Published in The Strad Magazine Vol. 97 No. 1156 August l986
ALBERT EDWARD SAMMONS
the life and achievements of Albert Edward Sammons,
The renaissance of English music commenced with Edward Elgar and was well underway by the time Albert Sammons appeared and became one of the great musicians of the 20th century. Working with all the eminent composers and conductors brought Sammons into the very centre of English musical thinking and into the hearts of its people.
SAMMONS’ EARLY BACKGROUND.
Albert Edward Sammons, whose centenary is celebrated this year, was born on 23 February, l886. He was the second of four children and his father, a master shoemaker by profession, was a good amateur violinist for whom music played an important part. Sammons’ father recognised this son’s exceptional talent and started him on the violin at the age of seven.
By the time he was thirteen Sammons was made leader of the Earl’s Court Exhibition Orchestra and, with three performances a day, received his first taste of professional life. Unhappy at home, at the age of sixteen, Albert left the family residence in Talgarth Road, West London, with his brother Tom. Eventually he found lodgings with a musical Jewish family in Bayswater, and this led to a meeting with violinist/conductor Jack Jacobs. Through Jacobs, Sammons was launched into the upper strata of the light music profession. Prior to this, Sammons was a member of various music hall theatre orchestras, often playing from battered manuscripts with little or no rehearsal. Sammons also played with a Hungarian band in the national costume. Despite being instructed not to speak for fear of being found out, it brought Sammons great satisfaction to be able to play in the traditional Hungarian style.
Once, many years later, on the boat to Ireland, Sammons, carrying a violin case, was accosted by a fellow traveller and asked what he was playing that evening. When he answered the Beethoven Concerto, his questioner’s face fell, ‘Oh’, he said ‘I thought you would be playing the same palm court music that we hear every Sunday evening on the radio.’ Sammons knew immediately that he was being mistaken for Albert Sandler, but regarded this mistaken identity as a backhanded compliment, as he himself had come from the light music field and had a great regard for Albert Sandler as a violinist.
During his early years in the music halls, Sammons had some lessons from Ferdinand Weist-Hill and John Saunders. As these sporadic lessons marked the extent of his formal tuition, Sammons does not belong to any school of violin playing. By possessing an inherent natural talent, he was essentially self-taught. Through Weist-Hill and Saunders, however, Sammons received some excellent guidance. Both were professors at the Guildhall School of Music: Weist-Hill had been a pupil of Ysaye at the Belgian Conservatory where he carried off the grand prix, and Saunders’ musical ancestry went back to Spohr by the way of Wilhelm Bernard Molique.
In addition to these influences Sammons had the opportunity to hear every eminent violinist of the period. His idol at the time was the great Eugene Ysaye and through a fellow violinist Alfredo Fernandez, a direct pupil of Ysaye, Sammons was able to gain a valuable insight into the teaching of the Belgian master. It was not until years later, in 1914, that Sammons finally met Ysaye. The occasion was at a gathering at the countryseat of Lord Curzon in Hampshire where the principal guest was the daughter of Queen Elizabeth of Belgium. Ysaye was present and a piano quintet was assembled with, in addition to Ysaye and Sammons, the violinist Lionel Tertis, Belgian cellist Emile Doeheard and the young pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Sammons always regarded Ysaye as a father figure and absorbed much from knowing and playing with him. Ysaye himself was extremely fond of Sammons as well and once presented the English violinist with a Tourte bow.
Sammons’ eventual rise to prominence came one night while leading the orchestra of the Waldorf Hotel. Thomas Beecham was present and, after hearing Sammons play the last movement of the Mendelssohn Concerto, sent a note to Sammons saying, “Splendid, but tempo too fast.” Sammons replied back with another note saying, “Thanks, I will play it again a little later on.” Their meeting on that occasion was an important turning point for Sammons as he was appointed sub-leader and subsequently leader of the Beecham Symphony Orchestra where he remained for the next five years. John Saunders, Sammons early teacher, was instrumental in founding this orchestra of sixty players whose other members included violist Waldo Warner, cellist Warwick Evans, clarinettist Charles Draper and Dennis Brain’s father, Aubrey, on horn.
