Musical Interludes: Churchill and the Violin, 1886, 1928

Musical Interludes: Churchill and the Violin, 1886, 1928

Q: Did Winston Churchill play the violin?

Do you know if Sir Win­ston ever owned a vio­lin and what might be the his­to­ry of this one, donat­ed to the Churchill Bar in the RAF Club, 128 Pic­cadil­ly? It was giv­en to the Club by Ger­ry O’Brien, own­er of the Churchill Arms pub in Kens­ing­ton, long retired. —Paul Raf­fer­ty (N.B.: Mr. Raf­fer­ty, an art his­to­ri­an, is author of the author­i­ta­tive study, Win­ston Churchill Paint­ing on the French Riv­iera, 2020.)

A: Twice, circa 1886 and late 1920s

Churchill dab­bled twice with the vio­lin: as a school­boy in the 1880s, and as a Cab­i­net min­is­ter in the late 1920s. Pre­sum­ing that its prove­nance leads to him, I think this vio­lin comes from his sec­ond encounter.

Churchill wrote: “One may imag­ine that a man who blew the trum­pet for his liv­ing would be glad to play the vio­lin for his amuse­ment.” [1] He cer­tain­ly blew his own trum­pet for his liv­ing, so it is believ­able that he might have han­kered to play the violin.

“The Violincello or if not the Violin…”

Push­ing twelve in 1886, young Win­ston wrote his moth­er from board­ing school: “I want to know if I may learn the Vio­lin­cello or if not the Vio­lin instead of the Piano. I feel that I shall nev­er get on much in learn­ing to play the piano, but I want to learn the Vio­lin­cello very much indeed and as sev­er­al of the oth­er boys are going to learn…. [2]

Bar­ry Singer in Churchill Style sug­gests his inter­est was short­lived, because clas­si­cal music real­ly wasn’t his thing:

He also stud­ied piano, but begged to be allowed to learn the cel­lo or the vio­lin instead. Clas­si­cal music inter­est­ed him very lit­tle-despite his mother’s own taste for the operas of Wagner…and the piano ducts of Beethoven and Schu­mann…. Win­ston favored music hall tunes, for which he had a prodi­gious mem­o­ry, or pat­ter songs from the Savoy Operas of Gilbert and Sul­li­van that he loved to sing in his soft tre­ble voice. [3]

“Win­ston was always keen to try his hand at some­thing new,” adds Celia Sandys, but he did not inher­it his mother’s gift as a musi­cian. [4] Indeed, his ear­ly wish to play vio­lin or ’cel­lo was not repeat­ed in his youth­ful correspondence.

violinViolinist Chancellor

That the RAF Club’s vio­lin is from the late 1920s stems from the work of an ear­ly biog­ra­ph­er, Robert Lewis Tay­lor. With­out Tay­lor, we would not know of Churchill’s sec­ond encounter with the violin—as Chan­cel­lor of the Exche­quer in 1924-29.

A pop­u­lar his­to­ri­an, Tay­lor unearthed odd facts and inter­viewed obscure peo­ple who knew the younger Churchill. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, his Infor­mal Study of Great­ness is with­out end­notes, but we can quote it eas­i­ly enough:

It is not wide­ly known that Churchill, in a peri­od of polit­i­cal cri­sis, once bought a cheap vio­lin and essayed to pre­pare him­self for the con­cert stage. The fan­cy passed. Unlike brick­lay­ing, the musi­cal art was tougher than it looked. About all he got out of it was a wit­ti­cism from Philip Snow­den, a gov­ern­ment oppo­nent, who said, “I under­stand that Win­ston has tak­en up a new pastime—fiddling, and very appro­pri­ate, too.” [5]

That quip is a charm­ing reminder of Churchill’s omnipresent col­le­gial­i­ty. Snow­den was the social­ist Chan­cel­lor who suc­ceed­ed Churchill after Labour’s tri­umph in the 1929 elec­tion. They agreed on vir­tu­al­ly noth­ing, and exchanged point­ed barbs across the floor of the house.

But there was mutu­al respect, even admi­ra­tion, and after Snow­den died in 1937, Churchill put him into his book Great Con­tem­po­raries: “The British democ­ra­cy should be proud of Philip Snow­den. He was a man capa­ble of main­tain­ing the struc­ture of Soci­ety while at the same time cham­pi­oning the inter­ests of the mass­es.” [6]

With­out more def­i­nite prove­nance we may only guess, but it would seem log­i­cal that Churchill pre­sent­ed this vio­lin after “the fan­cy passed” in the late 1920s or ear­ly 1930s. There is no evi­dence that he actu­al­ly owned one as a boy, but Tay­lor con­firms that he did acquire one later.

A violinist in spirit

Writ­ing in 1953, the philoso­pher Cyril Joad sug­gest­ed that Churchill was at least a fig­u­ra­tive vio­lin­ist: One may be a philoso­pher in two sens­es, Joad wrote. The first, obvi­ous­ly is when you make it your busi­ness. But there is also a “loos­er sense,” where some­one “who has touched life at many points may com­ment at large upon men and things, dis­till­ing in apho­risms and epi­grams, in max­ims and exhor­ta­tions, the ripe fruits of his mel­low expe­ri­ence.” [7] That per­fect­ly describes Win­ston Churchill. Joad continued:

Pla­to and Aris­to­tle were philoso­phers in both sens­es; Descartes and Kant and Locke in the first; while King Solomon, Samuel John­son, Goethe, Lin­coln and Win­ston Churchill belong pre­dom­i­nant­ly in the second.

Philoso­phers of this sec­ond group must not only for­mu­late their phi­los­o­phy but prac­tise and apply it in pub­lic. But then for all of us, philoso­phers or not, life is like that; it is as if one were giv­ing a pub­lic per­for­mance on the vio­lin when one has to learn to play the instru­ment as one goes along. [8]


[1] Win­ston S. Churchill (here­inafter WSC), “Hob­bies,” in Thoughts and Adven­tures (Lon­don: Thorn­ton But­ter­worth, 1932, rep. Leo Coop­er 1992), 220.

[2] WSC to Lady Ran­dolph Churchill, Brighton, 13 July 1886, in Ran­dolph S. Churchill, ed., The Churchill Doc­u­ments, vol. 1 (Hills­dale, Mich.: Hills­dale Col­lege Press, 2006), 123.

[3] Bar­ry Singer, Churchill Style: The Art of Being Win­ston Churchill (New York: Abrams, 2012), 23.

[4] Celia Sandys, From Win­ston with Love and Kiss­es (Lon­don: Sin­clair-Steven­son, 1994), 122.

[5] Robert Lewis Tay­lor, Win­ston Churchill: An Infor­mal Study of Great­ness (Gar­den City, N.Y.: Dou­ble­day, 1952), reti­tled The Amaz­ing Mr. Churchill (1962), 407.

[6] WSC, “Philip Snow­den,” in Richard M. Lang­worth, ed., Churchill by Him­self (New York: Roset­ta Books, 2015), 374.

[7] Cyril E.M. Joad, “Churchill the Philoso­pher,” in Charles Eade, ed., Churchill by His Con­tem­po­raries (Lon­don: Hutchin­son, 1953), 326.

[8] Ibid., 327.

Related reading

“The Music Win­ston Churchill Loved (with Audio Links),” 2018.

“Irv­ing Berlin, Isa­iah Berlin: Churchill’s Mis­tak­en Iden­ti­ty,” 2023.

“Van­ish­ing Nation­al Anthems: Do We Still Know the Words?” 2024.

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