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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

ROBERT SIMPSON LECTURE by Malcolm MacDonald

WIGMORE HALL, 15 MARCH 2000

It’s a bit difficult to know at what level to pitch this lecture. No doubt some of you are members of the Robert Simpson Society, and know all there is to know about him anyway, while probably some others of you aren’t very familiar with his music and have simply come along out of curiosity, to learn a few basic facts about a composer whose name and work are, sadly, even now, not as well known as they deserve. I’m proud of the fact that I knew Bob (as anyone who knew him must call him), and I counted him as a friend, though we didn’t meet all that frequently. He was enormously helpful to me as I was starting out as a writer on music: in fact, directly or indirectly he got me my first writing jobs, and my first commissions to write books, and I’ll never cease to be grateful to him for thinking me worth that sort of encouragement. I sometimes suspect he later thought that, as an editor of a contemporary music magazine, I devoted too much of my time to music he considered second-rate, or worse. Though perhaps I’m wrong: his own tastes and sympathies and tolerances were a lot wider than he himself would sometimes paint them.

So let me say right away that my own attitude to Simpson’s music is unequivocal – he was one of the most important composers anywhere in the world in the second half of the 20th century, and his works – most notably his symphonies and string quartets – represent a vital stage in the ongoing history of those great forms. To some extent he could be said to have reinforced the classical principles of tonality and musical momentum, but though his gods were Haydn and Beethoven, Bruckner and Nielsen, he wasn’t really a conservative or backward-looking composer. He was carrying things forward, attempting to continue the complex and meaningful discourse which typifies those composers at a similar level of seriousness, profundity and absolute respect for the fundamentals of musical art. It’s always appropriate to review what we know about such a composer, even at the most basic biographical and informational levels, to be sure we know what we think we know. So I’ll start by giving a biographical outline, then I’ll move on to say a bit about his symphonic music, which I imagine is the best-known and perhaps the most important part of his output, and finally I’ll look in some more detail at his chamber music, especially his string quartets, as is appropriate in the context of this Wigmore Hall series. But first, some music:

[Slow movt of Quartet No.5 – to about 3’15"]

That wasn’t something you’ll be hearing during this series – it’s part of the slow movement of Robert Simpson’s Fifth String Quartet, of 1974, and I play it just now – well, because, it’s good to hear music instead of talk, and because it may concentrate our minds on the truth, which it makes self-evident, that here was a composer who – whatever history’s ultimate verdict on his music may be – who spoke in music with the kind of utter certainty and emotional truth as the great masters.

Robert Simpson was born in 1921, in Leamington Spa. If that makes him sound quintessentially English, we should note that his descent on his father’s side was Scottish, and on his mother’s, Dutch. I’m really no friend of theories of racial influence in music and personality, but there were aspects of his humour, and of his uncompromising dedication to matters of principle, that sometimes seemed very ‘un-English’ and more Nordic or Central European. Unusually for a composer, he didn’t really play the piano, or a string instrument – all the more astonishing considering his output of string quartets. He did, in his youth, play the trumpet, and the experience probably left its mark: everybody’s noted the boldness of his brass writing, and he composed several weighty and virtuosic pieces for brass band. A forebear on his father’s side was Sir James Simpson, the Scottish pioneer of anaesthetics, and his parents intended him for a medical career. He did, in fact, study medicine in London for two years before the war, before the lure of music proved too strong. He wrote four symphonies, the first of them while he was still at school, before his official First in 1951.

Simpson was always a pugnacious pacifist. During World War II he was a conscientious objector, and throughout the Blitz he served with an ARP mobile surgical unit, no doubt because of his medical training. It was during a bombing raid that he met his first wife, sitting in a graveyard. She’d just lost her home and family. He took her home with him, and they were inseparable ever afterwards. At the same time, he was taking lessons in composition from Herbert Howells.

After the war Simpson lectured extensively and founded the Exploratory Concerts Society. He was one of a rising generation of musical commentators that also included Donald Mitchell and Hans Keller, whose magazine Music Survey he contributed to, although his principal musical sympathies lay in a different direction to theirs. The first major expression of Simpson’s distinctive musical approach and opinions was his pioneering book on Carl Nielsen (1952), which virtually introduced the Danish master to English-speaking audiences and remains, even today, the standard guide to his symphonies.

