Elgar, Shakespeare - and a Little Light Music

Letters from Eric Sams, 1972-2002

by Andrew Lamb

Eric Sams’s published work was devoted above all to German Lieder and to Shakespeare. However, he wrote authoritatively on other aspects of the German romantic tradition, on musical ciphers, and on wider musical topics.  From 1976 to 1978 he was opera critic for The New Statesman. There was also a time when Stanley Sadie, Editor of The Musical Times, would send Eric books on the most esoteric of musical subjects, safe in the expectation of a review that was witty and amusing as well as highly informed. 

Eric undoubtedly had many friends and correspondents around the world on his specialist subjects.  That, though, was not the nature of the friendship and correspondence that I had the privilege to enjoy with him for over 30 years. I have never published anything on either German Lieder or Shakespeare. Equally, I know of nothing that Eric published on my own specialist subjects of light music and musical theatre – though I would not be surprised to discover something somewhere. Certainly he was as thoroughly au fait with light music as with any other type of music. Though I might know the standing and reputation of some light opera or other, Eric would probably know the music and have read the libretto too! 

We were first in contact after I contributed an article to the December 1971 issue of The Musical Times on Thespis – the first comic opera collaboration of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Eric’s own article on Schumann’s hand injury had appeared in the same issue. Typically it was Eric – the established expert – who contacted me – the novice. He was, after all, as ready to go out of his way to encourage those he thought showed promise as he was to condemn those who buried their heads in the sands of Shakespearean “memorial reconstruction”.

We met over lunch in a London restaurant. As a regular reader of The Musical Times, I was thoroughly familiar with his writings there, as well as with his broadcasts. Most particularly, as a mathematician and actuary by profession, I had been fascinated by his recent proposed solutions to various Elgar enigmas. Thus these were as much a part of our first lunchtime discussion as anything on British musical theatre.

His very first letter to me (2 February 1972) was in response to one of mine.  In it he offered thoughts on the possible location of the music of the lost Thespis; but he also enclosed the cipher table he had deduced for Elgar’s message to Dorabella (Dora Penny), “which I should have seen earlier.” With his second (17 May 1972), he further enclosed the typescript of a follow-up article on the Dorabella cipher that he had “intended as a contribution to the American Saturday Review before my nerve failed.” This can now be found on the Centro Studi Eric Sams website, where it is published for the first time.

In that same letter of May 1972 Eric added that he was not having success in persuading Stanley Sadie to publish a further article in The Musical Times with some fresh Elgar material.  He explained that “Stanley takes the view quite justifiably that it would have on his circulation somewhat the effect of a tourniquet.” It was the sort of self-deprecatory comment with which I was to become familiar.  As I myself had just become a father for the first time, Eric also offered a typically whimsical recollection of his own experience of the same stage of life. “My elder son cried for about six weeks non-stop, as if he really hated being born,” he wrote. “To my wife’s anxious queries the clinic had no ready answer. Indeed, all they could think of was to ask (of all inexplicable interrogations) ‘Is the father Irish?’”

There were further examples of self-deprecation in his next letter (2 January 1973). He said of Elgar that, “I’m afraid I haven’t looked at the new cipher material, being rather reluctant to put in another two years’ work on being unconvincing.  I can be that without even trying!”  His letter was evidently in response to one of mine regarding something I was writing on the friendship between Brahms and Johann Strauss. “I’m flattered to be thought of as a Brahmsian,” he wrote.  “Such claim as I have to that title derives from having read Kalbeck all the way through.” He went on, of course – with the lightest of touches – to reveal a grasp of the topic from the point of view of both composers, offering information that he had evidently come across not in a Brahms source, but in one or another German-language book on Strauss.

It was while he was lending further helpful comment on the article I eventually contributed to the October 1975 Musical Times that he demonstrated once more his interest in the less frequently navigated reaches of Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera.  It was a response to a negative review in Musical Times of a new recording of Utopia Limited.  He had obviously heard the recording, and he declared (5 September 1975) that much of the score “is deliciously appetising, for my taste anyhow.” 

Though I never quite believed it, there were adequate indications that Eric’s love of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas was intense. In his June 1972 Musical Times article on Schumann’s Faust he had mischievously used musical examples to compare Gretchen leading on Faust Katisha leading on Ko-Ko in The Mikado. Then, in a September 1977 Gramophone review of a Janet Baker recital of Beethoven and Schubert, he drew an analogy between Alfonso und Estrella and The Pirates of Penzance and criticised an unduly slow tempo by invoking Gilbert’s line, “Yes, but you don’t go!” After Eric’s death, his younger son Jeremy suggested – though in the event it didn’t come to pass – that his father’s memorial concert might include ‘The World is but a Broken Toy’ from Princess Ida – a Gilbert and Sullivan number that truly transcends its comic opera origins.

