Sherlock and the Musical Highlights of Sherlock Holmes

From the BBC's Sherlock, through Disney, Hans Zimmer and Young Sherlock Holmes: we salute the music of Mr Holmes...

Few characters have enjoyed as much reinvention as Arthur Conan Doyle’s sleuth Sherlock Holmes, an enduring icon who is as much bound up with the history of cinema (and indeed stage, TV and radio) as he is with literature. Indeed, adaptations of Holmes stories stretch right the way back to the earliest days of film at the start of the 20th century. Fittingly enough given Holmes’ penchant for a violin serenade, the musical scores to his adventures are as richly varied as the outcomes to his mysteries are unexpected.

Here are Holmes’ musical highlights, from Buster Keaton through to Benedict Cumberbatch.

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Not, strictly speaking, a Sherlock movie but as the title implies, the legacy of the character casts a long shadow over Buster Keaton’s silent classic. In the film, he plays a projectionist and aspiring detective kept apart from the girl of his dreams. In his dreams he subsequently escapes into the world of celluloid, a scenario that allows Keaton to indulge his ageless, jaw-droppingly brilliant physical comedy (including a water spigot stunt that led to a broken neck).

There have been many musical interpretations of Sherlock Jr. over the years but the irrepressibly snappy sound of the Club Foot Orchestra (formed in 1983) is now synonymous with Keaton’s classic pratfalling, beautifully accentuating every physical movement with balletic grace.

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The Triumph Of Sherlock Holmes (1935)

Around the same time as the emergence of William Gillette’s highly influential stage interpretation (he also played him on radio and in a long-lost silent film), Holmes was treated to a multitude of screen adaptations, the very first a one minute short called Sherlock Holmes Baffled, made in 1900. The likes of John Barrymore and Raymond Massey had already portrayed the great detective by the time Arthur Wontner inaugurated a run of five movies from 1931 to 1937. Released in 1935, The Triumph Of Sherlock Holmes featured a score from prolific Dutchman William Trytel, its somewhat modernistic streak feeding off the film’s early 20th century setting.

The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1939)

With his elegant poise, smooth diction and debonair nature Basil Rathbone set the standard for big-screen Holmes interpretations, deerstalker, pipe and all (picking up where Gillette left off). This terrifically atmospheric adaptation of one of Doyle’s most celebrated mysteries (impressively shot entirely on the 20th Century Fox backlot) is interesting for how it features the input of four of the period’s most significant composers: Cyril J. Mockridge (Miracle On 34th Street), David Raksin (Laura), David Buttolph (The Mark Of Zorro), and Charles Maxwell, the latter three uncredited.

Aside from the toiling, brooding opening credits there’s little music to be heard in the movie, but it’s an effective overture in establishing the Dartmoor landscape and ultimately the absence of music elsewhere allows the atmosphere of the story speak for itself.

The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1959)

Another outing for possibly the most famous Holmes story of all, this time under the lurid auspices of Hammer who embellished Doyle’s tale with seances, tarantulas and tin mine cave-ins. Nevertheless it’s all held together by Peter Cushing’s Holmes, the actor a self-confessed aficionado, and it’s arguably at this point that the Holmes scores really begin to develop a personality of their own.

Continuing his partnership with Hammer, a longstanding collaboration that also encompassed classics like Dracula, the great James Bernard’s operatic, dread-fuelled score lays on the horn blasts and surging strings to really amp up the melodrama. It isn’t subtle music, and nor should it be: Hammer’s pioneering sense of graphic horror is well matched by Bernard’s grandiose compositions, drawing out the tale’s sense of Gothic terror.

The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

One of the most delightful aspects of the Holmes scores is how they adapt to different sensibilities depending on the director in question. Legendary Some Like It Hot satirist Billy Wilder turns the legend in on itself in this overlooked gem, one cited by Sherlock creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat as their favorite Holmes movie in a Den of Geek interview; subsequently, the music from Hollywood scoring giant Miklos Rosza is able to take on more of a parodic, humorous nature.

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Like his celebrated epics such as Ben Hur, Rosza’s fourth collaboration with Wilder veers from the tongue in cheek to the sweetly romantic and thunderously exciting, threaded around the composer’s own Violin Concerto to construct an intelligently multifaceted depiction of this most contradictory of characters.

Sherlock Holmes In New York (1976)

Richard Rodney Bennett was one of England’s most esteemed composers, bringing elegance and a witty sense of class to movies such as Murder On The Orient Express and Nicolas And Alexandra. He was therefore ideally suited to bring the requisite sense of timbre and pitch to this somewhat misguided Roger Moore/Patrick Macnee offering, in which the duo come to the Big Apple on the heels of Moriarty (John Huston). In truth the prancing strings of his theme getting closer to the spirit of Holmes than the suave Moore does with his central portrayal.

Sherlock Holmes (1984 – 1994)

A great TV theme is essential for nailing the overall sweep of a given series, although of course the task is massively more complex when one is dealing with a character like Holmes. Jeremy Brett’s celebrated take on the detective, melancholy, witty and haunted by turns, is considered by many to be the very best, and demanded a multifaceted theme to match.