Meanwhile Howells had persuaded Simpson to take the Durham Bachelor of music degree and, in 1951, a doctorate. He submitted as his thesis his First Symphony, which was later recorded under the auspices of the British Council. From the very first bars there’s a sense of an original voice making a decisive, indeed a trenchant statement, starting with a piercing blast on the high D trumpets:

[Example: Symphony No.1, opening (just over 2’00")]

That year Simpson joined the BBC music staff. He became one of its best-known and most respected music producers, working closely with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult. He was also a master practitioner of the art of the broadcast talk, with a rare ability to communicate to listeners both the human power and technical processes of great music.

He was convinced that respect was often lazily accorded to music on the strength of received reputations, so he devised the long-running programme series The Innocent Ear, where the composer's identity was only revealed after the works had been played. He championed unfashionable figures, notably Havergal Brian, of whose genius he was convinced and whose entire 32 symphonies he eventually succeeded in broadcasting.

Simpson often said, however (he certainly said it to me) that ultimately each century produced only a few composers worth bothering about, and he felt he learned far more from his personal favourites - above all, Beethoven and Haydn - than from any contemporary. This conviction infused his writing, which included short monographs on the Beethoven symphonies and on Sibelius and Nielsen, and his classic study The Essence of Bruckner. And his own music - while sometimes highly dissonant in its vocabulary - sought to renew the classical tradition of a dynamic architecture built on the gravitational power of tonality, and to recapture the Beethovenian sense of purposeful human momentum.

Steeped in such precepts, perhaps encouraged by contemplation of the motion of the spheres - he was a keen amateur astronomer who rose, unusually for any amateur, to become a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society - Simpson naturally thought in large spans, which build organically by the growth of tiny basic cells, as a hundred-foot Giant redwood grows from a tiny seedling. Several works are cast in a single movement whose slow and fast tempi are contrasted expressions of a single underlying pulse. The progress of the music can seem glacially slow, like the ineluctable patient wheeling of the night sky as the Earth revolves on its axis – or it can have a tremendous rhythmic vigour, with a torrential momentum seldom heard in music since the time of Beethoven himself. Here’s an example of that from the Fifth Symphony, of 1972: let me warn you this example is quite long, and gets very loud.

[Example: Symphony No.5 (track 17 from about 9’00" – could go 4’00"!]

I didn’t have access to a cassette-recorder that would allow me to fade out my examples when I was preparing for this lecture, and it really brought home to me how difficult it is to cut Simpson’s music at any but the most major structural divisions. It’s the reverse of bitty or episodic – it’s seamless, continuous, without breaks, conceived in huge spans. It’s violent, or at least very angry, in mood, but the anger isn’t destructive, it’s channelled into a tremendous driving force, and the paradoxical result is that it begets an amazing sense of exhilaration. For all its grimness and dissonance I have to say that, for me, that is one of the glorious passages in late 20th-century music. And you have to balance that against the fact that less than two years later, the same composer wrote the extremely beautiful, serene adagio of the Fifth Quartet which I played a little earlier. They stand almost as expressive opposites, but Simpson’s musical personality encompassed them both.

I think it’s true to say that he was radically uninterested in trends or fashions. He composed principally in the great classical forms: 11 symphonies, 15 string quartets, as well as concertos and sonatas. He was also a master of variation: his Ninth Quartet encompasses 32 (palindromic) variations on a theme of Haydn, while quartets 4-6 are personal variations upon the background of Beethoven's three Rasumovsky Quartets. He wrote no opera, and indeed hardly any vocal music, but there’s a handful of significant works for piano and organ, and as I’ve already mentioned there’s a notable group of virtuoso pieces for brass band. He characterized himself not so much as an optimist as a "ferocious anti-pessimist"; and, whether contemplative or muscularly energetic, his work is always fundamentally positive in its effect. He used to say a composer ought to spread some sanity around him. He also maintained that children should be taught scepticism at school.