However, it was not just for collaborations with Gilbert that Eric showed his devotion to Sullivan. In a letter of 31 January 1976 he commented that he had just heard Ivanhoe on disc and wondered also why The Golden Legend wasn’t recorded. Moreover, on more than one occasion he demonstrated not only thorough familiarity with, but real admiration for, Basil Hood’s book for Sullivan’s The Rose of Persia, commenting (27 August 2002) that Hood’s “joke about street Arabs coming from gutta percha [Gutter-Persia] still amuses me.”

Eric’s all too short time as opera critic for The New Statesman coincided with his equally short time as a reviewer for Gramophone. With typical good humour, he wrote thus (31 January 1976) of the start of the Gramophone association: “I just happen to be in process of being tried out in the pantomime season: it’s just coincidence. Or so I thought!  If not, it’s a pity that they seem to be making everyone a Dame but me.” These were also his final years as a civil servant, and it was in a letter of 30 September 1978 that he reported his retirement not only from the Civil Service (“on a modest pension”) but also from reviewing for Gramophone. “Since I retired from writing for, and reading, that mag., I’ve felt so much better,” he commented. He probably found that contributing to that publication cramped his style a little too much.

He was then, let it be noted, 52. His obituary in The Times in 2004 – unsigned but written by his son Jeremy – stated that, “Mental health problems caused him to leave the Civil Service.” Apparently Eric had long suffered from depression, though I was never aware of this problem at any stage during the 30-odd years I knew him. There was, however, a suggestion of an underlying lack of self-confidence in his explanation of his resignation from The New Statesman that Rodney Milnes’s “excellence as opera critic of the Spectator stood high among the reasons why I gave up” (27 August 2002).

Eric’s letter of 30 September 1978 was in response to one of mine in which I had dared to express doubt that his encouragement of my wish to write a book on Edwardian musical comedy could be as genuine as he professed.  “I take opéra comique very seriously,” he protested, “and all secular music is sacred to me.” Typically he proved himself as good as his word by promptly arranging a meeting for me with a publishing contact of his.

Of his conversion from primarily musicologist to primarily Shakespeare scholar around this time, I initially knew nothing, though I should have seen pointers in two letters from 1980. In the first (29 January 1980) he wrote in characteristic fashion, “I’ve got a long and boring essay about historical shorthand past the guard of John Gross at the TLS: should appear early next month, and will probably cause the presses to stop rolling again this time permanently.” In the second (16 May 1980) he commented that, “I manage the odd piece e.g. for the Sunday (so much more lucrative than the Musical) Times.”

I was then living on the south coast of England. However, at the very beginning of 1983, business demands caused me to move house, and I ended up living no more than three miles from Eric. From then onwards, correspondence was intermingled with personal contact. Typically, he wasted no time in writing to welcome us and arranging for my elder daughter to take piano lessons with his wife Enid. A letter later that year (15 May 1983) followed a shared dinner at the home in Canonbury, Islington, of Colwyn Philipps (now Viscount St Davids), a business contact of mine who is also a Rossini scholar and collector. Also present were the musicologist Alan Tyson, antiquarian bookseller Albi Rosenthal and record producer Erik Smith. Eric’s subsequent letter was primarily a list for Colwyn Philipps of the holdings of musical journals in the London Library, of which Eric was a member. With one of those plays on words of which he was so fond, Eric commented ruefully that, “my suggestion that they should somehow acquire the whole of the Neue Zeitschrift [für Musik] met with what can only be called the Alte Short Shrift, convenient though that acquisition would have been for me at the time!”

Despite increased contact in person I still had absolutely no idea of the stream of articles on Shakespeare that Eric was then contributing to the Times Literary Supplement and other journals.  By 1986, however, the publication of his edition of Edmund Ironside demonstrated even to me his conversion to Shakespearean scholar. He also sent me a photocopy of an article by Dr M. W. A. Smith from the magazine of the Johann Strauss Society of Great Britain, which I myself had once edited. “Its author is known to me,” Eric wrote (7 April 1986), “first and foremost as a powerful computer expert who has done some interesting work on Tudor drama authorship, esp. Shakespeare, with conclusions which though tentative look rather encouraging to me, and I’ve recommended him to Cambridge U. P. as a suitable expert to vet the statistical soundness of my late friend Eliot Slater’s forthcoming book on Shakespeare’s (sic) Edward III. I hope you think he’s reasonably sound on the waltz as well!”  I have no idea what I replied; but I do know that Eric and Dr Smith later crossed swords – in print, at least – over Eric’s advocacy of Edmund Ironside, Edward III and other plays as works by Shakespeare.