Sammons was also probably among the first of many leaders to enjoy Beecham’s asides. Once when accompanying Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe in the ‘Polovtsian Dances’ from Prince Igor, Beecham suddenly let fly with one-in-the-bar at a point usually taken at two. The dancers were soon winded and all appeals to Beecham every time one came near the rostrum fell on deaf ears. Afterwards Beecham turned to Sammons and said, with a smile, “We made the blighters hop,” Many years later Beecham wrote ‘Sammons is the best all round concertmaster I have met anywhere.’
In addition to the Beecham Symphony Orchestra Sammons worked as leader for many other conductors as well. After a performance of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben, Willem Mengelberg not only insisted that Sammons share the applause, but wrote an appreciative letter to the directors of Royal Philharmonic Society. Sammons also served as solo violin and leader of the Casino Orchestra of Dieppe under Pierre Monteux. This experience gave Sammons of opportunity of playing most of the standard concerto repertoire (often in those days, the leader would step out of the orchestra to play a concerto as part of the concert).
In 1911 Sammons was made ‘Musician in Ordinary’ to King George V. That year was a turning point, for on October 27 he made his debut as a soloist playing the Bruch Concerto in G minor with Hamilton Harty conducting. The following year a performance of Saint-Saens’ Concerto in B minor in the presence of the composer and the Royal family was received with great acclaim. Sammons performed the Elgar Violin concerto under the composer in 1914 and from then on his career as an important soloist was established.
CHAMPION OF ENGLISH MUSIC
When Sammons first played the Elgar Violin Concerto in 1914 it was the beginning of a friendship with the composer which lasted until Elgar’s death on 23 February l934 (Sammons’ 48th birthday). Elgar once said, ‘Nobody plays my concerto like Albert, he gets to the heart of it.’ Although it was W.H. (Willie) Reed, leader of the London Symphony Orchestra at the time, who helped Elgar iron out the technical details of the Violin Concerto and Fritz Kreisler to whom the work is dedicated, it was Sammons, often under the composer’s baton, who promoted it year after year. Sammons performed the Elgar more than of all the concertos in this repertoire, giving over 100 performances throughout his career. Elgar was extremely grateful for Sammons’ interest in the Concerto and in 1921, prior to a performance of it in the Queen’s Hall, presented Sammons with the bow made by James Tubbs in 1878, which he had received for his association with the Worcester Orchestral Society many years before. Sammons remained a friend of Elgar’s throughout his life and played the slow movement of Elgar’s String Quartet with Willie Reed, Lionel Tertis and Felix Salmond, at the funeral of Lady Elgar at Little Malvern on 10 April l920. The work was performed by the same players seven years later at a private gathering to celebrate Elgar’s 70th birthday. When a German critic slighted Elgar’s music in the press Sammons was among the many notables, including Bernard Shaw, who instigated a letter of protest.
While it is known that Sammons frequently championed the Elgar Violin concerto, he was equally committed to Violin Concerto by Delius. Sammons worked out the technical details with the composer and the work is dedicated to him. According to violinist Manoug Parikian, ‘the double stopping in the Allegretto 12/8 towards the end was Sammons’ suggested addition to Delius’s original. Though they make the passage a bit more awkward, the double stopping underlines the rhythmic lilt of this section and enriches the violin’s solo part.’
In addition to the Elgar and Delius concertos Sammons championed a number of other works by British composers. The Violin Concerto by George Dyson was given its first performance by Sammons in 1942 and the last concerto appearance by Sammons in 1946 was playing the Moeran Violin Concerto. Sammons’ repertoire also included the violin sonatas by John Ireland. The composer recalled Sammons fourth performance with William Murdoch of the Second Violin Sonata: ‘My fate as a composer was decided at that particular moment in time, for me it was an electrifying occasion.’ It was probably the first and only time when a British composer was lifted from relative obscurity in a single night.’ Among other English composers whose works were first performed by Sammons are Bantock, Bridge, Goossens and Vaughan Williams.