Popular with musicians, endlessly helpful to ordinary music-lovers, Simpson was no respecter of authority and was a man of unaccommodating principle. In the later part of his BBC career he frequently clashed with management: in the 1970s, for instance, he was one of the leaders of a famous producers’ revolt over the proposed axing of five of the eleven BBC house orchestras. During the 1980 musicians' strike - which caused the cancellation of that year's Proms - he resigned from the Corporation, publicly alleging, in a letter to the Times, a "degeneration of traditional BBC values in the scramble for ratings". He was bare retiral age anyway, but it was typical of the man that he resigned on an issue of deeply-held principle, even though if he’d hung on for just a few more months he’d have qualified for a full BBC pension. Subsequently he published a very lively little book, The Proms and Natural Justice, in which he deplored the system by which over-mighty music controllers could determine the repertoire to be played at the Proms for over-extended periods. Simpson was deeply unhappy about the way his BBC career ended but, as years went on, he felt eminently justified by the continuing slide into mediocrity of what he once called "a very Kremlinesque organization".

After his first wife's death, he married Angela Musgrave, his faithful indispensable assistant in his BBC years, and was cheered by the growing public reception of his work. But as an instinctive socialist, he abominated the ethos of Thatcher's Britain and in 1986 he could stand it no longer: he moved to Ireland, settling in a beautiful location on Tralee Bay in County Kerry – where he wrote his last works, and seeming to get more and more productive with each year that passed.

Only five years later, however, while on a lecture tour in England, Simpson suffered a severe stroke. By very bad luck, it caused irreparable damage to the pain-centre of the brain, which left him in more or less constant, debilitating pain, impervious to therapy or painkillers. He never recovered the use of his affected limbs. Although he remained mentally alert, further composition proved a physical impossibility, though with great effort he managed to dictate the bleak ending of his String Quintet No. 2 in 1994 (That’s the work that’s being performed on March 29th). He died in November 1997 – and those of us who felt in any way close to him, either in reality or in our vicarious imaginations, miss his presence very much indeed.

Simpson is best known as a writer of symphonies. There’s good reason for this. His symphonic works are strikingly original, inventive and powerful in expression – they immediately impress audiences in the large, public environment of the concert hall and they have a highly distinctive personality: I think the examples I played from Nos. 1 and 5 show that well enough. He wrote 11 symphonies in all: It’s an imposing oeuvre that makes a definite, downright statement about the continuing validity and meaning of a great traditional musical form.

But his approach to form wasn’t in any sense conservative. One of the great qualities about Simpson’s music, it seems to me, is his continual concern with how musical structures and designs should grow out of their basic materials of tones and intervals, and the new and different shapes they can assume. This is, if I may make a cruel and sweeping distinction, what separates the serious composer from the dilettante: Respect for the Material, allowing the work to grow from the inside, and respect also for the hard work necessary to facilitate that growth. Redlichkeit im Handwerk, as I think it was Schoenberg used to say. Nothing is imposed from the outside; above all there’s no programme or political or parodic or ironic interpretation that can be easily evoked to shore up a bit of jerry-built note-spinning. Of course Simpson was passionately interested in the world outside him, held very strong political convictions, and wasn’t above guiding a symphony’s development according to a programmatic idea – IF it was an idea that suggested a fruitful line of musical development that was congenial to his concern with growth, continuity, energy.

His first brass-band piece is called Energy. Subsequent ones have titles like Vortex and Volcano, so as you can see he was deeply interested in powerful processes in the natural world. But he was just as interested in people and human character. Another brass piece is a suite, The Four Temperaments, which emulates, though entirely in Simpson’s own language, the idea of character-portraits of contrasting human types which his hero, Carl Nielsen, had previously essayed in one of his symphonies. And one of Simpson’s most fascinating and challenging symphonies, No.6 of 1977, which is dedicated to a distinguished gynaecologist, emulates in its processes the idea of conception, the growth of the embryo up to the moment of birth – ‘contractions and all’ said the composer – and then the further growth of the young human being to full vigour. Though I don’t think he was thinking of this, the work is a kind of opposite to Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration Birth and Individuation, so to speak. And the musical result is that you get a work in a single movement in two more or less equal halves, the first part preludial and of gradual growth, the second part a typically determined, constructive Allegro, and between them a tremendous central climax – the ‘moment of birth’ – which sets the Allegro off into motion. He probably didn’t think of this analogy either, but in a way it’s like the first movement of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, though on a much larger scale, the first half gradually accumulating substance and building up to that grand central moment out of which the fleet, scherzo-like development takes wing.