Eliot Slater’s book ultimately appeared in 1988, pointing towards Eric’s own edition of Edward III and acceptance of that play, at least, into the Shakespeare canon. However, Eric’s mushrooming Shakespeare interests were clearly conflicting with his wish to complete his survey of Brahms songs. “So much to be done! The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne,” he wrote (27 July 1986). “These melancholy reflections are attributable to a lost weekend when my efforts to get back to Brahms have been thwarted by a new (lost) Shakespeare that wants to make its mark. It’s calledThe Troublesome Reign of King John, published anonymously in 1591. Watch out for it!” Eric’s arguments for this as Shakespeare’s own early version of his King John were to be set out in his book The Real Shakespeare.

 A further gap in correspondence again indicates that Eric and I were meeting in person and speaking on the telephone rather than communicating by letter. In July 1986 we went together to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama production of Chabrier’s L’Étoile, translated by Eric’s son Jeremy. A year later, a single, brief written communication (1 June 1987) displayed anew Eric’s boyish sense of humour. Using the seat numbers for our planned visit to the Guildhall School for Rossini’s Le Voyage à Reims, the letter reads simply:

                                   Dear J 10,
                                      See you about 6.30 on June 10?
                                                    Yours ever
                                                         J 9

A flurry of correspondence then followed a gathering at my home on 1 May 1994. This was possibly the first of several arranged around the annual visit of American musical theatre chronicler (and English literature scholar) Gerald Bordman.  Fellow writers on the musical theatre Kurt Gänzl and Ian Bevan were regulars with Eric and, on occasions, the critic Patrick O’Connor and conductor Alexander Faris joined us. Afterwards Eric reported (29 June 1994) that, “I had a nice letter from G. Bordman who as you say liked everything about Edmund Ironside in my edition except the actual play.  I sympathise.” It was also at that 1994 gathering that Eric borrowed my CD of Lucia Popp singing Viennese operetta arias – a recital that he later declared had moved him to tears. 

Eric’s 1994 Christmas card announced the imminent publication of The Real Shakespeare. This roughly coincided with the appearance of my biography of Émile Waldteufel. When I tentatively asked whether he might be interested in “a complimentary (autographed?) copy” of my book, the reaction was characteristic (16 March 1995): “How about an exchange of autographed copies? I’ve been Waldteuflisch ever since, at about seven, on the stern command of my piano teacher, I compiled an anthology of skating-rink music for performance at a local concert of pupils. This enterprise (not untypically, alas) soon ran out of steam, since I could find only two examples, the other being Sur la Glace à ‘Sweet Briar’. The total results attracted only modest acclaim for Interpretation and still less for Technical Merit.” 

Later (9 April 1995) he added that, “I heard Skaters quite recently on Classic FM and instead of just swaying and humming along I actually listened to it with attention. Nobody who hasn’t done so, I reckon, can ever quite know how good it is. And similarly for all music at the same level.” When I lent him cassettes of scratch performances of Sidney Jones’s musical plays The Geisha and A Greek Slave he admitted that “we didn’t know A Greek Slave at all” but that he had “admired afresh the wide-ranging melody of The Geisha.” That he actively joined in the campaign to get Hyperion Records to record the latter is confirmed by a letter of 15 October 1996 from the company’s managing director, Ted Perry, telling Eric that, “I think I might risk it after the Light Music success.”  So indeed he did. 

As for his Shakespeare book, I made no secret of the fact that I devoured it not so much for the subject matter itself as for the ruthless but engaging Sams treatment. I had no special interest in Shakespeare’s plays or much previous knowledge of Shakespeare’s life.  As with all Eric’s writing, though, I was immediately hooked. Though methought he did protest too much about the Shakespeare establishment, his demolition of the concept of “memorial reconstruction” and recognition of the early “lost years” as more probably “apprentice years” seemed totally convincing. My support for his beliefs led him thereafter to send copies of various newspaper features supportive of his Shakespearean beliefs. He reported with particular relish (21 May 1998) that, “Cambridge University Press, of all people, are now bringing out books that rightly reject ‘memorial reconstruction’. My affection for my alma mater is beginning to border on the Oedipal.”

