Robert Simpson: Symphony no. 1

performed by the London Philharmonic under Sir Adrian Boult

second and third movements

Meet Robert Simpson, one of the greatest discoveries of my musical digging, and one of the most compelling symphonists of the 20th century.

Robert Wilfred Levick Simpson was born the same year as Easley Blackwood, on March 2 1921, in Warwickshire. His father was “a descendant of Sir James Young Simpson, the Scottish pioneer of anaesthetics” and the young Robert was expected to study medicine, which he did for two years in London before abandoning it to be a musician. He actually served with a mobile surgery unit during the World War II, as a conscientious objector, and took private lessons from one Herbert Howells, who suggested he study at Durham University, from where he eventually gained his Doctor of Music degree, with today’s work as his thesis.

I shan’t discuss it in great detail now, but he was a very influential man as a lecturer, writer, and broadcaster at the BBC. He was a champion of the music of Havergal Brian, as well as Carl Nielsen and Bruckner, and wrote rather extensively on the latter as well as Beethoven, all around an influential, hard-working, musical figure, and his symphonies show his outstanding talent as a composer. Wiki also notes that in a rare case, a Robert Simpson Society was established while the composer was still living, in fears that the man’s work had been (and unfortunately largely still is) unjustly neglected. The folks at the Robert Simpson Society are very nice and have sent me some materials, which I will currently not be using in this article.

The impression created is of a monolithic unity as though conceived in a single breath.

Callum McDonald

I would say the overriding, most compelling quality of Simpson’s music is that it is clearly modern (not atonal or serialist or anything, just modern) while still adhering wonderfully to the rich symphonic tradition: a handsome, strong structure that’s used to present effectively a musical idea (or ideas) which take the listener on a journey, a cohesive, tightly-composed thing of logic. That’s great, but what’s maybe even more exciting about it is how Simpson’s symphonies (most of them, anyway) unfold in much the way I envision the Big Bang happening: suddenly. There’s one gesture, an impulse, the downbeat that sets the whole thing going, and everything unravels, expands, develops from that singular point.

The first symphony is in three movements. Wikipedia says:

The work is in three connected movements, all in one basic pulse so that tempo changes are all proportionally related. The work pits the tonalities of A and E flat against each other. It begins with a fanfare-like introduction from the brass and which then resides for several moments into a quieter section dominated by the strings which develops the main motives.

That fanfare is the Big Bang, it’s the first pulse, the twitch that shakes the symphony to life. The trumpets may sound quiet, but the orchestra’s response to it is powerful, and at least for me, from that point, there’s no stopping it; there’s an incredible amount of momentum generated in the beginning, and there should be, because, as stated, it will carry us through the entire almost-half-hour of this work.

As mentioned above, things seem to quiet down, with strings getting a cooler moment of exposure, with woodwinds here and there, but the momentum and tension are never lost, especially in Boult’s reading. And then listen to it all come together: I swear, Simpson is the (mid) 20th century’s Beethoven. As just the first movement of this work attests, there’s such vitality, such intensity, but also sensitivity in his work, and we see these two very strong ideas play out in the first movement, the power and almost militaristic intensity of the brass theme and the softness from the strings. The game he plays seems to be well-planned from the end, because these two drastically different ideas, surprise, work with and against each other very well for a gripping first movement. Note also that the tonalities ‘pitted against one another’ are A and E flat, not E natural, as would be expected as the dominant of A major. Also be aware of how nicely the opening pulse recapitulates toward the end of this first section.

The second movement, or really second section, works from the softer portions of the opening section, serves as a middle movement, and while it is ‘slower’, it’s simply at half the pulse of the first section, hence the “proportionally related” comment about the tempo changes. It’s all based on the same heartbeat. The transition is a smooth one, no complete cadence, no page-flipping pause between movements, and the middle section really is a tender, solemn stretch of music, almost mournful at times, accentuating the tenderness we got a glimpse of in the first section, used tastefully and effectively here. Even the brass get in on the softness in a chorale-like passage that builds to something more exciting, a slow, growing flame that again, rolls over into the third section.

This is the finale of the work, obviously, the third and final section. It’s just breathtaking. The music is powerful, commanding, but this time more celebratory than ominous or militaristic, still thunderous and driving, but there’s a triumph in it, with that stratospheric high trumpet still there, sumptuous writing for brass (some definite English qualities), and it’s here that Boult’s recording shines. Structurally, this must be the most challenging and critical passage of the work, completing the structure of the entire piece, wrapping it up and putting a bow on it.

There’s texture and complexity here, managing layer after layer added onto this celebratory forward motion, like a parade that picks up more and more riders. There’s brass, then strings, then woodwinds, then back down to something more transparent. I really can’t say enough about this work, because it presents ideas, but also completes them. Nothing extraneous is introduced; there are no loose ends. From the first trumpet sound at the beginning, the composer sees the destination. The entire work moves toward somewhere and never falters. There’s contrast and narrative and tension, and even here, toward the end of the symphony, we’ve got echoes of that opening pulse that started the whole journey.

Robert Simpson’s economy of material, his strong sense of logic and development, well-planned structure, and breathtaking writing make for a composer who’s clearly writing in a modern idiom, but is also strongly rooted in the symphonic tradition of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner… People criticize him here and there for not writing (or not being able to write) a melody, but if you want a sweet melody, go listen to a Tchaikovsky ballet; there’s much more to a symphony than a pretty tune, and for my dollar, Simpson has it all.

I’ll say that for Simpson’s symphonies, there aren’t many recordings. Vernon Handley has recorded them all, and they’re available on Hyperion, and that’s predominantly where I know them from, and have enjoyed his recordings, but despite the poorer audio quality from Boult’s recording from 1956, the performance is head and shoulder’s above Handley; it presents effectively the tightness, the unity across all three sections, with much more drive and focus. There are some places where Handley seems to lose a bit of the momentum and overall connectedness, but his enjoys far clearer audio. I was quite attached to Handley’s reading, and got to know the piece from it before giving a listen to Boult, so maybe try both.

This is not the piece that drew me to Simpson’s symphonies initially, but it was a wonderful place to start, and I feel it’s a very strong first symphony, as a doctoral thesis, and he went on to write ten more symphonies, among much else. I’m eager to do an English symphony series, of which Simpson will be a central part. But that’s all from him for now, and I’m very glad he’s finally made it to the blog. Stay tuned for just a few more New November articles. See you soon.


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