Simpson Symphony no. 4

performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Vernon Handley, available on iTunes or Hyperion

(cover image by Robson Hatsukami Morgan)

Simpson’s fourth symphony is a wonderful piece, which is an understatement, and probably one of his most famous, most recorded, and probably most traditional works. Work on the piece was begun in 1970, completed in 1972. It was a commission by The Hallé, a Mancunian orchestra, who premiered it the year after its completion, on April 6, 1973.

I say it’s the composer’s most traditional, but I could be wrong. It’s certainly the most traditional of his that we’ve discussed, and Wikipedia reminds us that it is his first four-movement symphony. In fact, if memory serves, only his fourth, eighth, and tenth are in four movements. (We’ll get around to the others in due course, obviously.) That being said, Wiki also tells us that the fourth is “the only one consciously ‘classical’ in layout,” which to me really does call Beethoven to mind for how classical (not Classical era; maybe I should say traditional) and vibrant and energetic it is.

The work’s four movements are as follows, with a total playing time of around 46 minutes:

  1. Allegro moderato
  2. Presto
  3. Andante
  4. Allegro vivace

That layout alone should tell you that the piece is at least on paper very traditionally laid out. Interestingly, anyone who read last week’s article on Simpson’s fourth string quartet will know that it begins a cycle of three quartets sort of… inspired by Beethoven’s three op. 59 quartets; this work predates those just by a bit, and either I read it somewhere or have just always felt like this work really does seem like his most Beethovenian symphony. Coincidence? Maybe.

As always with Simpson, there’s this sort of snowball effect, where something small and innocuous happens or appears or begins to move, commencing a journey of force and excitement and intensity that is really of the highest musical caliber. Of course, this piece is no different.

Matthew Taylor, who we almost always quote in Simpson articles, says that:

Simpson’s No 4 is a classical E flat Symphony, so much so that the Scherzo and slow movement are in the dominant and subdominant keys respectively, whilst the outer movements are firmly rooted in E flat.

Yet more reason for the traditional feel of the piece, even if that sounds a bit pedantic or technical for you. None of Simpson’s symphonies, I think, actually carry a key (like Beethoven’s symphonies in E flat, or C minor, etc.), but they do tend to center around the struggle between two keys (the third, for example, if I remember correctly, generating its conflict from the struggle between C and B flat). Here, though, as Taylor says, we have a four-movement work where everything relates to E flat. Not only are the first and final movements (standardly) in the ‘home key,’ the central movements are in keys related to that one.

Listen in the opening for the strands of ideas, really like DNA, that Simpson lays out, like dealing out cards on a table before the magic begins. I’d almost suggest listening repeatedly to the first minute or so of this movement, actually exactly a minute (in the Handley recording). You hear the basic ideas, like Taylor says, the emphasis on the interval of a perfect fourth, immediately heard in violins and cellos; pay attention to the shapes, the (it sounds obvious) patterns of the phrases, and you’ll have a good idea of what this first movement is about.

By the end of that first minute, more instruments have contributed to this growing idea. There’s a springy dotted figure, a phrase ending with a strong triplet figure, and more. Taylor tells us that “This is not a sonata-allegro in the traditional sense, but the initial statement does reappear frequently as the music continually evolves and develops,” so rather than trying to dissect specific themes, just see if you can follow how the movement grows. It’s very approachable, to me, in that it sweeps you along in the same way a Beethoven symphony does. What fascinates me is how a movement centered on such simple ideas can unfurl the way this one does; even if it doesn’t cover much ground, it still does so colorfully and with power.

The second movement presto is Simpson’s first proper symphonic scherzo, but there are at least… sort of scherzo-ish passages in previous symphonies, maybe really mostly just in the third, but here we have one decked out and dressed up in the shape and form of a true symphonic scherzo, and how glorious it is! It’s actually by some margin the longest movement in this symphony, and is set up by the kind of odd close of the first movement.

It packs, from the opening bars, the kind of explosive punch that I find so breathtaking in Simpson’s work, but here, instead of being an exploration of a compelling musical idea, like a palindrome, or a specific interval (which we do already have, mind you), we have what could sound to the average listener like a plain old scherzo, concerned with nothing but triple-meter bounce and roar. And that’s fine. Just listen! It’s playful, bouncy, but at times also imposingly powerful. The atmosphere and duration of the movement together make this feel very much like the centerpiece of the work, underlining the traditional symphonic form this work takes overall.

I won’t say anything more specifically about this scherzo except that it is a superb example of Simpson’s outstanding skill as an orchestrator, handling a large-scale ensemble with such power and color and clarity. If you don’t like (as in, haven’t yet come to like) any of his other work, this very Beethoven-esque scherzo should help to convince you. In fact, Taylor brings out a very clear parallel to a specific Beethoven symphony, one which should be almost glaringly obvious, the ninth:

… the influence of Beethoven is felt, in this case the ‘Molto vivace’ from the Ninth Symphony. Both works adopt a vigorous one-in-a-bar pulse, are cast in fully developed sonata form, with the first part repeated, and are examples of the most massive orchestral scherzi in symphonic literature.

As if the scherzo weren’t fulfilling enough, Simpson goes on to quote Haydn in the trio, which fights against some hefty interruptions and leads back to the scherzo, which itself presents some new content. Quite an exciting 14 minutes.

The andante is suddenly melancholy, almost incongruously different from the scherzo, and brings us a somber cello solo that might bring to mind (it did for me, if only in atmosphere) Sibelius’ fourth symphony, or maybe one of the more placid-yet-still-unsettling moments of a Shostakovich symphony. It’s even at times a bit cinematic. Listen for a few points where the key or chord progression or something sounds like it’s going to jump right back into the scherzo. Even if you don’t have perfect pitch, that ‘color’ or sound may stick in your ear enough to convey the connection between the movements. In fact, the movement does generate a little more motion, but its climax is warm and round rather than aggressive.

The quiet tail end of the andante leads without pause into the finale, giving us an obvious link, but almost immediately delves back into the same sort of liveliness as the scherzo, as it is itself also (or at least begins in) triple meter. Taylor calls this movement “for the most part a free recapitulation of the first movement, though now converted into a swinging, triple-time metre.” We’re working with the same nuts and bolts here, primarily featuring the perfect fourth, but even the orchestration, with vivid orchestral color and brilliant orchestral (usually brass or percussion) outbursts, hearkens back to the first movement.

The constant use of similar ideas may seem like it could be really very dull after a short while, but Simpson proves otherwise. This movement, to me, is really the synthesis of everything that came before it. The first movement meditated on Simpson’s initial ideas and motivations for this symphony, and the scherzo gave us a roaring homage to Beethoven, and the andante gives us time to digest and savor.

Here, though, we have the lingering spirit of Beethoven in a fully Simpsonian construction, as if the intent of the first movement has now reached its full potential. Can you just hear all of that? Even Haydn, as Taylor says, makes a bit of a return, saying that the coda “begins with a delightful, innocent, waltz-like tune on second violins, demonstrating a supreme gift for melodic simplicity and directness that Haydn would surely admire.”

No matter what Haydn would think of it, the symphony breaks down, reassembles and constantly shifts the material we’ve hopefully come to identify as its building blocks, and builds to a truly stellar, monumental climax in which “the final bars blast out a powerful transformation of the Symphony’s opening phrase.” It’s like the most fulfilling but also… logical, obvious conclusion to this work, tying everything back together in the most satisfying way.

There’s just so much here to enjoy, but this


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