Across 41 episodes composer Patrick Gowers, a veteran of film and television, establishes Holmes’ sense of intellectual vigour in his overture, anchoring everything around Kenneth Sillito’s violin for a dash of authenticity before building a sense of urgency in the woodwinds and percussion befitting the sleuth’s quicksilver temperament, ultimately covering a whole host of textures and moods as the series progressed.

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

Barry Levinson’s underrated Holmes/Watson origin story (executive produced by Steven Spielberg, which accounts for film’s Indiana Jones overtones) features possibly the finest Sherlock soundtrack of them all. Hot from Western Silverado, composer Bruce Broughton leapt into the Gothic wonderland of Victorian London with vigour, anchoring everything around the delightfully flighty Holmes theme that manages the tricky feat of sounding both whimsical and devious, befitting the character.

But this is a score with an extraordinary breadth of treasures, from the chanting choir of the Rame Tep sacrifice sequences to thunderously explosive action and horror. The film may be non-canonical but Broughton’s musical rendering of Holmes’ adventures magnificently distils the joyous spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing.

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The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

Another story that deviates from the Conan Doyle canon but which, in truth, probably served as a vital introduction to the Holmes universe for an entire generation. Disney’s anthropomorphic adventure, in which Holmes is a mouse squaring up against his rat nemesis Ratigan (a delightful Vincent Price), is pleasingly truthful to the fog-shrouded atmosphere of the original tales and veteran Pink Panther composer Henry Mancini responds with a glorious score full of life.

Its rousing main theme is forever lodged in the minds of Disney fans of a certain vintage, nothing less than a celebration of the Holmes lineage; just as good is the clarinet/bassoon interlude of the piece’s second half, delightfully olde-worlde and authentic in its sense of atmosphere. And that Big Ben chase still gets the blood flowing.

Without A Clue (1988)

Henry Mancini must have loved scoring Holmes, returning for the second time, albeit in a more overtly comic vein, for this terrific, overlooked spoof. In a smart move the film switches the canonical roles and posits that Watson (Ben Kingsley) is in fact the genius, having constructed the Holmes persona in order to deflect attention; it’s just a shame the latter is embodied by a hilariously incompetent Michael Caine.

Mancini’s delightfully intricate woodwind and string ensemble stakes out different territory from The Great Mouse Detective, steering clear of the heroism but brilliantly amping up the humor of the story, while also staying true to a sense of Englishness.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

In recent years Hans Zimmer’s action scores have fallen into blusterous self-parody but he was clearly galvanized by the wit and energy of Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes portrayal. In his first of two Holmes scores (this is the superior one), Zimmer reminds us of the musical creativity for which he became famous, drawing on Slovakian gypsy rhythms to depict the broiling, tempestuous London as seen in Guy Ritchie’s fast moving adventure.

It’s one of Zimmer’s wittiest, most entertaining scores of the last decade, nailing the essence of the character perfectly. It even features a detuned piano – made that way by being thrown down a car park staircase. What’s not to like?

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Sherlock (2010 – present)

Having established himself as something of a ’90s blockbuster king with the likes of Independence Day and the Bond movies, it’s a shame David Arnold has retreated somewhat from the limelight. Even so, we should be thankful for his characteristically rhythmic and creative input on the Mark Gatiss/Steven Moffat sensational BBC revival, one that made superstars of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson.

Drawing on a similar wellspring to Hans Zimmer, Arnold and co-composer Michael Price give equal focus to texture and atmosphere as they do to traditional symphonic theatrics, particularly in the cimbalom-laden main theme. It’s a mixture of the old and the new that’s exactly what’s needed to bring Holmes to a new generation.

Elementary (2010 – present)

Initially criticized for seemingly riding the coat-tails of the BBC’s more illustrious Sherlock, this contemporary retelling set in New York has grown in stature with acclaim for stars Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu (as Holmes and Watson, respectively). 24 composer Sean Callery certainly does a superb job of fusing the classical and the contempoary in his superb score, vibrant strings and glockenspiel mixing with techno beats in a manner that alludes to the rich literary history of Holmes while also ensuring a present day relevance. Callery is one of the best TV composers in the business and this is one of his greatest works.

Mr. Holmes (2015)

As has been proven time and again, the years cannot kill off Sherlock Holmes, with every subsequent generation putting a fascinating new spin on Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation. That’s why Bill Condon’s gentle drama is so fascinating, exploring an ageing, vulnerable Holmes who is consumed by fading memories of his last, unsolved mystery. Ian McKellen is superb in the title role and the movie’s air of bittersweet melancholy is superbly complemented by Condon’s regular collaborator, Carter Burwell.

Utilizing gentle woodwinds, strings and piano to humanise a famous figure often defined by his iconography, Burwell crafts a plaintive and attractive score about a man in the twilight years of his life, an example of how, yet again, composers can utilise orchestral textures to tease out different facets of the legendary Sherlock Holmes.