Author Topic: Robert Simpson(1921-1997)  (Read 28351 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Offline Dundonnell

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 3599
  • Edmund Rubbra(1901-86)
Robert Simpson(1921-1997)
« on: March 25, 2008, 02:09:14 PM »
A number of members have referred recently in posts on other topics to the writings of the distinguished British composer Robert Simpson. Simpson's fine books on Bruckner and on Nielsen are outstanding contributions to the field of musical literature and have provided a great deal of insight and enjoyment to readers.

I thought that Simpson really does deserve a thread of his own! He was a man of the utmost integrity who did sterling work as a BBC music producer, refused to compromise his principles and spoke out in defence of those principles. He resigned from the BBC in protest against what we would now call "dumbing down" despite the fact that this resignation cost him a full BBC pension. The interest he showed in the music of Havergal Brian and his passionate support for the music of that previously neglected composer led to the performance and broadcasting of so many Brian symphonies during the 1970s.

As a composer, Simpson, was, I believe, a major figure in British music. The Hyperion record label did Simpson proud with its series devoted to his symphonies and string quartets. There are certainly many respected authorities who believe that the string quartets stand, alongside those by Shostakovich, as among the finest written in the 20th century.

The eleven symphonies are equally fine compositions of tremendous power and passion. Some are easier to grasp than others but no-one should have any difficulty with-for example-Nos. 1, 2 and 3. The first shows the influence of Carl Nielsen, one of Simpson's heroes. The 2nd has the most wonderful palindromic slow movement.

My own favourites however are the huge 4th(although I must admit to being disappointed that Simpson chose to radically revise the original slow movement!), the powerful 5th and 6th, and-of course-the 9th, a gigantic masterpiece of awe-inspiring power.

Simpson also wrote a number of concertos but only the Piano Concerto was(briefly) available on disc.

It always seemed to me that one of the reasons that Robert Simpson and Havergal Brian got on so well together was that they both had that strong streak of craggy individualism and gritty independence which contributed so much to character and which each man identified in the other's music.

I hope that one day Hyperion may be able to complete their Simpson collection.

Offline J.Z. Herrenberg

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 8707
  • William Havergal Brian, symphonist (1876-1972)
    • JZH Text Services
  • Location: Delft, Netherlands
  • Currently Listening to:
    Bruckner, Wagner, Brian, Bax, Dyson, Delius...
Re: Robert Simpson(1921-1997)
« Reply #1 on: March 25, 2008, 02:30:18 PM »
I admire Robert Simpson very much, as a composer, as a writer on music, and as a BBC producer with an adventurous streak, without whom there would be no 'Brian Renaissance' and, perhaps, no 'Indian Summer' for Havergal Brian, in which he composed 20 symphonies after the age of 80.

I say 'admire' on purpose. Because I don't 'love' Simpson's symphonies. That is not a sentiment they inspire in me. They are too elemental for that. The Ninth is, indeed, awe-inspiring. There are sounds there that you won't believe are possible, really 'cosmic' (and that is no exaggeration).

On a more critical note - I have also felt sometimes, listening to his music, that there was something of the laboratory about it. Experimentation and research behind glass. The human voice isn't behind his music. And there is not much Earth. Simpson is developmental, logical, and rather angry...

Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything. -- Plato

Offline Dundonnell

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 3599
  • Edmund Rubbra(1901-86)
Re: Robert Simpson(1921-1997)
« Reply #2 on: March 25, 2008, 03:18:22 PM »
I understand your reservations. There is, I suppose, a certain lack of warmth, an absence of much sense of humour, an academic rigour and grimness which might preclude love even if not admiration. I 'warm' more to the music of, say, Edmund Rubbra than I do to Simpson.

As powerful and immensely well-written essays in late 20th century symphonism Simpson does however I believe demonstrate that the symphony as a musical form need not disappear!

Offline J.Z. Herrenberg

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 8707
  • William Havergal Brian, symphonist (1876-1972)
    • JZH Text Services
  • Location: Delft, Netherlands
  • Currently Listening to:
    Bruckner, Wagner, Brian, Bax, Dyson, Delius...
Re: Robert Simpson(1921-1997)
« Reply #3 on: March 25, 2008, 03:37:55 PM »
As powerful and immensely well-written essays in late 20th century symphonism Simpson does however I believe demonstrate that the symphony as a musical form need not disappear!

