The Application of Thought to Musicology

By Erik Battaglia

The importance of the subject of these few words, which are dedicated to the musicological contributions of the late Eric Sams, warrants this paraphrase of the title of a famous essay by A.E.Housman. Sams in fact considered Housman to be his mentor and succeeded to his intellectual legacy even though their fields of pursuit were different. 

Indeed, while his work in Shakespeare studies was certainly influenced in large measure by the issues of textual criticism that the great Latinist had raised, Sams applied the same method to his musicological work as well, mediating it with a talent he also shared with Housman for poetry. Given this background, combined with his other various and varied skills, Sams was able to demonstrate the possibility of another musicological approach, of a logic that could incorporate and safeguardthe very musical-poetic character that was in fact his object of inquiry. As an expert cryptographer, he recognized the Lied as the only possible key to understanding the otherwise inaccessible code of musical language, even though he also came quite close to discovering the alchemy of Wolf’s string quartets in addition to his well-known revelatioms of the numerous ciphers in Schumann and Elgar’s “Enigma”. This scientific method, which is also an artistic method (as it was for Housman), could be applied to music, and thus to the Lied, only by someone like Sams with the instinct (and the experience, notwithstanding his reluctanceto admit it) of a Lied composer. The fact that Sams was a staunch advocate of free thought, like the great composers from Reichardt to Wolf, contributed to his tolerance and his passionate belief in reason as the means to expressive freedom. His non-dogmatic respect for the poetic text, which allowed him to remain faithful to its “content of truth” without confining it to an exterior role and therefore denying its timeless potential, characterizes his attitude toward Lieder as he penetrated their code without compromising their purity. One of his most beloved axioms was that any artist who seeks a raison d’etre must either invent something new or else “renew” what already exists. Schubert and Wolf (and, of course Shakespeare, the last of his three favorite creators) had done just that, and Sams no less so. The Sams motivic theory – whoch I hope will gain recognition as a method and one day replace sterile Schenkerian analysis – is the greatest innovation of the last fifty years in the field of musical hermeneutics, comparable in importance when considered in terms of scientific logic to the inference theories postulated by Wittgenstein in his later years. The motifs Sams identified in Wolf, Schumann, and Brahms (employing different criteria for each composer) are in fact linguistic “formulas” (chords, series of chords, melodies constructed from intervals in series, rhythms, encoded harmonic sequences, etc.) that change their meaning according to the poetic context and – contrary to what is widely maintained in the philosophy of music – assume their own inarguable semantic significance. The strength of Sams’ theory lies in his patient identification of such formulas by taking the logic emanating from the musical discourse as his point of departure and not, a priori, the independently generated poetic text. As a pianist and composer, he was thus even further removed from the majority of his fellows musicologists, whose theories are based on a pre-musical literary perspective to cover their fundamental ignorance of purely musical matters. A good bit of the literature regarding the Lied is nothing more than a redundant description of the poetry in musicological terms. Sams turned to the statistical codification of the music’s motivic rapport with the text only after an exhaustive examination of its significance, hence using the data as proof and not as possible evidence of this rapport. An augmented triad in Wolf is the “pathos motif” not because it was used twenty times in correspondence with a “pathetic” or poignant line of verse, but because its use coincides twenty times with that necessity. By virtue of this distinction, thought can be applied to musicology in the same terms that Housman intended for philology. The particular merit of such “creative” rather than “speculative” analytical premises is their enormous usefulness to performers, who can greatly benefit from Sams’ definition of an altered chord or a melodic inflection within this musical-poetic perspective as codes which were influenced by philosophical relationships among the arts, but always with the music as the final focus. Sams offered the performer the rare opportunity to acquire a kind of “induced instinct” for understanding the Lied as a single entity without forgetting the internal coexistence of two distinctly different artistic languages. The fact that he applied this time-consuming method so scrupulously prevented him from completing his work on Schubert which we looked forward to read. Our loss does not so much regard the identification of motifs in Schubert, which perhaps a “samsian” musicologist could complete, but rather the certainty of how Sams would have adapted his theory for the unified nature of Schubert’s language. What does fortunately remain as his specific contribution is the compilation of the catalogue of Schubert’s works for the New Grove, of which he was justifiably proud, in addition to countless references to Schubert’s Lieder within his analyses of those by Schumann, Brahms, and Wolf. Our sense of loss for his work is however surpassed by that for the man himself, whom we salute ins closing with these lines by Housman: “Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose; / But young men think it is, and we were young”.