So Simpson had no set notions about what constituted symphonic form. (He had strong ideas about what made Symphony a Symphony, but that’s another matter.) Of his eleven symphonies, only three are in the ‘conventional’ four movements: and two of those, Nos. 8 and 10, are among his toughest pieces to understand. He liked works in contrasting halves, negative and positive, slow and fast, mysterious and energetic: I’m sure the example of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony, perhaps the first great symphonic masterpiece planned in only two movements, was one he took infinite inspiration from. He liked three-part designs, partly I think from the aspect of symmetry, and partly because if the first and third part of a piece are closely related in mood or material, while the second part is highly contrasting, the contrast is set within a wider context of motion and expression, you get more of the sense of a foreground and background, of differing points of view, differences in consciousness – and these were issues he thought about and cared about.

But the two parts or three parts needn’t be three separate movements, though Symphony No.2 has indeed three movements, and Symphony No.3 and Symphony No.11 have two movements each. Simpson was especially prolific in writing pieces in one movement, and that movement subsuming into itself two or three or more parts. The Sixth Symphony, which I’ve just described to you, is a two-in-one kind of design, the First Symphony is three-in-one, the Fifth Symphony, from which I played that big extract, is a kind of symmetrical arch, five main parts, mirrored from a central point. And the Seventh and Ninth Symphonies are also big single movements that prove to have a natural three-part shape to them – though the Ninth, which lasts for 50 minutes without a break, can be read in more than one way, and some may prefer to see it as a work of two vast halves, hinged upon a shorter scherzo. We like to call things with big single movements ‘monolithic’, like a great block of stone, all the same substance or element, as you find in ancient standing-stones or that enigmatic block of material in the film 2001. But I feel maybe we should be referring to three-in-one designs as ‘trilithons’, like those great structures at Stonehenge, one huge menhir laid horizontally across two vertical ones, like a gateway – perhaps, in view of the astronomical use of such ancient sites, and I hope it’s an image Simpson would have approved – a gateway for the sun and stars.

I’m going to play a part, not of the Ninth but of the Seventh Symphony. This is a genuine three-in-one design, with fast outer portions and a central slow movement; and here’s part of the slow movement. In contrast to that fiery Allegro from the Fifth Symphony I played you earlier, it’s very intimate music despite its symphonic scale, a landscape with a solitary, contemplative figure. Note, by the way, the extraordinary economy of it all, the way everything is spun out of a figure of three notes. This is another longish passage, and here it may seem that nothing very much is happening, but then it’s music that seems to have all the time in the world, and your ears need to adjust to its chiaroscuro of colour, just as your eyes need time to adjust to twilight.

Symphony No.7 – track 18 (4’10") and perhaps a little beyond.]

Although Simpson was by any measure a major symphonist, his first love was chamber music – especially the string quartet. He often said if he was compelled to write only one kind of music he would choose the string quartet. His quartets are more numerous than his symphonies – 15 in all - and they’re no less precious a creative legacy. Indeed the Quartets have perhaps even greater claim to contain his most distinctive musical thought: here, more than anywhere else, we find the essential Robert Simpson.

He acknowledged fifteen quartets – the same number as Shostakovich, and only one less than Beethoven. If we add to that total, as we should, his two String Quintets and his String Trio, that’s eighteen works of string chamber music. And there’s one other work of Simpson’s maturity that we can fairly describe as a major feat of string-quartet writing, namely his transcription for String Quartet of J.S. Bach’s Art of Fugue, with the completion by Donald Tovey.

Fifteen may be a smaller number than the eighty-odd quartets by Haydn, but it’s still hard to hold such a lengthy sequence of works in the mind as individual creations. With Beethoven, of course, we tend to divide his output into three stages, ‘early, middle, and late’, but that scheme doesn’t really work with Simpson. It’s sometimes said that his quartets span his whole composing life, but that isn’t entirely true. He may have thought about quartets all the time. But in fact he wrote Quartets 1 to 3 very rapidly, in his early thirties, in 1951 to 1954, and then there was a gap of 20 years until Quartets 4 to 6 emerged, again very quickly, in his early fifties, in 1973-4. His early symphonies, written at progressively longer intervals, spanned that gap more effectively. However after Quartet No.6, a new quartet emerged every two or three years, with a definite quickening of activity, in this as in all compositional fields, after Simpson resigned from the BBC in 1981 and could devote as much time as he needed to producing his own music. The last three quartets, Nos.13 to 15, again appeared in a short time, in three successive years. We can regard Quartets 1-3 as his ‘early period’, if we wish; and certainly Nos.4-6 initiate a much later ‘middle period’ just as Beethoven’s Rasumovskys did. But there’s no obvious further division, and no sense that the last quartets are in any way valedictory: the ‘middle period’ is still extending, and growing into the wisdom of age, when the creative flow is cut off.