Although the concerto and sonata repertoire were the mainstays of Sammons career, he entered into chamber music in 1909 and remained its most prominent figure for ten years as leader of a quartet. With Thomas Petrie on second violin, Waldo Warner on viola and Warwick Evans on cello, three colleagues who were section leaders, in the Beecham Symphony Orchestra, the New Quartet was formed. It as eventually renamed the London String Quartet and championed many modern works besides those in the classical repertoire. For their first recital in the Bechstein (now Wigmore) Hall, on 26 January l910, Dohnanyi’s Quartet in D-flat major opened the recital. It was followed by Tchaikovsky Quartet in D Major and ended with the Phantasy Quartet by Waldo Warner, the quartet’s violist.
Under the auspices of the London Music Club, the London String Quartet were often engaged for celebrity occasions. They took part in a performance of Arnold Schönberg’s Verklarte Nacht in the presence of the composer, and later played works by Alexander Scriabin, again with the composer present.
When Sammons left the London String Quartet in 1919, it was by no means the end of his career in chamber music. He performed the Chamber String Trio in 1918 and, in collaboration with William Murdoch (piano), Lionel Tertis (viola) and Lauri Kennedy (cello), founded an ensemble called The Chamber Music Players. In addition there was also a trio formed with Murdoch and Cedric Sharpe on the cello. W.H. Squire later joined the trio and together they made a number of significant recordings together.
The Australian-born pianist William Murdoch held a close association with Sammons for many years. He and Sammons were recruited in the army and played together in the Grenadier Guards Band (Sammons played clarinet in the band and the orchestra acquired their best leader ever). Sammons and Murdoch played often during the war, including a distinguished series of the complete Beethoven Sonatas at the Wigmore Hall.
Gerald Moore and Geoffrey Tankard were two other pianists with whom Sammons had long-standing partnerships. Moore performed many works with Sammons on the BBC and recalled that he ‘started with Sammons as an accompanist and ended as a partner.’ Other pianists Sammons performed with included Solomon, Frederic Lamond, Benno Moiseiwitsch and Mark Hambourg. Hamilton Harty and Malcolm Sargent also performed with Sammons on occasion and during the Second World War Sammons often joined with Myra Hess in the latter’s National Gallery Lunchtime Concerts.
Albert Sammons’ recordings with Aeolian Vocalion, Decca and Columbia date as far back as 1911 and are as extensive as any British artist. Sammons’ first important concerto recording, made in 1925, was the Bruch Concerto in G minor with Hamilton Harty as conductor. The recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto, made on 19 January, l929 with Henry Wood and the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra, stands as a monument to the achievement of British music in the early part of this century. Although the Delius Violin Concerto (composed in 1916) was premiered by Sammons in 1919, he did not record it until 1944.
Among the many outstanding Sammons recordings is the Beethoven Kreutzer Sonata with William Murdoch. The opening solo violin statement immediately reveals the tight-knit Sammons sound with a central core, which gives absolute clarity. In the second variation of the middle movement the semi-quavers and the trills are crystal clear. The last movement is memorable for its speed and precision. Floating a sound was never part of Sammons’ vocabulary and, as with most pre-war violinists, portamento plays an important part in the interpretation. By the time the Kreutzer was recorded in 1927 the Sammons/Murdoch partnership had been in existence for over a decade. Their recording underlines the impeccable liaison that had been built up over the years. It is duo playing at its finest.
It was to Lionel Tertis that Sammons turned when playing the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola. Their recording made in 1935 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Hamilton Harty is of particular interest. Though Tertis’ elaborate cadenza is a bit overripe by today’s standards, the balance between violin and viola is impeccable and expertly accompanied by a crisp and spirited L.P.O. Furthermore, this magnificent recording pairs two instruments of the greatest Venetian Luthiers: a viola by Domenico Montagnana c. 1710 with a back measurement of 171/4” and a violin by Matteo Goffriller dated 1696.
