117. 26 February 1997 [ES] (Puns; new generations; Shakespeare website; cryptanalysis; Hamlet)

previously unpublished; © the estate of eric sams and beatrice cazac (Mrs. Mathew’s letters)

26 February 1997


Dear Hayat,

I'm glad you like ce sens d'humour anglais, que tant j'apprécie, as my dear dead friend Henri Lazard used to say. He felt that the pun lived along the line of the language; all he had in his native French, he said with a sad sigh, was the calembour, which was insufficient for his analytical purposes.

   They tell me that the ideal language for punning, in a sense, is e.g. Japanese, where everything means everything else, so that even more than usual depends on the tone of voice. As a result, the pun is more frowned upon than laughed at; the Tokyo joke is no laughing matter. It's hard too to understand how the English can be as serious about word-play as about card-play, let alone national ballgames, which I think we're rather good at inventing, and cherishing (if not playing). I knew that Die Fledermaus would always be popular in England as soon as I realised that it was about a bat and a ball. Oh the happy heady days of being an opera critic; ach, wer bringt die schönen Tage/jener holden Zeit zurück?

   You make a good point about 'Qu.'. It looks phonetic to me, though, like so many of these samples. So who spells phonetically?

   Enthusiastic assent to your wise words on Spurgeon and Armstrong. My own favourite terrain, too; the image and the motif. I've just done a centenary radio interview on music-cipher which I've been trying to popularise for many years – with some slight success, after my TV film was syndicated in Australia and America. Several sweet serious souls wrote in saying it was just the kind of topic they'd love to graduate in. But I felt constrained to point out the dearth of bibliography; indeed, I fear that my 1980 Grove article on musical cryptography is about all there is. In the absence of other up and coming specialists, I've had to retain this assignment, while happily handing over all my other areas to younger musicologists; I've been persuaded by Jeremy that all serious commentary has to be undertaken afresh by and for each generation.

   I may soon feel the same about Shakespeare, who now has a special website on the internet. I feel I can relax. Also, alas, I'm so untechnical that I can't imagine how computers can talk to computers across the airwaves without actually broadcasting. It seems to me to be more telepathy than telephony. But then, I even think that TV pictures must come floating through space having already assumed an appropriate oblong shape suitable for the receiver. But I digress. It grows late. The huntsmen are up in America, and they are past their first sleep in Persia. The quincunx of heaven runs low, and 'tis time to close the five ports of knowledge. They, and I, await your next letter with eager anticipation.

   Best, as ever,

   Yours Eric