Simpson String Quartet no. 1

performed by the Delmé Quartet

(Sorry, no YouTube this week, but I’m going to be linking below to program notes from Hyperion, who sells physical and digital copies of this music here. It’s also available on iTunes.)

I’m very glad to introduce another piece from Robert Simpson’s pen, and there’s one more on the way next week.

While they’re obviously not all the same each time, I do have a fascination with two-movement forms. In speaking of two-movement string quartets, you may first think of Alban Berg’s op. 3 quartet, the work that likely got me to thinking about what makes this structure unique. In short, I think it’s the stronger juxtaposition between the two ‘halves’ of the work, no matter how disproportionate, and how they’re related and contrasting. We will again see this next week in a larger scale work, but today’s quartet is a fascinating exploration of this two-part structure, as well as some of Simpson’s absolute favorite things that we find in his music: a battle between keys (here E flat and A), and palindromes. And basically that I’ve decided that his works are pretty much exactly what I’m looking for in music, but more on that later.

The work is in two movements of almost equal length, and while you may not be able to hear some of the things we’ll discuss (and indeed much of my information comes from Matthew Taylor’s superb program notes on Hyperion) unless you have a keen ear for pitch, or take a look at the score, but you should be able to get the overall sense of the highs and lows presented in the battle of keys that Simpson will present.

Taylor’s notes, linked above, are about as close to film trailer intensity as you can get: it reads like an exciting summary of a story that will only unfold when you experience the whole thing. There are spoilers, some glimpses of the highs and lows, a layout of the ‘characters’ or elements at play. In this work, those elements are the keys of E flat and A.

Now this juxtaposition of keys isn’t new at all. The presentation of tonic/dominant tonal areas and the development of contrasting or complementing material in these keys (or major/minor keys) is an essential part of sonata-allegro form. However, Simpson isn’t using the conventional dominant key, which in this case would be B flat. Instead, we find ourselves with the key of A.

As Taylor makes mention (and honestly, just go read the notes. I’m going to refer to them here and there, but they could hardly be better written), the piece begins rather unassumingly in E flat, “freely contrapuntal in design.” As I said earlier, most listeners might not be able to say “wait a minute, it sounds like we’re in A now,” or at least I can’t, but what a listener can do is listen for the highs and lows of the work as it progresses, when tension increases and resolves, and this corresponds to (or rather is an expression of) the conflict between two keys, because once the “sudden forte outburst on unison viola and cello” appears, E flat begins to lose its traction and the work slowly moves to the key of A, “its opposite pole”, as Taylor puts it.

Now, this may not seem very exciting for those of us who don’t have perfect pitch or whatever, but it’s a really fundamental part of what (the majority of) music is built around, how tension and release are expressed. Or rather, key areas are perhaps the two most common ‘characters’ to pit against each other, since they’re objective, fundamentally musical ideas, while “sad” or “pretty” are not.

But also, there’s nothing wrong with not being able to identify it until it’s pointed out to you. The keener tasters may be able to try a dish and say, “There’s some cardamom in this, isn’t there?” while others might not notice it unless it’s brought to their attention, and still others may not give that much thought to it at all, and yet they still enjoy the dish. The same is true here, so don’t feel like having a read at program notes is cheating.

While Simpson isn’t sticking exactly to the rules of sonata form, the idea is very similar, and we have “a modified reprise of the opening, now in A, and the music returns to its former tranquillity and innocence,” as Taylor says, and it’s at this point that we might think that this new key has won, pushing E flat to the fringes of our memory, but you’d be wrong. E flat manages to fight its way back, although, as Taylor says, “A loses its hold, and E flat regains control, though a sense of conflict still remains.” And the ending of this final movement is so exciting.

And satisfying. Why? Because if the ‘story’ unfolding in the first movement were wrapped up within that first movement, what would happen in the second? Would we start over with a whole new ‘story’, new conflict between new keys?

In this way, the end of movement one feels like a curtain closing, the end of Act I, and how does Act II continue the story? Well, here’s where our palindromes begin. While Simpson likely didn’t have in mind Webern’s op. 21 (and I would be almost certain he didn’t) when he wrote his quartet, it too is in two movements with the second being a set of variations that are palindromes of themselves, one right after the other. This is a very interesting structure. We have Simpson’s seven variations, each of which are palindromic, like the theme on which they are based, as well as each of their individual characteristics, but on top of that we have the continued unresolved (or perhaps reignited) tension from the first movement. Taylor says:

Even though this viola theme is unharmonized, it clearly traces the same tonal outline as the first movement, starting in E flat, rising to A at its mid-point, and falling sadly again to E flat. Each of the seven variations, which are strictly palindromic, follows this course, and the result is a prolonged effort to establish the key of A…

No spoilers… yet. A major failed to maintain the upper hand in the first movement, but what do we hear here? Well, the piece certainly presents a lyricism that the first movement didn’t have. While we’re still working out our Tale of Two Keys, there’s perhaps more in this movement to enjoy for anyone who is solely interested in ‘pretty music,’ with some really beautiful, tender moments of expression and contrapuntal movement that might call Haydn to mind. Simpson was a lover of the classics, and in these broader passages, we might be able to hear it more clearly.

Ultimately, though, despite the pretty, despite the palindromes, the variations, all the rest of it, the main goal is never lost. We can enjoy the sights along the way as the scenery changes, but Simpson never loses sight of the destination. It may surprise you, but he had it in mind all along. I won’t spoil it (for those who can hear the key in which it ends, but I will quote, for one last time, some of Taylor’s program notes, his closing statements about the work:

The coda is a naive, innocent dance of almost Haydnesque simplicity, the key an unclouded A major. Robert Simpson once remarked that he composed these closing pages at one stretch, on a sunny afternoon in Regent’s Park: ‘Perhaps there is something wistful about the music,’ he says, ‘hence the marking poco pensoso’. The attentive listener might even detect a veiled quotation from a Beethoven symphony amidst these peaceful sounds.

Oh, well, spoiler alert. A major. But after all that turmoil, the tension and everything behind it, we have such a beautiful close. Even though we began in E flat, that doesn’t mean that A is “the bad guy”, and the final resolve to A major isn’t a tragic one, but placid, as we can clearly hear.

So in essence, palindromes aside (which I find to be more an interesting novelty that can be slightly difficult to identify without some clues and dedicated listening), Simpson is presenting, brilliantly, mind you, the most fundamental things in music: there are contrasts of expression, lyrical vs. agitated, fast vs. slow; there are contrasts of keys, interaction between instruments. All of this means that we can appreciate Simpson’s music on so many levels.

And to what I hinted at earlier, it’s this kind of intensity, this kind of unfolding of a purely musical narrative that gets me all kind of thrilled about music. Perhaps, as discussed above, we can’t really identify the underlying elements or analyze them simply by ear alone, but then, who says we should be able to? I submit that even the most novice of listeners, when intent on listening, when listening with purpose, to want to hear and learn and understand and appreciate, will hear music of this caliber and appreciate it on some level, even if they don’t actually hear all these elements that make Simpson’s music so captivating.

Quite a first string quartet, no? I enjoyed so much Mr. Taylor’s program notes that I couldn’t pare down my direct quotations or write it any better than he had, but please go read them on Hyperion, or go a step further and buy the album somewhere.

I have big plans for Simpson and his work as soon as I have time in the schedule for it, but maybe not until next year. In any case, he’s certainly one of my most satisfying discoveries in all the reading and listening I’ve done so far, and I’m looking forward to sharing more.

But stay tuned for only four more pieces in our English series, one of which is the Simpson symphony that started it all for me! Thank you.



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