But it may at least help us chart that flow more clearly if we think of Simpson’s fifteen quartets in five groups of three: that seems to be their internal rhythm, so to speak. Certainly the first six quartets form two very clearly defined groups. Dr Simpson himself said of Numbers 1 to 3 that though they ‘were not consciously designed as a group, they nevertheless seem to fall into a natural sequence’. Numbers 4 to 6, on the other hand, were consciously designed as a triptych, since they were conceived as extended variations upon the three Beethoven Rasumovsky Quartets – so they’re "Simpson’s Rasumovskys" in more senses than one.

After that there were no further intentional groupings, but it seems to me that in Quartets 7 to 9, and again in Numbers 10 to 12, you have an initial, highly contrasting pair of quartets – 7 and 8, 10 and 11- almost conceived as opposites, or as thesis and antithesis. And in each case the result is a larger third quartet – 9 and 12 – which subsumes aspects of the other two and transcends them, creating something new and unexpected from common elements. Admittedly Quartet No.9 is unique in Simpson’s output, in its vast size and its formal design as 32 Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Haydn: yet it does seem a necessary outcome of the contrasting aspects of Quartets 7 and 8 – the cosmic contemplation of No.7 and the near-classicism of No.8; just as No.12 is more obviously the synthesis of the divergent impulses of Nos.10 and 11 – No.10 entitled For Peace and No.11 a tough, sinewy, argumentative work.

And finally Quartets 13 to 15 form a new kind of ‘classical’ group, almost like another Razumovsky sequence, but on a smaller scale and without any obvious reference to Beethoven originals. The two one-movement quartets, 13 and 15, flank No.14 which is in the classical four-movement form; but they themselves are so clearly defined in their subsections (four in No.13, three in No.15) that they suggest a classicality of design that’s taken up into the onward flow of musical invention.

If I have a grumble about this Wigmore Hall series containing five examples of Simpson’s string chamber music – and of course one should hardly be complaining, it’s welcome enough to find any sustained attention being cast upon Simpson’s output – it’s that four of those five works are among his shortest. These four – the Second, Seventh and Fifteenth Quartets and the Second Quintet – are also one-movement pieces, their argument being continuous and concise. It’s only in the last piece to be heard in this series, the Sixth Quartet, that you get a work in several movements, and on the large scale in which Simpson habitually wrote. Indeed, as I hope I’ve made clear by now, the sense of large scale, the ability to project an argument along imposing spans, is one of his characteristic qualities as a composer. But none of the works heard in this series could be described as ‘minor’. Simpson had that power of compression, of ferocious concision even, that we find in the great masters from Bach to Sibelius. There are no redundancies in his music, no padding. He had little interest in the colouristic and textural effects which some other masters have made the stock-in-trade of modern quartet-writing: no slap pizzicatos, no wild glissandi, no mistuning of the instruments, no playing on the wrong side of the bridge and with the wood of the bow – he doesn’t even use harmonics, as a rule, except for the natural ones obtainable from the strings without special fingering. I think he felt quite strongly that such things were decoration, or misdirection – they got in the way of the real stuff of the music. In Simpson, what you hear is what you get: music as substance, and that substance in motion, or finding rest, to create meaning. Objects in Motion; Objects at Rest (you can tell I’m a Babylon 5 fan).

Also, the four Simpson Quartets that are being played in this series each comes from a different one of these three-quartet groupings I spoke of: No.2 from his early trilogy, No.6 from his Rasumovskys, No.7 perhaps the work that initiates his later period, and No.15 – the quartet we’ll be hearing tonight – his last essay in the genre and very nearly his last work of all. He wrote only one piece after it, and that’s the Second String Quintet which is being played on March 29th.

