Simpson Symphony no. 2

performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Vernon Handley

(Very unfortunately no YouTube today, but if you have even the slightest inkling of interest, go buy this album, on which also appears the fourth symphony. It’s superb.)

(cover image by Abigail Keenan)

In a symphony, the internal activity is fluid, organic; action is the dominant factor, through and through. At the end of a great symphony, there is the sense that the music has grown by the interpenetrative activity of all its constituent elements. Nothing is ever allowed to lapse into aimlessness, or the kind of inactivity that needs artificial reviving…

Robert Simpson

If you enjoyed, or were at least intrigued by Simpson’s first symphony already more than a year ago, then get ready. His second, while still containing the characteristic intensity and forcefulness, the passion, of all of Simpson’s work, I find it to be a clearly more mature composition. It’s not necessarily more daring or anything, but cleaner, more focused and vivid.

The second symphony was completed in 1956 and dedicated to Anthony Bernard, conductor of the London Chamber Orchestra. The premiere performance, however, was not given until the following year, and by the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli. The work is in three movements, and lasts about a half hour.

We thankfully have more program notes from Matthew Taylor at Hyperion for this work as well. He mentions at the beginning a correlation to Beethoven’s early symphonies, that Simpson uses in this work the same Classical forces that Beethoven used for his first two:

double wood wind, pairs of horns and trumpets, timpani and strings. The composer has stipulated that high D trumpets must be used rather than the more customary B flat instruments.

Unlike the first symphony, in three movements or sections that are interconnected, we have three movements here that are actually separated by pauses, in a fast-slow-fast pattern.

  1. Allegro grazioso 
  2. Largo cantabile
  3. Non troppo allegro, ma con brio

We also see a continued application of the same means Simpson used in his quartets (go read those articles if you haven’t), and Taylor makes note of this as well:

As with Simpson’s first three string quartets which immediately preceded it, the Second Symphony shows a profoundly original treatment of ‘progressive’ or ’emergent’ tonality whereby the music is driven forward by two or more conflicting keys. Here the tonal centre is B with a strong pull towards the two keys a major third above and below, E flat and G.

The first movement begins and ends on B, the ‘home’ of the work, but has climaxes in both E flat and G. It begins as if in a peaceful, still mist, but quickly grows in typical Simpson manner, with monumental force. An advantage to the transparency and clarity of Simpson’s writing is that the themes stand out so clearly. We know when we hear a theme. After a few listens, it’s very easy to hear the same theme connect a movement or entire work.

In this work, as in much of Simpson’s pieces, there is no blocking off of sections or segments. Rather, things lead into and out of one another with fascinating swiftness or delicacy. We don’t hear ‘A part and ‘B part’ in some contrived manner, but a continual evolution, an organic growth. In this movement, there are fugato string-heavy passages, contrasting with woodwinds, and returns to the opening theme at the end, which builds magnificent momentum, climaxing with intense pauses and strokes of timpani. Do you hear Beethoven in this? I do.

The second movement is a theme with 13 variations, but it’s more than just that. Simpson, as we shall see much later in our discussion of his works, has an affinity for palindromes, where a musical line, or even entire passage, is reversed, and we have that in this work, where (with the exception of the final five bars) the entire work is palindromic. At the center of this construction, like the reflection of a shimmery, still lake, is a quiet passage, marked pianissimo. It creates a serene stillness, a kind of privacy in contrast with the magnificent punch of the outer movements. You can hear this in the two powerful climaxes on either side of this serene, reflective passages, brass calling out to mark these high points. One is a reflection of the other, and the overall tension in this movement is not from momentum, or pounding forcefulness, but an incredible latent energy that is only released, like the splitting of an atom, in the final movement.

The finale roars and kicks, returning to the key of B. It’s rhythmic and muscly, limber. Beethoven’s Classical forces are used to incredible effect, generating magnificent force in Simpson’s hands. It’s a force that’s different from, say, Bruckner, who (especially under Celibidache’s baton) can be immensely weighty but also almost a bit unwieldy. Simpson’s heft, however, is lithe and responsive, buzzing with life. We have the same two climaxes, like the towers of an enormous suspension bridge, and like Beethoven would do, it takes Simpson a little time to get around back to B, through different means and explorations, to finish off where we should, and the movement closes abruptly.

Even if we don’t understand all the tonal conflicts and resolutions and key areas and all that, and you certainly might not, it’s still a thrilling ride, possessive of immense energy. In fact, it possesses many of the same qualities that his quartets do, in the way they’re developed and put into motion, but rather than the raw intimacy of a quartet, we have this roaring, purring machine of an orchestra. His words that open this article couldn’t be any better illustrated than with a piece like this.

Again, with Simpson as a consummate dramatist. There’s such contrast between movements, with the power and even bombast of the outer movements with the latent energy, the palpable tension, of the central movement, but how they all form part of a greater, very solid whole. As Simpson described above, there is in this work not a single ounce of slack, nothing needing trimming or reviving. It’s lean an agile, a thrilling symphony from a composer who thankfully wrote a total of 11.

We’ll get around to those eventually, but I have other things planned for now, so do please stay tuned, and thank you so very much for reading.

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