Meanwhile, with The Real Shakespeare firmly put to bed, Eric had been concentrating on Brahms, and he set me off (17 May 1994) on a long attempt to find in the works of Joseph Gungl a folk melody also used by Brahms, in his Minnelied, op. 71 no 5.  Not until over two years later (8 August 1996) did Eric himself finally demonstrate a possible link with Gungl’s Minnelieder, op. 283. In a further query (29 June 1994), he asked if I had “ever come across Alexander Baumann, and in particular his ‘Du moanst wohl, du gloabst wohl die Liebe lasst si zwinga?’ which is said to underlie the Brahms Wiegenlied (Guten Abend, gut’ Nacht).” Alas I did not possess the omniscience that Eric always displayed when I asked questions of him!

Even amidst his preoccupation with Brahms, Eric was still ready to demonstrate that his taste for the British musical theatre also embraced the music of Lionel Monckton and Howard Talbot. In that same letter of 29 June 1994 he wrote of a meeting with Bernard Dickerson, a professor at the Guildhall School of Music, who “told me, with much enthusiasm, of his recent discovery of The Arcadians, which has been performed by students of his.  I didn’t have time to gather whether it’s to be staged at the Guildhall; but at least the delights of that great score have been officially acknowledged. It’s overdue for a revival. Come to think of it, so am I!”

Over our years of correspondence, Eric’s pride in his two sons had repeatedly emerged.  On one Christmas card around 1980 he reported Richard “studying for Ph. D. in Canada” and Jeremy “freelancing: just written his first review and given his first broadcast talk.” Later he periodically reported Richard’s visits from Japan, and Jeremy’s progress in the theatre. “Jeremy remains active in Showbiz and I’m into Bardbiz (a big book for Yale UP),” read one Christmas message. Then, inside his 1994 Christmas card, he announced that “Jeremy and his charming and talented girlfriend Maria Friedman” had just made him and Enid grandparents.  He could scarcely hide his delight when reporting (16 March 1995) that the child’s name “has been settled, after long debate (known as the Toby or not Toby question).”

Reporting rave reviews for Jeremy’s direction of John O’Keefe’s Wild Oats, Eric declared (16 September 1995) that, “Jeremy claims that he was influenced by an over-literate father who could never send the boys to bed without adding ‘Stand not upon the order of your going/But go at once’.” He took due parental pride, too, in the transatlantic success in 1995 of Les Parents Terribles, of which Jeremy had done the translation. “We take a special interest in that production, as experienced terrible parents ourselves. If not those actually in question.” On various further occasions he also gleefully recorded witty lines of Jeremy’s that might as readily have come from Eric himself.  Thus (28 June 1996), when Jeremy was translating Kurt Weill’s Silbersee, “which as I need hardly remind you centres on the much-lamented theft of that rare and exotic delicacy, a pineapple, J. is debating whether to include the line ‘Yes, we have no Ananas’. I’m all in favour, but I think it may need an explanatory footnote.”

From Jeremy’s translation of Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers, too, Eric cited (16 July 1997) “that proud boast of the Arcadian shepherd who taught his flocks to sing – ‘they’ve mastered several bars’.”  He also reported (21 May 1998) that Jeremy’s “latest opera programme had a joke cut out of it”, when he “was incautious enough to write in the script that the moral of [Dvorák’s] The Devil and Kate was ‘never turn down a fat Czech’.”  Later still, he reported that an old school friend of his whom I happened to know quite independently had telephoned and asked whether Jeremy was his son.  “I pleaded guilty with various extenuating circumstances,” he declared (27 August 2002).

In August 1996 I happened to mention to Eric my own researches into Henry Russell, composer of A Life on the Ocean Wave and father of conductor Landon Ronald.  Eleven months later I announced my intention of turning this into a full-length biography.  Little did I know that it would occupy me for a full ten years, even less that Eric would not live to see what he described (18 July 1997) as “eagerly awaited.”  On 7 May 1998, however, he wrote about “an American pen-friend” who was researching Letitia Elizabeth Landon (“L. E. L.”), whose verses were set by Henry Russell. He wanted to know why Russell had named a son Landon.

I confessed that up to that time I was unaware of Letitia Elizabeth Landon and knew nothing of her collaboration with Russell; but I was able to pass on my thoughts on the possible connection. The “American pen-friend” he revealed (9 May 1998) was “called, aptly enough, Frank Sypher, a good mix of clair and chiffre. We began with some correspondence c. 20 years ago about a historical shorthand, and we seem to have stayed in touch.” Sypher, author of several books relating to “L.E.L.”, is particularly acknowledged in Eric’s Brahms study. Enclosed with that May 1998 letter were photocopies of the three collaborations between Russell and Landon of which I had been unaware.  Still in connection with Russell, and ever ready to pass on useful information from his prodigious reading, Eric shortly afterwards revealed another of his enthusiasms as artist, illustrator and author Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98). He told me (22 July 1998) that “a recent biography of Aubrey Beardsley, on whom I dote, mentions that he and his mother and sister lodged with Henry Russell and Emma Ronald (and the infant Landon) at Notting Hill in 1874.”