Other works recorded by Sammons include sonatas by Cesar Franck, Grieg and Tartini’s Devil Trill. Considerable attention is also given to modern English composers with recordings of works by Delius, Ireland, Bridge, Rubbra, Moeran and the Elgar Violin Sonata. With the London String Quartet Sammons recorded works by Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Cesar Franck. Along with piano trios and a host of shorter pieces the total number of 78 rpm discs Sammons made is over 300, a record for any British violinist during the first half of the 20th century.
Albert Sammons’ great interest in teaching probably stems from the fact that he had so little formal tuition himself. Many professional violinists of the 1920’s and 30’s owe much to Sammons for his guidance and counsel, and between 1939 and 1954, the year he retired from the Royal College of Music, the fruits of his vast experience surfaced and took root in many young and brilliant pupils. Thomas Mathes, Frances Mason, Winifred Roberts, Tessa Khambatta, Alan Loveday and Hugh Bean are but a few who studied with him. Another pupil Angus Watson, the first violinist ever to become Master of Music at Winchester College, is currently head of music at the Academy for Performing Arts in Hong Kong.
Hugh Bean, at present a professor at the Royal College of Music, remembers Sammons’ frequent advice: ‘to be a bit more stretchy, more like a piece of elastic’. According to Bean:
methods were simple and direct. With
so little formal tuition himself, he had to work out most of his own
solutions to technical problems. He
left the musical ones to one’s own instinct, common sense and good
taste. He eschewed
impressionistic word pictures when teaching, preferring simple
exhortations which everyone understood.
The practical side of Sammons is again revealed in his statement, ‘If you have 1% inspiration then that is a bonus.’ Knowing only too well the pitfalls, Sammons was ever anxious to build into a pupil the armour that is so essential for success. He was a great communicator and in his presence you felt as if you were the most important person in the world. That ‘piece of elastic’ simile has stayed with me to this day.
In spite of the fact that Sammons had no formal instruction in composition, his Phantasy Quartet Op. 8 composed in 1915 won the coveted Cobbett Gold Medal the following year. A distinguished panel of composers were unanimous in making the award to a mere violinist. This quartet, 30 short compositions and arrangement for violin and piano, and four manuals on violin technique have been published by either Hawkes and Sons or Augeners. These latter, entitled the secret of Fine Technique, Virtuoso Studies (2 Vols) and Studies to Strengthen and Improve Technique are important contributions to violin teaching.
There is no doubt that Sammons was a ‘gadget’ man. His invention to keep the bow straight involved a small device that clipped to the fingerboard and had an extended cupped arm into which the bow was placed. Another item, similar in design was called a ‘Tone Perfector’ to be used in conjunction with his exercises. Sammons claimed that this would give better results, more volume and be helpful in keeping the bow nearer the bridge. Although it had Fritz Kreisler’s endorsement it eventually fell by the wayside.
Sammons often gave his services to charity and participated in concerts organised by the Wesleyan Mission throughout England. During the 1930s Sammons was head of the examining board of the College of Violinists and earlier in 1919 and 1923, had assisted his friend W. E. Cobbett in the Cobbett Violin Making Competitions.
To perform as a concert soloist for over four decades and sustain a very high standard throughout requires stamina and dedication. Sammons was well suited to these rigours and had engaged in various sporting activities, such as boxing, as a teenager. He had a deep passion for golf and in later life this kept him in good trim. When asked whether golf interfered with his playing Sammons always replied ‘No, but my playing certainly spoils my golf’.
