Simpson Violin Concerto

performed by no one, at least not anymore

(cover image by Ira Selendripity)

This piece almost doesn’t exist.

In preparing this stretch of pieces for the Editor’s Choice series, I knew it would be difficult to find a recording of Simpson’s violin concerto because nothing immediately popped up on iTunes or Spotify. No bother, surely there’s something else out there. You’d be surprised what people are able to upload on YouTube. Also, Spotify’s search functions sometimes suck, with, say, the conductor or composer not listed as artist, or not appearing in search results. (This is indeed one of the reasons I was slow to convert to streaming services. I have spent far too many hours organizing my iTunes library so I could find exactly what I wanted given a specific set of criteria. Not so with Spotify.

That being said, Simpson has precious little on Spotify anyway, so it didn’t take long to dig through everything that was there. And what are we left with? Well, nothing. None of my auxiliary resources turned up anything: no forums, no previous AngelFire uploads, not even a service/publisher that charges for crappy archived recordings of radio broadcasts would reply to me requesting a very poor-quality copy of what must be the only recording and likely the only performance of Simpson’s violin concerto.

So then why are we here? I’ll admit to never having heard anything but a small snippet of the work, and in that small snippet, the soloist hadn’t even entered yet, not that I could discern from the garbled audio, anyway. And I’ll go even further to admit that I’ve given only a cursory (at best!) listen to the composer’s concertos for piano, cello and flute.

This article, then, is a placeholder.

Simpson dedicated the work to Ernest Element, eponymous member of the Element Quartet, to whom were dedicated the first three of Simpson’s string quartets. The violin concerto was premiered by Element at Birmingham Town Hall in 1960. Simpson wrote of him, per Wikipedia:

All musicians who worked with Ernest Element agree that he was a great artist…. But most of all I remember what this man showed me without effort – the supreme value of selflessness in art. This is what made him great.

The ‘service/publisher’ I mentioned above is Opera Passion, who carries what is probably the only recording here. The author of that page says:

As far as I know, this work was performed twice, once in concert and this BBC broadcast. It was then withdrawn by the composer, pending revision. However, he never got around to revising it. His publisher lists it as being available and, I am told, the manuscript survives.

This corroborates the two sentences Wikipedia gives it in the article on Simpson:

A work of some forty minutes, dedicated to the violinist Ernest Element, withdrawn by the composer late in his life. Matthew Taylor has reworked the work in order to fulfil Simpson’s original intentions, who had considered revising the work.

So there’s a duration, but nothing on movements.

The violin concerto was the first of his four concerti, the others being for, in chronological order, piano, flute, and cello. Wikipedia lists the work as dating from 1959, which would mean it came a few years before the third symphony.

I don’t really have much to say here except to raise the same question that I raised in the recent Schnittke article: what business do we have digging up pieces the composer him-or herself withdrew, or destroyed, or left incomplete? That last one is the easiest, I think. We are fortunate at least to have three movements of Bruckner’s ninth, and enough of Mahler’s 10th (depending on who you ask; we certainly have far less of Mozart’s requiem in his own hand) to produce a performing version. Sibelius’ 8th symphony, however, doesn’t fare so well, and ostensibly any printed version of it (he apparently had two made, I think) were destroyed.

What we have here, it seems, is just the question of who’s going to undertake the recording of the work, if the manuscript does indeed exist? Is there any way to know what changes the composer wanted to make to the piece? How long after its premiere did he withdraw the work? If it was anytime soon thereafter, and he sat on it for more than three decades, that says something about how pressing it was or how motivated he was. Were the revisions minor enough that they just weren’t important? Could we justifiably have a recording of the piece, even if it wasn’t what the composer ultimately wished it would be?

I don’t know. Maybe someday we’ll find out. Stay tuned later this week for another (real) article on a piece of Simpson’s that we do have a recording on, one that is arguably his most famous and oft-recorded. Thank you very much for reading.

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3 thoughts on “Simpson Violin Concerto

  1. Simpson himself grew to have a very low opinion of the piece as originally written (“composed by an orang-utan when I wasn’t looking”), so one has to imagine that any overhaul would have been drastic. Actually, though, none of the concerti are that easy to come by: the one for cello is on YouTube, but I had to go old skool with the one he wrote for the great-but-troubled pianist John Ogdon and track down a second-hand copy of a old, deleted BBC CD. Needless to say, it was well worth it!

      1. Full disclosure: I recently read The Power of Robert Simpson, his one-and-only biography to date, which is exhaustive in its depiction of the man, if not his music (the author is actually a painter).

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