refers? As for being 'the last word upon the subject,' the enthusiasms of friendship must be taken into consideration. Tovey, Koechlin, Jeppesen, Matthieu, Bäumker, Sandberger, E. Van der Straeten and other authorities make no mention of Holmes's monograph." (6)

Edward R. Staubach, in "The Polyphonic Motets of Lassus (7)," addresses the possible appeal of the motets: "The unexpected has been described as typical in Lassus's motets with frequent changes from fast to slow, sudden breaks, unexpected beginnings and endings, and from regular accents to strong offbeat accents (syncopation). The personality reflected in these motets would certainly gain the interest of a man whose violin playing Watson described in A Study in Scarlet as sometimes 'sonorous and melancholy,' then 'fantastic and cheerful,' maybe the result of 'a whim or fancy.' Since Lassus was one of the finest of the composers to place high emphasis on the text as well as the music, his seemingly arbitrary changes are quite logical when looked at in the context of the words to the motets.... Holmes would enwrap himself in the combined depth of the music and words.... Holmes's monograph likely dealt with the highly individualized style and approach of Lassus, the emotions and character of the works, and their compositional techniques." (p. 170-71)

Whether the monograph actually exists, however, is not free from controversy. Guy Warrack, writing in Sherlock Holmes and Music (8), expresses grave reserves. "It seems very doubtful whether Holmes had ever heard any of de Lassus's Motets. He could not have had much time to do so, for in 1895 he was a very busy man indeed.... [His 'immense practice'] would leave little time for hearing enough of de Lassus's music to gather a fair and representative idea of it. Moreover the opportunities for hearing it in London are few to-day and were fewer still half-a-century ago.... It would be easier to hear it in Rome, but even if he travelled there to investigate the...death [of Cardinal Tosca], he would have had little time to spend there.

"All things considered, it seems improbable that Holmes had heard much, if any, of de Lassus's music sung. His study of it must then have been from the printed page. Even so, our difficulties are not over. Holmes is never mentioned as playing from music. Indeed there are indications that he played 'by ear.' If, then, he was not an habitual and expert reader of music, how did he grasp the sound of polyphonic vocal music from the printed page? Even if he could read music, his violin would be of small avail in conveying the right effect to his inner ear.

"Again, no one with any knowledge of sixteenth-century music, or, for that matter, of musical terminology in general could possibly talk of the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus. It would be as sensible to talk of the Vocal Cantatas of Sterndale Bennett. Sir Donald Tovey writes that 'The only mature art-form denoted by the word motet is that of sixteenth-century pieces of liturgical polyphonic music in one or two (rarely more) continuous movements.'...

"The tautology could be explained away to some extent by an ingenious critic... Suppose that in 1895 Holmes had mentioned to Watson that he was writing a monograph on the Motets of Orlande de Lassus. Watson would naturally ask what a motet was. Holmes's definition, like Tovey's, would embody the words 'Sixteenth Century...polyphonic music' and Watson, catching on to the outstanding word, would jot down in his nots 'H. writing monograph Lassus Motets (polyphonic).' When he came to write up these notes thirteen years later, he might then transcribe the title as 'The Polyphonic Motets of Lassus.' This, however, would indicate that Watson never saw the published monograph, for the monograph would certainly have the correct title on its elegant cover. But surely Watson, as Holmes's closest friend, would have been given a copy, and even more surely would he have kept it as a valued possession.

"The seeds of suspicion are already sown: did this monograph ever really exist? It was printed for private circulation, so we should search the British Museum and the Bodleian in vain. We have only Holmes's own word for its existence, passed on by the unquestioning Watson, and we know that Holmes was not above taking advantage of his Boswell's credulity. To be strictly fair we must adduce two corroborative details to lend verisimilitude to Holmes's otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. First, ...this dip into the past is quite consistent with Holmes's other literary activities of the period;...second, it so happens that in 1894, the year before Holmes turned his attention to de Lassus, two important and relevant events occurred: Messrs. Breitkopf und Härtel of Leipzig embarked on the great critical edition of Orlando di Lassos Sämtliche Werke, edited by Drs. Franz Xaver Haberl and Adolf Sandberger...; and Dr. Sandberger also published his Beiträge zur Geschichte der bayrischen Hofkapelle unter Orlando di Lasso. These publications certainly lend colour to Holmes's alleged scholarship, but the colour fades too quickly....

"When we come to balance probabilities, we may be driven to the melancholy conclusion that the monograph was at best only projected, at the worst a complete myth.... If we recollect that Holmes had little time or opportunity of hearing the Motets,... and that even if he had had access to one of the earlier editions of them, he would be scarcely likely to possess the technical skill to translate the written notes into correctly imagined sound, and lastly, if we recollect that there are well over five hundred Motets..., all of which would have to be critically examined before any scholar would dare produce an authoritative monograph upon them, and that Holmes implicitly claims to have done this in one of his busiest years, we see that monograph receding, like Eurydice, into the shadows." (p. 49-53)

But Staubach, in an article entitled "Taking Issue with Mr. Warrack," does just that. Staubach points out that Warrack's contention that Holmes was not an expert reader of music is simply unsubstantiated. As to the lack of opportunity to hear the motets, he argues, "There have been and are a few outstanding artists, conductors, and composers, who can look at a page of a symphonic score and hear the music by sight; some even with the timbre of the instruments for which the piece is scored.... Could not such a case be made for the analytical genius of Sherlock Holmes to extend into a not so distant field?" As to the demands on Holmes's time, Staubach argues that "a definitive article on the works could have been published by studying a representative sampling of each classification." "The monograph did indeed exist," he asserts. "Each decade seems to bring forth a 'lost' cello concerto of Haydn or preludes of Bach. We can hope." (9)


1. Copyright © Leslie S. Klinger 1999.

2. Trevor Hall, in "Sherlock Holmes, Madness and Music" [Sherlock Holmes: Ten Literary Studies. New York: St. Martin's Press (1969), p. 86-92], seizes upon the word "undertaken" and suggests that Holmes undertook the monograph at the request of Queen Victoria. (p. 90)

3. "Briefly, [a motet] is a musical composition not very different from an anthem," Richard Wait writes in "The Case of the Neophyte and the Motet." [The Second Cab. Edited by James Keddie, Jr. Boston: The Speckled Band (1947), p. 70-72.] "Its words generally have a biblical origin and are in continuous prose form (although there are motets which are metrical and rhymed) and it is usually founded upon Gregorian tones. Originally it was sung between the credo and the sanctus in the mass. The words of the motets which Holmes fancied were Latin but some may be found in the vulgar tongue. The motet is polyphonic when composed for several voices."

4. 221b: Studies in Sherlock Holmes. Edited by Vincent Starrett. New York: The Macmillan Co. (1944), p. 71-73.(p. 72).

5. Baker Street Journal [O. S.], 3, No. 1 (Jan. 1948), 47-57.

6. Id., p. 56-57.

7. Baker Street Journal, 44, No. 3 (Sep. 1994), 169-72.

8. London: Faber and Faber, Limited (1947).

9. Id., p. 22-25. Much the same conclusions are reached by Trevor Hall, in "Sherlock Holmes, Madness and Music," albeit not as detailed with respect to Lassus.