The saying ‘every great violinist carries his tone with him’ is an apt one in Albert Sammons’ case, considering the variety of instruments he used throughout his career. His frequent performances on modern violins certainly sent surprise and consternation throughout the profession. Tartini’s Devil’s Trill sonata was recorded on a William Robinson violin, which was described by Sammons to one of his pupils as ‘only a week old with the varnish hardly dry.’ It is among the finest of his early recordings. Hugh Bean remarked that Sammons ‘got through one (violin) a week.’ This last statement is obviously an exaggeration but it does express Sammons’ interest in a variety of instruments.
Despite the many violins used it is possible to form a chronology of the principal instruments he used. Sammons’ first violin, by the French maker Francois Pillement (c.1800), eventually was given to his brother Thomas, who became a member of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Sammons’ first important violin was a Joseph Rocca, made in 1909. Three years later Thomas Beecham presented Sammons with a fine Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi for his services to the Beecham Orchestra. On tour Sammons would often use a violin by Vincenzo Panormo and he said of this instrument that ‘it looked like a Strad’. In 1914 he used a J.B. Guadagnini for chamber music, but it was a Joseph Guarneri del Gesu lent by Baron d’Erlanger, which launched Sammons on his career as soloist. A Stradivari on loan from the W.W. Cobbett collection saw Sammons through several years until 1927 when Sammons purchased a violin by Matteo Goffriller. The instrument served for all-important engagements until Sammons’ retirement in 1948. Because of his involvement with the W. W. Cobbett Violin Making Competitions and a desire to promote British makers, Sammons also used the Alfred Vincent violin that won first prize in 1923. This violin was certainly used for some concerto and recital appearances, but the Vincent advertisement must not be taken too literally when it says the Albert Sammons, Albert Sandler and David Wise used this violin exclusively. In fact, Sammons gave encouragement to many other English makers: Arthur Richardson in Devon, Albert Coad in Cornwall and Dr. Young in Essex, to name but a few. Sammons’ help to living English makers must not be underestimated; he had a nose for tone wherever it might be and beating the pundits at their own game became something of a pastime.
If an instrument passed scrutiny and the price was right then he would buy it knowing full well it would serve a useful purpose. As it was never an ambition to form a collection, instruments came and went frequently. It is on record that at least four Stradivari passed through his hands. By advising pupils to buy modern Italians, such as those by Joseph Rocca, there are many ex-pupils who now have a very good investment.
Because Sammons never hankered after a Stradivari or del Gesu, it is evident that status symbols played no part in his make-up. His very considerable experience in instruments of all nationalities from ‘Mayson to Maggini’ is indicative of a healthy cosmopolitan approach. Eventually the instrument he was justly proud of came not from Cremona but Venice - a superb example of the work of Matteo Goffriller made in 1696.
This violin, sold by W. E. Hill & Sons in 1918 to Arthur Angle of Cardiff was sold by him to Sammons in 1927. It served him well until retirement in 1948 - the Elgar Concerto recorded in 1929 shows how well. In 1951 Sammons parted with his beloved Goffriller and it is now again in private hands. Accompanying the violin is the W. E. Hill & Sons certificate in which they describe it as ‘a fine and characteristic example of the maker’s work’. The Sammons’ Goffriller does not have typical Venetian characteristics. The long audacious corners are more typical of the work of Carlo Tononi and Goffriller’s early training in the Jacob Steiner School is evident. The outline comes from Cremona, however, as it shows the influence of the early Amati brothers. The marginal work is sturdy and compact, which allows the arching, top and bottom to rise almost immediately from the purfling. At the centre a shallow trough blends gently into the extremities and both plates are carved to produce a medium to high arching. Distinctive features are the f-holes; upright and open in design, they immediately command ones attention. The maker’s skill with the knife is in evidence here. Gouge marks are visible on the scroll and volutes but the varnish, having filled these, gives character and enhances a fine piece of carving. With varnish of a rich deep red brown laid on generously and still with masses of it visible, this violin conveys strength and muscular power. In Sammons’ hands the same description can be applied to its tonal qualities. The measurements of this violin can be found accompanying the photo.