So I’ll just say a little about these four quartets and the Quintet, taking them in chronological order rather than the order in which they’re being heard in the series. In the early part of his career Simpson enjoyed a close association with the violinist Ernest Element, leader of the Element String Quartet, who gave the premières of his first three string quartets. Quartet No.3 is dedicated to their violist, Dorothy Hemming, while Quartet No.2, which was played here last Saturday, is dedicated to the Element Quartet as a whole. As I’ve mentioned, these first three Simpson quartets, though not planned as such, came to form a kind of trilogy or triptych. Quartet No.2, as the central panel of that design, has an expressive argument of strenuous development that carries it from a mood of cheerful relaxation (in which Quartet No.1 had ended) to one of despondent melancholy (in which Quartet No.3 would open). Its an excellent example of Simpson writing a piece in a single movement that’s articulated by the idea of different speeds obtained through lengthening or shortening notes and phrases over a constant pulse, with the metronome mark at the start holding good until the end. Different characters and kinds of motion are thus created as different aspects of a single underlying tempo – this was to become one of Simpson’s compositional trademarks, whether in single movements or entire works.

There’s a carefree opening idea, like some kind of Haydnesque bird-imitation. But this immediately comes under attack from a sinister, swift-moving idea that starts with a low thrumming in the cello and then disappears as quickly as it arrived.

[Example: from opening to c.50"]

After this the carefree opening never really re-establishes itself. A third theme in a contrasting cantabile vein enters on Violin I, and these three ideas constitute the Quartet’s principal material. It’s among the most intense of Simpson’s essays in the form, as it’s also one of the most concise. Most of it is given over to development of the contrasting ideas, culminating in a fugato whose searching and abrasive qualities look forward to the Quartets of his later years. Every time the cheerful tune tries to take command it creates further tension with the other elements, engendering eventually a wild climax; and the end of the quartet is unmistakably tragic, with the appearance of a new, lamenting viola melody (which seems, in fact, to presage the opening of Quartet No.3).

Simpson is often celebrated as a renewer and continuer of the great classical traditions of tonal composition. But he’s also a modernist. His love and appreciation of Haydn and Beethoven allowed him to understand their music ‘from inside’ as very few other modern composers have, but he still viewed it from the perspective of a different century, and brought to it a critical knowledge of what had happened since, in music and in the world. On the most basic levels of melody and harmony, Simpson’s music could only have been written in the second half of the 20th century. These issues are raised in acute form in his Quartets Nos.4, 5 and 6, which followed his first three after a gap of nearly 20 years. Each is in the classical four-movement form, and on a very ample scale, approaching or surpassing 40 minutes’ duration. Form and scale are intimately connected with the fact that these three Quartets were conceived as counterparts of the three Rasumovsky Quartets of Beethoven. As Dr Simpson himself put it, they ‘constitute a close study’ of these particular Beethoven quartets. Now, these Quartets of Robert Simpson will certainly enhance our understanding of Beethoven’s Rasumovskys, if that’s what we want to use them for. But their primary purpose is simply to be real, magnificent music – Simpson’s music, not Beethoven’s. They’re satisfying and indeed enthralling musical creations absolutely in their own right, without any need of reference to Beethoven. They aren’t any kind of musicological treatise. We could say they carry the principle of Variation to an entirely new level, each Quartet being not a variation on a Beethoven theme, but on a whole pre-existing Beethoven Quartet. Simpson’s approach should remind us that all art is, ultimately, patterned energy, which awakens answering patterns on our pulses and our minds. What he does in Quartets 4- 6 is to find, in his own 20th-century language, patterns of energy that will affect us in ways comparable to Beethoven’s Rasumovskys.

When we come to the Sixth Quartet, the one modelled after Beethoven’s Third Rasumovsky, which is being performed at the Wigmore on April 12th, we find Beethoven’s original being treated with the greatest degree of freedom - though paradoxically the superficial resemblances are obvious. The result is a work that seems to mark a significant development in the evolution of his own musical language. As is well known, in the Third Rasumovsky Beethoven begins with an Introduction that concentrates on a tonally ambiguous dissonance – a diminished seventh – from which he opens up new harmonic vistas, leading into the main Allegro.

[Example: Beethoven – 1’00"]

and so on. Simpson felt he could no longer use a harmony as obvious as a diminished seventh, but he devised an equally ambiguous chord consisting of a pair of major seconds, widely separated by two octaves and a fifth. Strung out over these intervening octaves, the notes of the chord – A, D, G, C, reading downwards – give you a stack of perfect fifths that can move in many different tonal directions.

