Of all the famous non-musicians who played the violin in history, one of the best known in modern pop culture is Albert Einstein. The physicist who developed the theory of relativity and won a Nobel Prize also adored his music and his violin, which he called “Lina.”
Einstein began playing at age 6 when his mother, an accomplished pianist, arranged for him to have lessons. According to biographers, Einstein did not really enjoy playing the instrument until he discovered the violin sonatas of Mozart at age 13. After that, music became Einstein’s enduring passion. He carried his battered violin case with him everywhere he went, he and his wife Elsa hosted chamber music sessions in their home, he befriended musicians and music lovers, and even used music to help him solve scientific problems and mathematical equations.
“Music helps him when he is thinking about his theories,” Elsa said. “He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down, returns to his study.” She also said she fell in love with her husband because he played Mozart on the violin so beautifully.
“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician,” Einstein said. “I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”
Charlie Chaplin, the silent movie star and genius comedian was also a lover of music. Through the years, he taught himself to play the piano, violin, and cello. He actually played the violin backwards – specially strung to be fretted with the right hand and bowed by the left.
Chaplin mentions violin and cello several times in his 1964 autobiography. By age 16 he was practicing his violin from four to six hours a day, and was already a rising talent in local music halls. “Each week I took lessons from the theatre conductor or from someone he recommended,” Chaplin wrote. “As I played left-handed, my violin was strung left-handed with the bass-bar and sounding post reversed. I had great ambitions to be a concert artist, or, failing that, to use it in a vaudeville act.”
Stan Laurel, of the famous comedic duo Laurel and Hardy, was Chaplin’s roommate as they both toured the US with Fred Karno’s music company in 1910. He later said of his friend that Chaplin “carried his violin wherever he could. Had the strings reversed so he could play left-handed, and he would practice for hours. He bought a cello once and used to carry it around with him. At these times he would always dress like a musician, a long fawn-coloured overcoat with green velvet cuffs and collar and a slouch hat.”
Even after becoming a big Hollywood star, Chaplin continued to play violin regularly. A Mutual press release of 1917 mentioned his commitment to the violin: “Every spare moment away from the studio is devoted to this instrument. He does not play from notes excepting in a very few instances. He can run through selections of popular operas by ear and if in the humor, can rattle off the famous Irish jig or some negro selection with the ease of a vaudeville entertainer.”
Chaplin can be seen in his two of his movies playing violin: In The Vagabond (1916), he plays a busker, and in Limelight (1952), he plays a faded music-hall star.
The long-time leader of the Nation of Islam may not be the first famous person who comes to mind when you think of non-professional violin players, but Louis Farrakhan is a skilled violinist.
Farrakhan (born Louis Eugene Walcott) first learned to play the violin when he was six years old, and by the time he was a young teen he had played with the Boston College Orchestra and the Boston Civic Symphony. In 1946, he was one of the first black American performers to appear on the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour, on which he also won an award. By the 1950s, he was a popular performer known as “The Charmer,” who not only played violin but also worked as a vocalist, calypso singer, and dancer. He stopped performing after joining the Nation of Islam.
After giving up the violin for about 40 years, Farrakhan picked it back up again in the early 1990s. In 1993, he returned to the stage to perform Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in North Carolina during a three-day symposium called “Gateways: Classical Music and the Black Musician.”
The New York Times reviewed his playing in this way: “Can Louis Farrakhan play the violin? God bless us, he can. He makes a lot of mistakes, not surprising for a man who had virtually abandoned the instrument for 40 years and has only owned one since 1974. Yet Mr. Farrakhan’s sound is that of the authentic player. It is wide, deep and full of the energy that makes the violin gleam.”
Farrakhan continued his violin playing after the 1993 concert and continues to this day. He has performed multiple times for various events, and in 2016 released an album, Let’s Change The World.
Larry Fine (aka Larry of The Three Stooges)
Larry Fine (born Louis Feinberg) of The Three Stooges comic trio began playing violin at a young age. He started because, at age 4, he accidentally burned his left arm with acid from his father’s jewelry shop. His mother suggested he take up the violin to help rehabilitate the damaged muscles in his left arm. He turned out to be a gifted musician who began performing on local stages and studied to be a concert violinist.
Larry ended up taking his violin with him to vaudeville, and his act included playing the instrument. He kept the violin as part of his act with The Three Stooges, and he actually plays his instrument in many of the trio’s skits and movies, including Punch Drunks and The Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze.
A few other famous people who play(ed) violin:
- US President Richard Nixon played five instruments, including violin, piano, saxophone, clarinet, and accordion.
- Actress Meryl Streep learned to play the violin for the 1999 film “Music of the Heart.”
- US President Thomas Jefferson played the cello and the violin, and reportedly would play duets with his wife Martha, who played the piano.
- US inventor Ben Franklin played the violin, the harp, and the guitar.
- Post-impressionist painter Henri Rousseau would supplement his income as a busker on the street and teaching violin lessons around Paris.