Sammons’ Goffriller principal dimensions:
Length of back 356 mm (14”)
Width of lower bouts 208.5 mm (83/16”)
Width of middle bouts 118 mm (45/8”)
Width of top bouts 196 mm (65/8”)
Rib height 30-32 mm
THE ACHIEVEMENT OF SAMMONS
That Sammons effortlessly dominated other English violinists is an undisputed fact. The London critic Montague Nathan went so far as to say that ‘Sammons was absurdly afraid of being thought a genius’. At heart Sammons was certainly a romantic; listening to his recordings of the Bruch and Elgar concertos leaves no doubt. Of the many salon pieces recorded, Elgar’s Salut d’amour and the Kreisler arrangement of Dvoraks’s Humoreske are also good examples. These simple but delightful melodies are enhanced by a tone that is both sensuous and beguiling.
On 7 December 1954, the Albert Hall was filled to capacity for the Albert Sammons Testimonial Concert under the auspices of the London Music Circle in the presence of Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Gloucester. Sir Arthur Bliss, Master of the King’s Music, paid tribute to Sammons for his services to music. Many fellow colleagues paid tribute to Sammons in the concert programme and these included Kreisler, Menuhin, Oistrakh, Max Rostal, Manoug Parikian, Thomas Matthews, Alfredo Campoli, Alan Loveday, Hugh Bean, David Martin, Lionel Tertis, Casals and Szigeti. The latter wrote:
Albert Sammons’s lovely playing in the Delius Concerto, has sterling musicianship and fraternal attitude when we played the Bach double Concerto together at one of the Courtauld-Sargent Concerts, the insight which his ‘Secret of Violin Technique’ gave me into his self-searching as applied to violinistic problems, these few experiences were sufficient for me. The generosity of his gesture in welcoming back our great Fritz Kreisler to London just after World War 1 is typical of the good comrade Albert Sammons. And it brings back to mind perhaps our very first encounter in 1909. We were sitting in adjoining rows at a Kreisler recital in Queen’s Hall when I felt a tap on my shoulder, between two movements of some contemporary sonata, and heard Sammons whispering to me ‘It’s that tone of his we come to hear, isn’t it? It doesn’t much matter what he’s playing!’ Albert Sammons paid handsome tribute to Kreisler on that memorable afternoon some ten years later, and it is good to think that the fine artist and generous colleague, Albert Sammons, should have tribute paid him tonight by those assembled here, who remember with gratitude the beauty and poetry of his music making.
Albert Sammons knew adversity as a youth when he left home with his brother in 1902, and again in 1946 when Parkinson’s disease was diagnosed. Despite this devastating illness he could still joke and say that he had the ‘best vibrato in the business’. Sammons bore the illness that eventually killed him with great dignity, as I well know having been in his company only a fortnight before he died.
Though Sammons’ lamentable illness curtailed his teaching activities from 1950 on, it in no way stopped him from attending concerts for at least a few years longer. Harry Danks, principal viola in the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the time, recalls one poignant occasion. After attending Isaac Stern’s first Albert Hall recital Sammons very painfully and doggedly made his way to the Green Room together with a great throng of admirers. Jostled here and there, he paid his compliments and was halfway up those formidable stone stairs when a hand fell on his shoulder, would he please return to the Green Room. This he did with help, only to find Stern profusely apologetic and upset for failing to recognise Sammons in the first place. Referring to the Sammons recording of the Delius Concert Stern said, ‘I have worn out three sets of 78s listening to your Delius, please accept my warmest thanks for it.’ It was a memorable moment for two great violinists.
In l944 Sammons was awarded the CBE for services to British music. It was indeed a rare distinction in those days for executive musicians to be so honoured by the nation. His contributions for over half a century place him among the elite of his calling and to have known him was a great privilege.
This centenary profile is best summed up by the works of two old friends and colleagues. Kreisler said ‘Sammons, you are a lucky man, you have everything, tone, technique, musicianship and imagination’ and Ysaye, that famous evening at Lord Curzon’s home, commented ‘At last England has a great violinist.’