[Example: Simpson – to 1’16"]

The result is striking, but it’s utterly unlike Beethoven in sound, even if you notice a direct quotation from Beethoven in the cello. The music seems to grope towards the light, and it finds it in a rough triple-time dance, complete with allusions, not to Beethoven’s Third Rasumovsky, but rather to the famous dotted rhythms of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

Now that seed of harmony Simpson uses to start off the Sixth Quartet - its intervals reading downwards major second, major fourth with or without octave extension, and major second again, or rearranged into a chain of fifths – that interval collection comes to determine the course of the music in many ways. For example, there’s a lot of melodic doubling at the fifth, a sonority we find frequently in his later music. But the interval collection can also become a melodic motif, and even more importantly it acts as a harmonic ordering of contrapuntal material. All the other three movements begin with some form of melodic imitation, such as a fugato or a canon, and the four imitative voices will come in on pitches reflecting that initial dissonant harmony.

This process has sustained effect in the third movement of the Sixth Quartet. Beethoven’s third movement is a formalized Minuet, an unusual archaic survival in the context of the otherwise boldly symphonic idiom of the Rasumovskys. For the form of his movement Simpson goes even further back, to the strict counterpoint of Bach, and he writes, not a Minuet, but an elaborate and very ethereal double canon. It’s absolutely strict, and very resourceful in the way the two subjects, as they proceed in parallel, answer and mirror and share each other’s salient figures. But there’s no hint of archaism in the actual sound of it, for once again the four voices are separated by the interval structure of the seed chord, the four instruments entering once again in a descending order on A, G, D and C.

[Example: 55" (to fade)]

This process of obtaining a new harmonic direction through exploitation of a particular set of intervals is one that profoundly influenced Simpson’s later music, and for a composer whose name is associated with traditional tonal language it led him in some very unorthodox directions. He’d now more or less turned away from the ideas of ‘progressive tonality’ that he had found in Nielsen. In his later works it’s often a single pitch or group of pitches, an interval or group of intervals, rather than a key as such, that provides the listener’s ear with a firm reference point. The ear, however, always remained central to the entire process. As Simpson said of this canon in the Sixth Quartet, the strictness with which it follows a particular order of intervals had to be "a strictness in relation to fundamental and natural harmonic phenomena".

Quartet No.7, which will be heard here on April 1st, strikingly illustrates this new approach. In this work Simpson, a passionate amateur astronomer, celebrates the birth centenary of the distinguished astronomer Sir James Jeans. Utterly different in form from the three preceding Quartets, No.7 is in a single movement – indeed, like Quartet No.2, a movement with a single controlling pulse, where different tempi are suggested by the use of longer or shorter note-values. So in essence, this Quartet is a study in motion: Simpson suggested it could be seen as a metaphor for aspects of the universe as revealed to us by astronomy: something quiet and mysterious yet pulsating with energy. The music suggests vastness and slowness, yet it also hones in on objects moving, within that cosmic context, at unimaginable speeds. Though the Quartet begins and ends with the note D, repeated on the cello, it can hardly be said to be ‘in’ the key of D: rather Simpson uses the physical fact of the instruments’ tuning, with their open strings tuned in fifths, to enact a vast circle of fifths like a journey through successive fields of gravitation. Basically it falls into three spans, the outer ones slow, the central one a tremendous Vivace expressive of mighty elemental processes. Simpson’s by-now profound mastery of motion is clear in the way he moves from span to span, from slow to fast and back again.

Many works of subsequent exploration lie between that work and the Fifteenth and last Quartet – though of course Simpson had no thought it would be his last – of 1991. This is the work we’re hearing tonight and again this is very concise, in a single movement that nonetheless divides clearly into three different spans: it’s not so symmetrical in intention as No.7. It’s a tough, hard-bitten piece, which I personally find one of Simpson’s hardest and grimmest, not to say most enigmatic, quartets. The intervals from which it springs are unusually dissonant ones – minor sevenths and semitones – and it’s fascinating how much of the work grows from pairs of voices moving in contrary motion, or even mirroring each other, the upper voice falling while the lower voice rises, and vice versa.

