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Eric Sams

Code-breaker, civil servant, musicologist and Shakespeare scholar

Thursday 30 September 2004 00:00 BST

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

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