Samuel Edward "Sam" Ramsay was born 18 June 1932 in Philadelphia, Pa. He began playing horn in late elementary school or in junior high school. During high school he studied with Pietro Antonelli.
Upon graduation from high school he auditioned for Curtis Institute and was accepted. At Curtis he studied with Mason Jones, then principal horn of the Philadelphia Orchestra and one of the leading teachers in the United States during the second half of the Twentieth Century. He said on numerous occasions that he thought going to Curtis in general and studying with Jones in particular were the best things that ever happened to him. This is somewhat ironic because, at the end of his first semester at Curtis, he wanted to leave. His parents persuaded him to finish the year, saying that if he felt the same way at the end of his second semester they would support his decision. "By then, wild horses couldn't have dragged me away," he said.
While at Curtis he freelanced in the Philadelphia area. During the summers he played assistant to Mason Jones. After Curtis he played for one season (1955-56) in the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra. He may have started as fourth horn, but by the second half of the season he was playing second. He left New Orleans to become third horn in the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., a position he held 1956-63.
He left the National Symphony in 1963 to freelance. He played for the Opera Soceity of Washington (now the Washington Opera), 1961-1994. It is probable that he was principal horn 1961-68. He was also principal horn of the National Gallery of Art Orchestra (in those days largely the same personnel as the Opera and ballet orchestras) through 1968. After that he usually played second or third horn in both the Opera and Gallery orchestras. (Orrin Olson became principal horn of the National Gallery Orchestra and Washington Opera Orchestra in 1969.) He also played at Wolf Trap Farm Park from 1971, when it opened, till sometime in the 1980s. He also appeared frequently in chamber music.
Sam fought a lifelong battle with nerves, with varying degrees of success over the years. Equally at home in all registers and at all dynamics, he had a dark, velvety sound, very centered and focused, with almost no "fluff" around the edges. He was obsessed with the focused, carrying sound Mason Jones had, and worked hard to imitate it. When not "rattled" his playing was top notch. His intonation was always above reproach.
He taught at American University, the Catholic University of America, George Washington University, and the University of Maryland, in addition to maintaining a private studio. He had a way few teachers share of telling a student he played badly while simultaneously encouraging him that he could learn to play well. For those who were interested and who worked hard, an "hour lesson" could last all day, covering not only the material assigned, but also in-depth study of orchestral excerpts (beyond the ones bound to have been part of the week's assignment), and duet playing.
His teaching emphasized being able to play in all keys, often at sight. One quickly leared that if an etude was assigned to be learned, say, horn in C, that it was also an excellent idea to be able to play it in any other key without making a fool of oneself. Orchestral excerpts were his specialty, and he worked with students till they could play them in the proper style and with the maximum of expression. The unforgivable sin in his studio was to play inexpressively.
A brilliant man, he spoke fluent Spanish, could quote literature by the yard, and knew a lot of classical repertoire beyond that containing horn parts. He was especially fond of Italian opera. He was a talented artist and had a notebook full of sketches of his jaw, teeth, and lips made in an effort to analyze the workings of the embouchure. He wrote well, was a talented photographer, and overhauled automobile engines when the need arose.