I agree!

Some of Simpson's grimness may also stem from the feeling he must undoubtedly have had, of swimming against the (serial) tide. It's better for an artist to feel himself borne up. You need a very strong character to work in opposition to the times and still be fresh, generous, colourful and confident.
Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything. -- Plato

Offline Dundonnell

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 3599
  • Edmund Rubbra(1901-86)
Re: Robert Simpson(1921-1997)
« Reply #4 on: March 25, 2008, 03:55:47 PM »
I agree!

Some of Simpson's grimness may also stem from the feeling he must undoubtedly have had, of swimming against the (serial) tide. It's better for an artist to feel himself borne up. You need a very strong character to work in opposition to the times and still be fresh, generous, colourful and confident.

I am determined to resist the temptation to launch an attack on the late Sir William Glock, the BBC Controller of Music in the 1950s and 1960s!

Offline J.Z. Herrenberg

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 8707
  • William Havergal Brian, symphonist (1876-1972)
    • JZH Text Services
  • Location: Delft, Netherlands
  • Currently Listening to:
    Bruckner, Wagner, Brian, Bax, Dyson, Delius...
Re: Robert Simpson(1921-1997)
« Reply #5 on: March 25, 2008, 04:08:47 PM »
On 13 November 1998 I wrote the following about Brian vs Simpson:

Too little in Simpson of the messy business of being human. Whereas Brian is the Earth, sometimes looking upwards to watch the stars, Simpson wants to be those stars with their inhuman and inscrutable processes. Yes, he puts himself on the side of organic growth, but in humans subjectivity (a term of abuse to Simpson) sometimes rides rough-shod over all consistency. This you can hear in Brian. And that is why Brian, despite being less of a theorist about the Symphony, is the greater symphonist. Melody carries the stamp of the ego; it is this which Simpson eschews, it is this which makes his works, at their best, powerful and impressive, but also neutral and unmoving.
Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything. -- Plato

Offline Dundonnell

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 3599
  • Edmund Rubbra(1901-86)
Re: Robert Simpson(1921-1997)
« Reply #6 on: March 25, 2008, 04:26:44 PM »
On 13 November 1998 I wrote the following about Brian vs Simpson:

Too little in Simpson of the messy business of being human. Whereas Brian is the Earth, sometimes looking upwards to watch the stars, Simpson wants to be those stars with their inhuman and inscrutable processes. Yes, he puts himself on the side of organic growth, but in humans subjectivity (a term of abuse to Simpson) sometimes rides rough-shod over all consistency. This you can hear in Brian. And that is why Brian, despite being less of a theorist about the Symphony, is the greater symphonist. Melody carries the stamp of the ego; it is this which Simpson eschews, it is this which makes his works, at their best, powerful and impressive, but also neutral and unmoving.

Wow! That's good writing!

You seem to be of a similar mind to Mark Morris in 'The Pimlico Dictionary of Twentieth Century Composers'-a book I very much admire and find of very great use-even though I don't always agree with him(he is very dismissive of Tubin, Malcolm Arnold and George Lloyd, for example).

Morris says "...the spark that would give life to the music, and not mere existence, is, for whatever reason, missing". He praises Simpson's impeccable musical logic, his dark, rugged northern cast but laments a lack of memorable material, of emotional impact and describes Simpson's orchestral colour as dull.

No...I don't think I can go that far. And even if these criticisms are fair I can forgive a composer who could compose a symphony as gripping as the 9th.
I would compare Simpson with the highly esteemed Danish composer, Vagn Holmboe. There is probably more variety of light and colour in Holmboe's music but both are serious composers of genuine substance. Amongst all the dross in modern music of the late 20th century we should value those who could actually structure orchestral music into coherent form.

Oh...and I like Simpson's music...if that is not obvious!