[Example: from opening to 1’44"]

The main part of the Quartet is a big central scherzo marked – unusually but accurately – Severo, severe. The harmony in this movement is among the toughest, the most granitic, that Simpson had written. And the ending, too, is unusual for him. The final section is marked Allegretto, and it’s the first area of relaxation in the entire Quartet, beginning with a tender violin melody. Many of Simpson’s works bring clarity and sweetness out of struggle, often signalling the moment where this is achieved with a burst of lyric melody. But this time the piece doesn’t, as we might then expect, move to a quietly decisive end: instead it evanesces away into silence, without a resolution. I’m sure this reflects the fact that Simpson wished to return to the issues raised by this Fifteenth Quartet in the subsequent quartets he planned to write. And indeed I feel he did return to them in the one piece he wrote after this Quartet, namely the Second Quintet, which is being played here on March 29th.

In its severity of utterance, the Second Quintet seems very much a continuation of Quartet No.15. It’s entirely based on the melody heard at the outset – a duet for the two cellos which outlines the salient intervals of perfect fifth and tritone, both rising and falling. A single eventful movement grows pout of this opening. Essentially it divides into seven sections, alternating two contrasting (but not opposing) tempi: the Moderato of the beginning and an Allegro that sets in after the first few minutes. The four Moderato sections are interleaved with three Allegro ones: the Moderatos contain music of gaunt, intense polyphony, rather like a very severe modern version of a 17th-century fantasia for viols, while the Allegros are appropriately fleeter, more scherzo-like, though there is no lightening of mood throughout this deeply serious, formidably focussed piece. The effect is of two separate, but mutually enriching processes of development, proceeding in tandem to the explosive yet wintry climax of the third Allegro. Suddenly its energy seems to dissipate and the last Moderato begins as an intensified variation of the first, subsiding to a mood of bleak calm and a final, glacial sequence of chords which descend, in diminuendo, to extinction.

[Example: about 2’00"]

Those were the last bars Robert Simpson wrote, and he wrote them with immense effort, after his stroke. There is a sense of finality there, as I feel there isn’t after the previous Quartet. Some might say it’s a very bleak finality, and probably at the time he felt so too. But after all, he had also written, in the text for his motet Media morte in vita sumus – one of his very few vocal works – ‘All perceived human acts endure / through the generations. / Among his fellows no man can vanish / utterly, not even in death. / All human lives change others, and so through the generations.’ Robert Simpson’s music is a human act worthy of perception, if ever there was one. In Simpson’s Quartets, just as in those of Haydn or Beethoven, you feel yourself in touch with the absolute essence of music, without any distractions or double meanings or questions of style. It simply is, immovable and undeniable, with the physical and intellectual force of an absolute truth. © 2000

Malcolm MacDonald
Reprinted with permission

see also

Robert SIMPSON AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STRING QUARTETS An Illustrated Talk by Malcolm Macdonald £10.00 + 95p p&p (£8.00 + 70p p&p) from 2 Park Close, Glossop, Derbys. SK13 7RQ DUNELM RECORDS DRD 0110 (CD) (DR0110(mc) cassette) [67.00?]

Simpson’s quartets are much less frequently heard in live concerts than the Shostakovich or Bartók but they are a comparable achievement. This issue will, I hope, argue their case and is strongly recommended. … see Full Review

Peter Racine FRICKER (1920-1990) Symphony No.2 Op.14 (1951) Robert SIMPSON (1921-1997) Symphony No.1 (1951) Robin ORR (b.1909) Symphony in One Movement (1960-63) Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra Sir John Pritchard (Fricker) London Philharmonic Orchestra Sir Adrian Boult (Simpson) Royal Scottish National Orchestra Sir Alexander Gibson (Orr) Recorded in Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 13 and 14 August, 1954 (Fricker)* No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 24 and 27 January, 1956 (Simpson)* City Hall, Glasgow, Summer 1965 (Orr) *Mono ADD EMI BRITISH COMPOSERS 7243 5 75789 2 9 [72’17] [TH]

What some of the forgotten music of the post-war years actually sounds like. … see Full Review

SIMPSON, Robert. String Quartet no 14 and no 15; Quintet for clarinet, bass clarinet and string trio.    Joy Farrell (clarinet), Fiona Cross (bass clarinet), Vanburgh String Quartet.    Hyperion CDA66626 [DDD] [65' 38"].



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