Eric Sams

by Edward Greenfield

Eric Sams, who has died at the age of 78, was exceptional both as a musicologist, specialising in German Lieder, and as a Shakespeare scholar. What related those two distinct studies was his acute gift of analysis, drawing on his voluminous memory for detail.

Sams's fascination with cryptography, inspired by war service in the Intelligence Corps from 1944 to 1947, also led him to apply, in both his chosen areas, analytical techniques which regularly threw up unexpected results, surprising traditional scholars. His detailed analysis of the songs of Schumann, for example, led him to demonstrate that the composer made a habit of enciphering words as notes, with many musical motifs conveying specific meanings. In his Shakespeare studies, Sams demonstrated textually, and by careful dating, that the early play Edward III first published anonymously in 1596, was genuinely by the Bard and not a collaboration. a point now widely accepted. With similar force, again marshalling detail from original sources, he also argued for the authenticity of another early play, Edmund Ironside, a conclusion that has yet to be fully accepted. Sams was born in London and educated at Westcliff high school for boys, Southend-on-Sea, where he was quite the most brilliant pupil of his generation, winning a major scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, when he was only 16. His fascination with lieder was first inspired by hearing recordings of Hugo Wolf songs in the collection of one of his schoolmasters, an amateur singer. At the piano, as a skilled sight-reader, he promptly studied Wolf's musical tests in depth, relating them to his German studies and the poems set in each song. His gift for quoting at length the texts of almost any verse was phenomenal. That included the complete works of Shakespeare. Once he was able to reach Cambridge after the war, Sams read modern languages, French and German, from 1947 to 1950. On graduating, he entered the civil service, becoming a principal officer in the Department of Employment. Though always conscientious, his speed of thought helped to give him time outside his day job for what he had come really to care about.  His first book, The Songs of Hugo Wolf, appeared in 1961, with each of Wolf's 242 songs treated separately, each given a translation and detailed analysis, with commentary on distinctive points, musical and poetic. Then, and later, Sams concentrated on specific analysis, always being suspicious of broad generalisation. He published an expanded and revised edition of his Wolf book in 1983, by which time he had also turned his attention to Schumann, not only in a parallel volume, The Songs of Robert Schumann (1969, revised 1993), but also through exploring the composer's use of musical ciphers. His groundbreaking analyses first appeared in the Musical Times, and it was in that journal, too, that he published his solution to the hidden theme in Elgar's Enigma Variations, demonstrating how each of the 14 variations was related harmonically to Auld Lang Syne. Elgar himself, when Auld Lang Syne was suggested as the hidden theme, had once said that it "would not do"; but Sams argued that what Elgar was requiring was not an inspired guess but proper analysis. In 1972, Sams published a book on Brahms songs, expanding it in 2000 into a full study along the lines of his Wolf and Schumann works. His friend, the accompanist Graham Johnson, nominated Sams - along with the great accompanist Gerald Moore, and the pioneering recording producer Walter Legge - as patrons of his Songmakers' Almanac project. Johnson promoted a concert in the Songmakers' Almanac series at the Wigmore Hall in 1996 in honour of Sams's 70th birthday. Sams's publications on lieder, offered as a thesis, also won him a Cambridge doctorate.In his Shakespeare studies, Sams's first major publication came in 1985 with his annotated edition of Edmund Ironside, in which he argued that the so-called "bad quartos" were genuine texts of early Shakespeare plays and not collaborations, as has often been suggested. Utilising a surprising amount of detail culled from original sources, he maintained then, and in his book of 1995, The Real Shakespeare (subtitled Retrieving The Early Years 1564-94), that the Bard had started writing plays in the 1580s - "the lost decade" - well before the generally I accepted date of 1590, when he was already 26. Sams's edition of Edward III, with similarly detailed commentary, appeared in 1996, again analysing the textual similarities between that and later Shakespeare plays, deducing that they represented not the work of another author but early versions of what was later developed by Shakespeare himself. Unlike many scholars with searchlight minds, Sams was a warm and giving compan­ion, always eager to share experiences and appreciate the work of others. Though I was two years younger than him, we became friends at school, and over the years, as a voracious reader, he was the keenest appreciator of everything I wrote, always constructive and a wonderful mentor for a music critic. Surprisingly, he himself was reluctant to write regular music criticism, preferring analysis to judgment. Even so, between 1976 and 1978, he produced witty and penetrating opera reviews for the New Statesman and, over many years, contributed searching book and record reviews to the Musical Times and the Times Literary Supplement. Sams met his wife, Enid Tidmarsh, when he was still serving in the Intelligence Corps, marrying her in 1952. A pianist and teacher, she died in 2002. They are survived by their sons Richard, a leading chess-player and Japanese scholar, and Jeremy, the well-known composer, translator and theatre-director. [Obit by Eduard Greenfield, The Guardian September 22 2004]