Simpson Symphony no. 3

performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Vernon Handley, or below by the London Symphony Orchestra under Jascha Horenstein

This is the work that started it all.

By ‘it’, I mean my fascination with the work of Robert Simpson and the real motivation to prepare an English symphony series.

We’ve seen Simpson on the blog a few times already, starting with his first symphony back in November of ’16, and then of all things his horn trio in the horn series back in March-ish. If you haven’t gone to read the article about his first string quartet, I suggest you do so, because all of my many words there about what I love about Simpson’s music apply here as well.

The third symphony, like the first quartet, is in two movements, and dates from 1962. It was commissioned by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and dedicated to Havergal Brian, in response, likely, for Brian’s dedication of his own 13th symphony to Simpson. Simpson, a broadcaster at the BBC for some long time, was a huge advocator of Brian’s music, and it seems the two admired each other, Brian at least because he had a supporter.

We are again indebted to Matthew Taylor’s program notes on Hyperion for this work. If you read the article on Simpson’s first string quartet (which I again strongly suggest you do), you’ll remember the two key areas in conflict, E flat and A major. Those are almost the standard tonic and dominant keys, as the dominant of E flat would be B flat.

In any case, Simpson has ratcheted the tension up a bit by focusing on two keys that are only one whole step apart, B flat and C. Taylor says:

Symphony No 3 embraces the principle of ‘emergent tonality’ where a conflict is pursued between two opposing tonal centres, in this case C major and B flat. There are just two movements: the first a broad sonata-allegro, the second (surely one of the most impressive and original structures in twentieth-century symphonism) ‘a huge composed accelerando, but with the dynamics repressed’—in the composer’s own words.

This structure is apparently unique in Simpson’s output, says Taylor, and you’ll have to read his play-by-play for the full detail, but the work opens in octave Cs, mysteriously, spacious-sounding, like a massive cloud. Woodwinds intertwine through this thick fog, and we hear an ominous, dark, guttural crunch from the low strings that to me typifies the power of the entire work, like its rudder, but the first orchestral explosion that results is not in C, nor in anything related to C, but B flat, and thus the conflict begins. One of the most important figures in this first movement is found here, a kind of exclamation mark. You can’t miss it. The feeling, at least for me, is that despite the growing energy, swirls of sound and movement and counterpoint, is that absolutely everything here is essential, grows like a crystalline structure from the most basic motivic ideas we’ve already heard in the first few bars of the opening, and that is absolutely thrilling. From here, the movement is unstoppable.

Taylor’s notes outline “subject groups” and various themes that are all setups for material to be expanded upon (to ‘grow’ like a crystal) in the development, the real heart of a sonata-allegro movement. The development “resolves onto an F major chord,” perhaps for its somewhat neutral relation to both C and B flat (?!), and the development begins in earnest. It might take you a few listens to get those specific figures and motifs in your ear, but when you do, they hold you tight for the ride Simpson gives us.

Again, even if you don’t identify specific subject groups, key changes, subtle changes in our ‘characters’ that make up the work, I’d argue the music is nothing short of gripping. The intensity swells and ebbs away, disappearing behind a fog or else exploding into cosmic fury and color. It is the unraveling of a drama spoken solely in musical terms and ideas, one that you may not be able to describe, but you can certainly enjoy, because it pounds in your chest. It’s one of the most propulsive, gripping, heart-pounding movements ever written, in my opinion.

Taylor tells us that the second movement is “the first example in Simpson’s work of a massive accelerando from Adagio to Presto where the basic pulse remains unaltered.” As I’ve said before, Simpson has a thing for a “basic” or “unaltered” pulse that evolves and unravels while maintaining the same underlying foundation.

The second movement, in the Handley recording, is divided into eight sections, the longest (and first) of which is about three and a half minutes, a few just barely over a minute, and these (I assume) outline the underlying sections of the movement. Taylor says:

Each increase in tempo brings about fresh transformations of the first theme: bassoon, Andante; bassoon, Allegretto; cellos, basses, and later all strings, Allegro; oboes and flutes, Vivace; second violins, Presto, the music seldom rising above piano.

What do we have in the end? What does it culminate into? All the tension of the work is released in one final explosion, the climax of the movement, and perhaps of the entire work, “driven forward with thrilling, Beethovenian momentum culminating in a chord which, in the words of Hugh Ottoway, ‘is nothing other than a dominant seventh of C major—in root position too—yet it sounds like some dazzling new discovery’.”

One would easily think that that, then and there, is the final stroke of the symphony, but no. This electrifying passage fades away, revealing, perhaps similar to the opening of the symphony, B flat rather than C, so perhaps we feel that B flat has “won”, much like the duel of keys we saw in the first string quartet, but the B flat doesn’t remain, making its final move to C, “and the Symphony disappears magically on a bare fifth, C and G.”

I listened to part of a rehearsal of the second movement of this symphony with Horenstein, the composer present, but it wasn’t terribly enlightening, unfortunately. The work may not seem terribly approachable or exciting to some, being fundamentally concerned with musical ideas rather than any kind of surface charm, but these ideas, to my ear, are convincing and propulsive, and may take time to appreciate but result in a captivating narrative, wholly musical, that entertains the listener in a much more satisfying way, I think.

But not everyone feels that way. You have only to look at this review on Classics Today from David Hurwitz, who was also extremely critical of Arnell’s fourth and fifth symphonies. He lambasts Simpson as well, saying, among other things, that the music is “pedantic, dry, and lacking both melodic and timbral allure.” I’m not sure what Hurwitz finds appealing, perhaps yet another recording of the Chopin piano concertos, or one of the fine crowd-pleasing releases like this thing, but I think it’s brilliant.

So we have to be careful about basing our opinions on others’ assessments, don’t we? I’m glad I wasn’t deterred by the spleen Hurwitz gives to what I find to be extremely rewarding music. Of course, no one likes everything, but I do my best not to be dismissive and scathing…

In any case, I’d been on a hunt for symphonies from composers with whom I was unfamiliar. Who else in the 20th century wrote cycles of symphonies and quartets that weren’t written to be rebelliously modern? Of those composers, Vagn Holmboe, who we’ve discussed before, was one, and another, closely connected to him, is Robert Simpson, and now we’ve discussed two of his eleven symphonies and only one of his fifteen quartets, so there’s plenty more of him to enjoy, and I have big plans for Simpson and a few others next year, so I hope you like what I’ve presented so far.

This marks the end of the English Symphony Series proper, but we have a few string quartets left to round things out and bring us much closer in the chronology to the current day, which is an interesting thing to do. Please do stay tuned for more excellent music, and we’ll see you soon.


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