Simpson String Quartet no. 2

performed by the Delmé Quartet

(cover image by Larm Rmah)

As the first and really core composer behind the new Editor’s Choice series, we’ll have a few articles on Simpson’s music, doing a bit of catching up with his earlier stuff since we’ve already talked about the third symphony.

(the above video is a sample released from Hyperion. The album isn’t even available on Spotify, but can be purchased from iTunes. If the descriptions in this article/the liner notes interest you, I strongly suggest purchasing some of Simpson’s work, like the first few symphonies and quartets and going from there.)

Simpson is, as I might be discussing in an article next week, a consummate composer, with such superb accomplishments in the symphony and string quartet forms. We’ve discussed his first and third symphonies, but only the first quartet. It forms a sort of set of three quartets with the second and third, which we will be discussing this weekend. They are excellent works.

The second quartet is in one single movement and dates from 1953. Thankfully, Hyperion has wonderful release notes about most of Simpson’s works, excellently written by Matthew Taylor. He says of the second quartet:

Whereas No 1 moved from one key to another, No 2 goes only from A major to A minor, and ends in darkness. The whole quartet is dominated by a single pulse, over which different tempi are thrown. This idea, first introduced in late Sibelius, has proved to be of considerable importance to Simpson’s creative thinking, from his first symphony onwards…

We’ve heard this ‘single pulse’ or building blocks idea before, and will continue to in discussing Simpson’s music. As Sibelius’s seventh symphony has a kind of unified, unbroken life to it, like the blood of the piece, despite the changes in appearance, so Simpson’s music often begins from similarly organic seeds.

There are three elements that generate the conflict and energy that we hear in this work. The first is, as Taylor says, “The first is a chirpy, animated theme on the first violin in a brightly coloured A major.” Already in contrast with that is a “brief but threatening repeated-note tattoo low in the cello which momentarily disturbs the music.” Taylor continues later to refer to it as a tattoo (and we also see this throughout discussions of Simpson’s work, that certain motifs or subjects are given nicknames in the way secret projects might have codenames: ‘the chirp;’ ‘the tattoo;’). Thirdly is “a contrasting, melodic ‘cantabile’, sung by the first violin against a sustained C major chord.”

And thankfully, in listening to this work, we can hear that chirp. A guest author at Gramophone describes this bright gesture as “leaping like a fish in a clear stream (actually a high violin in A major) with an answering pulsation that will play a large part in propelling the music into less friendly waters.” Way to commit to an analogy.

Once that calms down and the violin stops chirping, listen for the ‘tattoo’ (I’m even doing it now). It’s very brief, but does stop the chirping, and sounds more like a tremolo than any kind of a dotted line or ostinato figure. Once the violin comes back with its softer, rounder cantabile, we’ve heard the three themes, but if you weren’t looking out for them, you might miss them.

Actually, they’re not themes in the sense that they’re melodies, like Wagner used throughout his Ring cycle. They’re more…. compact then that, more like Beethoven’s triplet figure from his fifth symphony; they have tons of potential to be manipulated and combined, broken down and reassembled.

It’s these three elements that generate the contrast we hear throughout this work, reacting with or against one another to propel the small quartet forward. Structurally, while still in one single movement, this initial conflict makes up a first section with all of its own energy and after its own climax, things cool off a bit in a calmer central section that is, of course, related to opening material. What seemed like a subtle, very missable seed in the beginning, that repeated cello ‘tattoo,’ once repeated around the quartet, adds some serious tension to this first section.

Much like the three separate themes appearing in quick succession, sort of hidden in plain sight, these sections are not set off by pauses or clearly delineated, and I’d rather them not be. It’s just the overall trajectory or contour of the work as a whole. The calmer middle section is made up of stuff that should be familiar to us, almost as if slowed down, or broken into slices where we’re only seeing or hearing single portions at a time. Even here, though, there is layering of voices. It’s introspective, pensive, and coming after the intensity of the beginning, it’s like someone stormed off to a room to cool down after an outburst and thought about their actions.

But this doesn’t last. Taylor says that “More passionate gestures disrupt the peace until a highly intense fugato is reached.” In case you’re interested ‘fugato’ is just a fugue-like passage that isn’t actually a fugue. Fugato = fugue-ish. Remember that chirp and the ‘tattoo,’ because it’s what enlivens the more reflective section to plunge us into the final section. Taylor quotes the composer himself, who mentions “the striving of the cheerful tune to recover itself after having run into trouble.”

Who hasn’t been there?

And I didn’t plan it, but it sort of fits with the ‘outburst’ analogy. Now we have to fix things. Can it be done? Well, as you remember at the beginning, Taylor spoke of the move from A major to A minor, so… spoiler alert: no, it can’t. Even knowing that, we can follow the composer’s narrative, the ride he presents as A major tries to get the upper hand, and ultimately fails. One of the advantages of this single-movement form is that we’re working with the same material throughout the entire work, and we have a complete piece, not just a single movement of a piece with this structure. It’s also only about fifteen minutes long, Simpson’s shortest, so it’s easy to give it a few listens and appreciate what’s happening.

Much is made of fugue or fugal treatment here, as is common in Simpson’s music. It is through these kinds of metamorphic musical processes that simple elements are able to fuel entire compositions. Simpson himself was a lover of astronomy, so I’ll use an example, greatly devoid of actual detail, that he might have enjoyed.

Stars.

They’re hot. The earliest stars were only made of lighter elements, the stuff that’s most prominent in the universe, like hydrogen and helium, and there was for a time in science some question about where the heavier elements like iron and gold and all the rest came from if the Big Bang didn’t create them. Well, they were formed from generations of stars, with their immense pressures and temperatures, supernovas and dying and rebirth of new stars…

All of that is to say that with similarly ‘light elements’ under the right conditions, Simpson is also able to achieve a kind of fusion, where from seemingly nothing is created an entire piece of music, like the first symphony from over a year ago, or this quartet, and that is yet another element of the dramatic growth and power that Simpson’s music possesses. He is a quintessential musical dramatist, not only a composer of exceptional skill but a storyteller who manages tension and release with great effect.

But fascinatingly, that doesn’t just happen in this work alone. As discussed, this is a trilogy of sorts. We finished this work in A minor, which conquered the major key, and as we shall see tomorrow, it’s a kind of setup for the beginning of the third quartet, written the following year. Please stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading.

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