12 Violinists Known for Something Else

The violin is considered by many to be the thinking man’s instrument, famously played by the likes of Albert Einstein and Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional genius Sherlock Holmes. Here are 12 other celebrities who fiddled around in their spare time:

1. Charlie Chaplin played the violin (and the cello) in a unique way: backwards – specially strung to be fretted with the right hand and bowed by the left. As the story goes, renowned violinist Jascha Heifetz once unwittingly picked up Chaplin’s violin to do a little showing off, only to screech out several discordant notes. Chaplin calmly took the violin, and whipped out some Bach. He then explained: “I am...made inside out and upside down. When I turn my back on you in the screen, you are looking at something as expressive as a face. I am back, foremost.” He can be seen but not heard playing the violin in The Vagabond, one of his earliest silent movies, and Limelight, in which he and “pianist” Buster Keaton destroy one another’s instruments before any actual music occurs.

[Viewer beware: some violins may have been injured in the filming of this routine.]

2. Larry Fine (aka Louis Fienberg, aka Larry of the Three Stooges) began playing the violin as a child -- therapy for a bad chemical burn on his arm.

The kid had chops, and was soon performing on local stages and studying to become a concert musician. Unable to keep from clowning around, Larry eventually incorporated his fiddle into a stand-up routine, riffing on it in between jokes in a style later made famous by Henny Youngman. Though he’s better known for prat-falls, Larry showcases his virtuosity in flicks like Punch Drunks and The Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze.

3. Ana Gasteyer may be best known as one of the “NPR ladies” on Saturday Night Live, but she’s also a classically trained violinist. At age ten, the self-proclaimed “violin nerd” landed a gig playing for Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin during a little break at Camp David Accords. No pressure.

4. Henri Rousseau was a groundbreaking post-impressionist painter underappreciated in his lifetime. To his friends, he was also an underappreciated violinist. To supplement his meager income as a toll-taker, Rousseau busked on the street and taught violin lessons around Paris. In the evening, he composed waltzes and played at soirees held by the notorious Société des Artistes Indépendants. Legend has it that he was once so overtaken by music (and/or wine) that he continued sawing away for hours, even as hot candle wax dripped continually upon his head.

5. Werner Klemperer (aka Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes) grew up in a musical household, and trained classically on the violin from an early age. His father, Otto Klemperer, was one of Germany’s most respected symphony maestros, and became the head conductor at the LA Philharmonic after the Klemperers fled Hitler’s Europe in 1935 (a somewhat ironic history, considering that the Jr. Klemperer found fame playing a German kommendant at a WWII POW camp.) Also ironic: Klemperer’s Klink played the violin terribly in a 1971 episode of Hogan’s Heroes. Klemperer downplayed his talent, performing in symphonies primarily as a...narrator? Is that still a thing?

6 and 7. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, both students at the College of William and Mary, became friends while doing a violin duet one evening at a fancy Christmas party. While history tells us that they both practiced obsessively, their respective talent remains questionable: One contemporary supposedly called Patrick Henry “the worst fiddler in the colonies, excepting Thomas Jefferson.” This criticism could be explained by the fact that although Jefferson was fond of referring to his instrument as the more colloquial “fiddle,” he probably stuck to a stately classical repertoire, and had little experience with proper, folksie fiddling. Patrick Henry, for his part, seemed to play more for his own enjoyment; visitors claimed he would play while lying on the floor as his caterwauling children crawled all over him.

8. Ben Franklin did a little of everything. Should the violin be any surprise? Not one to be left out of the fashionable fiddle fad among intellectuals at the time, Franklin — who taught himself the instrument, as well as the harp and guitar — penned a little music for a string quartet, and invented something called the “glass harmonica,” which is kind of a fancy version of rubbing the rim of a wine glass with your finger.

9. Woodrow Wilson grew up playing the violin, and probably played into his adulthood. Rumors of his violin skills may have been over-emphasized in the internet age, however, largely because the legitimately famous violinist Ruggiero Ricci once went by the more American-sounding pseudonym “Woodrow Wilson Rich.” Nixon played the violin as a boy, too, but you don’t hear violinists bragging about that one so much.

10. John Tyler was, you know, the tenth president of the United States. He may not be the most famous president, but he was one of the most musical. He relished writing songs and jamming with his family so much that they began performing as a band after his presidency. And unrelated to his musical talents — his grandsons are still alive!

11. Louis Farrakhan is best know as the long-time leader of the Nation of Islam, but his love for the violin has endured since childhood. Just a month after Farrakhan (then Louis X) joined the Nation of Islam, Minister Malcolm X preached for musicians to choose between show biz and the Temple. Farrakhan chose the latter, and gave up the violin for over 40 years. In 1993, he returned to the stage, in a somewhat controversial performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto (probably the only “controversial” Violin Concerto ever). The New York Times reviewed Farrakhan’s playing as “wide, deep, and full of the energy that makes the violin gleam.”

12. Marlene Dietrich spent her early years training to be a concert violinist, before a painful wrist problem and a pesky sex appeal forced her into Hollywood stardom. Her first performance was at a Mexican-themed Red Cross pageant, for which sixteen-year-old Marlene (who then preferred the name “Paul”) wore a boy’s suit and a sombrero. She later got a job accompanying silent movies, until she was fired – allegedly because her legs were too distracting for her fellow musicians. Forced to go into acting, she forever called the violin “the symbol of my broken dream.”

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College Board Wants to Erase Thousands of Years From AP World History, and Teachers Aren't Happy
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One would be forgiven for thinking that the Ides of March are upon us, because Julius Caesar is being taken out once again—this time from the Advanced Placement World History exam. The College Board in charge of the AP program is planning to remove the Roman leader, and every other historical figure who lived and died prior to 1450, from high school students’ tests, The New York Times reports.

The nonprofit board recently announced that it would revise the test, beginning in 2019, to make it more manageable for teachers and students alike. The current exam covers over 10,000 years of world history, and according to the board, “no other AP course requires such an expanse of content to be covered over a single school year.”

As an alternative, the board suggested that schools offer two separate year-long courses to cover the entirety of world history, including a Pre-AP World History and Geography class focusing on the Ancient Period (before 600 BCE) up through the Postclassical Period (ending around 1450). However, as Politico points out, a pre-course for which the College Board would charge a fee "isn’t likely to be picked up by cash-strapped public schools," and high school students wouldn't be as inclined to take the pre-AP course since there would be no exam or college credit for it.

Many teachers and historians are pushing back against the proposed changes and asking the board to leave the course untouched. Much of the controversy surrounds the 1450 start date and the fact that no pre-colonial history would be tested.

“They couldn’t have picked a more Eurocentric date,” Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, who previously helped develop AP History exams and courses, told The New York Times. “If you start in 1450, the first thing you’ll talk about in terms of Africa is the slave trade. The first thing you’ll talk about in terms of the Americas is people dying from smallpox and other things. It’s not a start date that encourages looking at the agency and creativity of people outside Europe.”

A group of teachers who attended an AP open forum in Salt Lake City also protested the changes. One Michigan educator, Tyler George, told Politico, “Students need to understand that there was a beautiful, vast, and engaging world before Europeans ‘discovered’ it.”

The board is now reportedly reconsidering its decision and may push the start date of the course back some several hundred years. Their decision will be announced in July.

[h/t The New York Times]

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North America: East or West Coast?
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