Eric Sams

Code-breaker, civil servant, musicologist and Shakespeare scholar

It is rare to find someone who is a leading scholar in two different disciplines, rarer yet that he should pursue both in his spare time, after a nine-to-five office job - after a spell as an army code-breaker, too. And even more unusual to be able to combine all three interests in a body of writing that becomes required reading in both fields. But then Eric Sams, musicologist, cryptologist and Shakespeare scholar, was no ordinary man.

Eric Sams, musicologist, cryptologist and Shakespeare scholar: born London 3 May 1926; married 1952 Enid Tidmarsh (died 2002; two sons); died London 13 September 2004.

It is rare to find someone who is a leading scholar in two different disciplines, rarer yet that he should pursue both in his spare time, after a nine-to-five office job - after a spell as an army code-breaker, too. And even more unusual to be able to combine all three interests in a body of writing that becomes required reading in both fields. But then Eric Sams, musicologist, cryptologist and Shakespeare scholar, was no ordinary man.

The only son of a working-class Walthamstow couple, Sams grew up in Essex and attended Westcliff High School at Westcliff-on-Sea. There he gave evidence of unusual intelligence, amassing an encyclopaedic knowledge of English, French and German literature and, it seemed, of most mainstream classical music, playing through it at the piano. His prodigious memory allowed him to reel off reams of Shakespeare and Milton; in later life he could hold variant texts in his mind's eye, scanning them for differences as one might now programme a computer to do.

Although at 16 he had won a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Sams's unusual skills were soon harnessed for the war effort and he was only 17 when he was drawn into the intelligence services; within a year he was busy decrypting Japanese and German codes. It was 1947 before he could leave the Army and take up that scholarship, gaining a BA in French and German in 1950.

But the Intelligence Corps had catered for his heart as well as his brain. While he was in uniform he met the pianist Enid Tidmarsh, and they were married in 1952. Their sons - Jeremy, the writer, director and composer, and Richard, a Japanese scholar and chess player - maintain the family's artistic tradition.

Sams's outward life was conventional enough. After leaving university, he joined the Civil Service, becoming a Principal Officer in the Department of Employment within three years; he stayed for another quarter-century, listing his work in the founding of Remploy - the agency which helps disabled people find employment - as an achievement that brought him especial pleasure.

Yet, from the suburban comfort of his evenings and weekends, Sams produced a steady stream of writing. Reviews and articles appeared throughout the 1960s and 1970s, especially in The New Statesman (where he was the opera critic in 1976-78), The Musical Times and The Times Literary Supplement, all of them sparkling with Sams's delight in wordplay, puns especially: of a book which made unnecessary use of the asterisk, for example, he observed that "it could have been dis-asterisked with no disaster risked" (the pun of the year for Arthur Jacobs in The British Music Yearbook).

Sams's first book - of several that became standard texts - was The Songs of Hugo Wolf (1961). Here he adopted an approach that was straightforward but effective, assessing Wolf's song-writing in general before discussing the music and text (which he also translated) of each of the 242 songs, discovering a series of over 40 rhythmic and melodic motifs and key associations running through them, each identifying specific emotions and ideas. In 1969 he applied this method to all 246 of The Songs of Robert Schumann. Not until 2000 did The Songs of Johannes Brahms appear, those 213 likewise receiving close critical scrutiny. (A further volume, long promised but never achieved, was to have tackled the songs of Franz Schubert.)

In these three books, his wartime background in cryptanalysis was put to more peaceable use in pursuit of what he called "the tonal analogue", a close correspondence between musical gestures and motifs and the words and emotions they were illustrating. Thus he managed not just to give a balanced judgement of the music but to winkle his way into the very creative processes of the composer.

Another insight into the troubled minds of Schumann and Wolf may have come from his own struggles with depression, which ended his career in the Civil Service - ironically, given Sams's razor-sharp sense of humour and apparent joie de vivre. But, ever one to turn disadvantage to good use, he used the insights it brought him to examine in a series of articles the effect of illness on the creative mind.

Sams's article on musical cryptography in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980) quotes the example of John Field, who wrote melodies using the notes BEEF and CABBAGE in gratitude to a hostess. Other composers - not least Schumann and Elgar - preferred to hide their messages. Sams gleefully set about decrypting both of them, revealing the intense interconnections between the texts Schumann set and the detail of his music - a string of hidden messages which continues in his purely instrumental music. In an essay in the 1972 symposium Robert Schumann: the man and his music, Sams writes:

Nearly all Schumann's music contains or derives from words, whether as texts, titles, programmes or epigraphs. It is also famous for its structure as music qua mosaic, an aggregation of small-scale motifs. Now, surely these two basic facts about Schumann - his obviously verbal content, his obviously motivic form - may well be related? He works by way of motto-themes, I suggest, because that is literally what they are - mottoes turned into themes . . . [I]n Schumann's music emotion and structure are somehow inseparable.

The essay closes in a snowstorm of gentle, multilingual puns.

Elgar was another Sams target, most famously in an article which found harmonic connections with "Auld Lang Syne" in all 14 of the "Enigma" variations. The suggestion had been made in Elgar's lifetime, an idea the composer said "would not do" - but Sams, interpreting that rejection itself as code, contended that what wouldn't do was guesswork, that Elgar wanted the connection proven with analysis. Sams's solution to Elgar's encryption has generally been rejected as too technical - but it is no more recondite than Elgar's famous letter to "Dorabella", which Sams was the first to decipher.

Already a frequent radio broadcaster, in 1989 he brought these ideas to a wider audience in a television film, Code and Cipher in Music, sniffing out secondary layers in Brahms and other composers as well as Elgar and Schumann.

The second main strand in Sams's output was his work on Shakespeare, where he took an almost mischievous delight in upsetting received opinion: in his view the consensus of the experts that Shakespeare had burst upon the London stage in his late twenties, a sudden genius, was not supported by any evidence. And so, in his 1985 edition of Edmund Ironside, a chronicle play based on Holinshed, Sams argued forcefully for the "bad quarto" plays not as collaborations or reconstructions from memory, which is how they are usually dismissed, but as the product of a younger Shakespeare, revising as he learned.

In 1995 Yale University Press brought out Sams's The Real Shakespeare, the subtitle of which - "Retrieving the Early Years 1564-94" - made its detective intent typically clear. Its dispassionate assemblage of fact and the bold conclusions Sams drew - chiefly that the Bard was already writing plays in the "lost decade" of the 1580s - provoked a profusion of ecstatic reviews: "richly layered and meticulously researched", "thrillingly contentious", "exhilarating".

A year later Sams used the same analytical mind to argue for the authenticity of Edward III, published anonymously in 1596 as an early play by Shakespeare; Sams's edition, furnished with an extensive commentary, marked its quatercentenary. Again, he provided evidence for his beliefs in close critical scrutiny of the text, identifying tell-tale word-clusters in the text just as he found ciphers in Schumann's music.

Throughout his life Sams never accepted hand-me-down opinion: he had to find his own way to the truth, through analysis. That made him a natural atheist; indeed, he was the addressee of Nancy Wansbrough's book Letters to an Atheist (1988). And, although he was officially still a civil servant, his standing among musicologists was such that he was invited to take up a visiting professorship at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1976-77.

Five years beforehand, his Alma Mater, Corpus Christi College, had saluted him with a PhD for his published works, which have changed for ever the way that modern musicology looks at the art song.

Martin Anderson

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker