Peggie Sampson

Noted musician Peggie (Margaret) Sampson (right), professor emerita in York’s Department of Music, Faculty of Fine Arts, passed away May 17 after a short illness. There was a private cremation and interment, and a memorial celebration will take place at a later date.

Described in a Globe & Mail obituary as “musician, teacher, friend”, Dr. Sampson was a noted cellist and, in her day, the foremost viola da gambist in Canada. Born in Edinburgh in 1912, she trained under her “goddess”, the renowned Portugese cellist Guilhermina Suggia. She said she imagined herself as a touring celebrity, but realized her “naturally shy” temperament wasn’t the right sort of personality for that lifestyle. Instead, she took a teaching post at the University of Edinburgh, and discovered she liked the work.

In 1951, Dr. Sampson emigrated to Canada to teach theory, history and cello at the University of Manitoba, remaining in that post for about 20 years. In Winnipeg, she and bassoonist and fellow professor Christine Mather helped found the Manitoba Consort, one of the first successful early ensembles in Canada.

Dr. Sampson’s first contact with York was when she came to the University in 1970, during a sabbatical from U of M, to give a small concert. “I really had very little impression, indeed, except that York was a long way from the centre of Toronto,” she said in an interview with York Music Department professor emeritus & senior scholar Sterling Beckwith in his book, Music at York: The Founding Generation 1970-2000.

Invited to teach at York as a faculty member, Dr. Sampson said, “I came, and tried to fit myself into whatever there was to fit into. Of course, York was half the size then. It was very empty [when compared to downtown]…. It’s got better air, but when you have to get from one part of the campus to another there’s an awful lot of dressing up…. It really was a difficult place to work, but it had all these wonderful ideas. Students of all disciplines would be mixed up together, and mathematicians would speak to people who were learning German, and all that sort of thing.”

At York, Dr. Sampson found the Music Department “much more exciting than what we did in Manitoba, which was all very straight…so programs were quite organized, but definitely not exciting.” She said she accepted a permanent post at the University because she was “having a good time…and I was very happy about what I was mostly doing, which was to teach those who expressed interest in the viol….

“Students would come and sometimes they didn’t even know how to read music, which didn’t really matter, because they learned how to read it as they were learning how to play the instrument,” Dr. Sampson told Beckwith in the interview. “I found that after teaching them the basic things for about a term in private lessons or perhaps in a group lesson…then they went and did it. They were keen.”

Dr. Sampson said she became interested in the viola da gamba (viol) when she was about 50, after having played the cello since she was eight years old. She then took a great interest in early music and the viol, “which is much less trouble to play”, and gave up playing the cello “for quite a long time. In fact I didn’t play it again until after I’d retired, and then I began to find that it was really rather fun after all…. It didn’t matter how bad I was by then.”

Outside of York, as well as at the University, Dr. Sampson was involved in numerous musical performances. She and some of her students formed a group known as the Hart House Consort of Viols, using historical viols loaned by University of Toronto’s Hart House. She was also in a group with a singer, harpsichordist and violinist – Les coucous bénévoles – and they did a lot of work in Holland as well as locally. “It’s fun to give concerts, it’s exciting, and [for performers], if one doesn’t have any of it, one shrivels.”

When asked if she felt York had something special to offer in the music field, Dr. Sampson answered with enthusiasm: “I think it absolutely has a lot to offer. But it does have, or did, that admixture of chaos, which is not all that bad a preparation for a career…. The York approach is unique.”

Classically trained, Dr. Sampson told Beckwith that she would like to see York’s Music Department “go heavily into contemporary things…. It would mean, of course, that people came through York University knowing very little about classical styles and so on, but if that’s what they want, there are other places for them to go to. If you have to give your attention to one thing, contemporary to me seems the thing you should be doing.”

More about Peggie Sampson

A charter member of York’s Music Department until she retired in 1977, Dr. Sampson taught theory and developed a program of study for viola. She has premiered works by leading Canadian composers, including several she commissioned with the support of the Canada Council, to pioneer a modern repertoire for the viola da gamba. In the department, she established the Peggie Sampson Bursary, available to full- and part-time students in York’s Department of Music.

Dr. Sampson was awarded the Canadian Music Council medal in 1985. For further information about her life, including her discography, bibliography and filmography, visit the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada Web site.