Some viola jokes disparage the instrument itself. (The difference between a viola and a trampoline: You take your shoes off to jump on a trampoline.) More often, they disparage the player. (What do violists use for birth control? Their personalities.)
Violists are depicted as inherently nonmusical. (Why are violists’ fingers like lightning? They never strike in the same place twice.) Reverse viola jokes provide violists’ revenge. (Why are viola jokes so short? So violinists can remember them.)
Some viola jokes are narratives. (When the orchestra manager broke up a fight between a violist and an oboist the latter said that the violist had knocked his reeds all over the floor. “He had it coming,” cried the violist, “he retuned one of my strings and now he won’t tell me which one!”)
This according to “No laughing matter: The viola joke cycle as musicians’ folklore” by Carl Rahkonen (Western folklore LIX/1 [winter 2000] pp. 49–63).
Above, a viola joke by Charles Schulz; below, a particularly elaborate viola joke.
A close reading of the canonical texts yields conclusive evidence that the celebrated sleuth was not a superb violinist—he was a superb violist.
The mistake was likely perpetuated by an early printer’s error. After all, Watson was a doctor, which means that even at best his handwriting was nearly illegible; he undoubtedly wrote “viola”, not “violin”. References to Holmes’s playing such as a “low, dreamy, melodious air” and “low melancholy wailing”—as well as to his habit of playing it “thrown across his knee”—clearly indicate that his instrument must have been a viola.
In fact, further textual references point to a historical mystery solved. Holmes referred to his instrument as a Stradivarius bought from a shady broker for only 55 shillings; surely this was the one Stradivarius viola, dated 1695, whose whereabouts has eluded instrument historians.
This according to “Quick, Watson, the fiddle” by Rolfe Boswell (The Baker Street journal, October 1948; reprinted in Journal of the American Viola Society online 26 [summer 2010] pp. 14–18). Above, a classic depiction by Sidney Paget, Conan Doyle’s original illustrator; below, Jeremy Brett holds forth.
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