The increasing infirmity of both Eric and, more particularly, Enid (latterly following a stroke in May 1998) was  making it difficult for Eric to make progress with his projects. Confined to the house, his recourse to letter-writing seems to have increased.  Certainly he was no less inclined to share his knowledge on subjects that he knew were of interest. In October 2000 he reported listening “with real pleasure” to the recording of the musical play The Maid of the Mountains. He also demonstrated obvious familiarity with its lyricist Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes, wondering (for some unexplained reason) where he was buried. 

Eric’s dedication to the lighter musical theatre was never better demonstrated, though, than when I received a commission to write a biography of Leslie Stuart, best known for his music hall and musical comedy compositions.  Here, it seems, I really had struck a chord. Eric had, indeed, some time previously – and totally unprompted – sent me a picture postcard portrait of Stuart. Then, in a telephone conversation (11 August 2001), he described Stuart as “one of the supreme melodists of the age”, who “ought to be sung and lilted more often than he is.”  Writing the following day, he averred that, “I may be one of the few people to retain anything of The Bandolero.”  This last was a once popular Stuart ballad.  Commenting on the different styles of some of the most popular Stuart songs, he noted that, “The Soldiers of the Queen is ramrod-straight, … while Lily of Laguna and Little Dolly Daydream both have a sort of rolling and rambling gait, like Laurence Olivier playing Othello, and Tell me Pretty Maiden reminds me rather of Sullivan’s pretty lady music, all frills and furbelows.”

The very next day (13 August 2001) there followed a PS: “I believe that The Bandolero is floating back to me across the mists of time –  … I am the Bandolero, the gallant Bandolero: I rule the mountains and I claim / as contraband what comes my way.  It’s the essence of bold bad banditry, as I recall; it twirls its moustachios.  At least that’s how the song I seem to recall sounded in that timeless baritone bellow from the bathroom that served my father (whom, as I trust you can tell from this encomium, I loved very much) as singing.” After we met a few days later, he wrote again (20 August 2001) to confirm that “of course I’ll be pleased and flattered for you to make any use you like of whatever comments you elicit from me.” I wish now that I had made more use than I did in my Stuart biography.

 By the time of his next letter, Eric’s wife Enid was in a home for retired musicians. On occasions I encountered Eric making the somewhat tortuous journey there by bus. He reported (27 March 2002) that he had that day rung second-hand music dealers Travis & Emery to offer the contents of his music room, gratis. He added that, “I shan’t be able to live on my own here for much longer.  It’s true that I’m wobbling better, tottering more strongly, and so forth, since being prescribed tablets for blood pressure (nothing serious, I gather, and indeed everyone I mention this to – i.e. everyone within earshot – protests that their condition is much worse than mine). But I ought to sell up here and move nearer to Enid, which would also help with the taxi fares, now I’m getting less keen on (or, let’s face it, capable of) public transport.  With any luck I might even rent a room in her home, which would suit both our sons – their fear has always been that I’ll fail to qualify as a musician for accommodation there.” Self-deprecatory to the end!

Events were overtaken by Enid’s death. His letter of 27 August 2002, promptly acknowledging my condolences and those of my family, was the last I received from him. The very last written musical thought I had from him was of Stephen Foster: “I sometimes feel that he had a superlatively Schubertian gift for sung melody.” I continued visiting Eric at his home, and later at his nursing home in Highgate, where I took him the latest Playfair Cricket Annual in recognition of his love of the noble English game.  His final months were distressing – not least for the brilliant mind that had been laid waste. At least he did not lack for visitors – above all the devoted Audrey Twine, who had been editorial assistant at The Musical Times back in the 1960s. Such was the loyalty that Eric inspired.

Eric’s planned volume on Shakespeare’s later years was never to appear. I rather believe that he had already made his point in his book on the early years. The lack of a volume on Schubert’s songs is perhaps more grievous, though at least he there has devoted disciples such as Graham Johnson to carry on his work. As for what Eric did publish, its variety, perception, stylistic elegance and wit are more than one might reasonably expect of anyone. So, too, as I increasingly realise, were the generosity, warmth and selflessness of friendship he so generously gave me for so many years.