Offline edward

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 3684
  • Hello, little man. I will destroy you.
Re: Robert Simpson(1921-1997)
« Reply #7 on: March 25, 2008, 04:30:05 PM »
I'd agree with the view espoused here that Simpson's music can be rather dry and austere (though often volcanic in its intensity). I find many of the symphonies command respect rather than admiration, but when Simpson's at his best (for me the 5th and 9th symphonies and some of the late chamber music) I find the music extremely compelling. The 11th symphony is interesting, too: the textures are airier, lighter, more transparent. I wish Simpson had had time to explore the direction promised in this work: I think it could have been very fruitful.
"I don't at all mind actively disliking a piece of contemporary music, but in order to feel happy about it I must consciously understand why I dislike it. Otherwise it remains in my mind as unfinished business."
 -- Aaron Copland, The Pleasures of Music

Offline Dundonnell

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 3599
  • Edmund Rubbra(1901-86)
Re: Robert Simpson(1921-1997)
« Reply #8 on: March 25, 2008, 04:33:45 PM »
I'd agree with the view espoused here that Simpson's music can be rather dry and austere (though often volcanic in its intensity). I find many of the symphonies command respect rather than admiration, but when Simpson's at his best (for me the 5th and 9th symphonies and some of the late chamber music) I find the music extremely compelling. The 11th symphony is interesting, too: the textures are airier, lighter, more transparent. I wish Simpson had had time to explore the direction promised in this work: I think it could have been very fruitful.

"volcanic" Good word! Very descriptive. I agree!

Good point about the 11th symphony! I suspect-although I do not know-that the late and unrecorded cello and flute concertos might be revealing of a different side to Simpson.

Offline some guy

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 1956
  • Location: Somewhere else
  • Currently Listening to:
    Music
Re: Robert Simpson(1921-1997)
« Reply #9 on: March 25, 2008, 04:39:41 PM »
Let's see now.

utmost integrity ... sterling work as a BBC music producer, refused to compromise his principles and spoke out in defence of those principles.

Why, that sounds like a description of Sir William Glock. Yes indeed, it does....

Offline Dundonnell

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 3599
  • Edmund Rubbra(1901-86)
Re: Robert Simpson(1921-1997)
« Reply #10 on: March 25, 2008, 04:55:31 PM »
Let's see now.

Why, that sounds like a description of Sir William Glock. Yes indeed, it does....

Oh, tempting, tempting!!

Glock did a fantastic amount of good work during his period at the BBC and as founder of the Dartington Hall summer music school. His advocacy of and the exposure he gave to a whole raft of modern composers at the Proms and in other BBC broadcasts brought the names and music of these composers to a much wider public. No one can or should take that away from him.....BUT the issue is one of balance.
The utter neglect of a generation of particularly British composers for whom Glock had absolutely no time at all is tragic. These composers were simply banished from the airwaves and-in some cases-totally from the consciousness of the British music public.

I don't doubt Glock's commitment to modern music, nor would I wish to question his integrity. I used to rant about his policies in the late 1960s and I don't want to start again now though! :)

Offline some guy

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 1956
  • Location: Somewhere else
  • Currently Listening to:
    Music
Re: Robert Simpson(1921-1997)
« Reply #11 on: March 25, 2008, 06:24:04 PM »
Well, I gave you your chance, and you spent it being gentlemanly and courteous and balanced and fair!

Where's the sport in that??

Anyway, sorry for interrupting. Now back to the late great Mr. Simpson.

DavidW

  • Guest
Re: Robert Simpson(1921-1997)
« Reply #12 on: March 26, 2008, 05:58:08 AM »
On 13 November 1998 I wrote the following about Brian vs Simpson:

Too little in Simpson of the messy business of being human. Whereas Brian is the Earth, sometimes looking upwards to watch the stars, Simpson wants to be those stars with their inhuman and inscrutable processes. Yes, he puts himself on the side of organic growth, but in humans subjectivity (a term of abuse to Simpson) sometimes rides rough-shod over all consistency. This you can hear in Brian. And that is why Brian, despite being less of a theorist about the Symphony, is the greater symphonist. Melody carries the stamp of the ego; it is this which Simpson eschews, it is this which makes his works, at their best, powerful and impressive, but also neutral and unmoving.

That's a load of crap.

Offline J.Z. Herrenberg

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 8707
  • William Havergal Brian, symphonist (1876-1972)
    • JZH Text Services
  • Location: Delft, Netherlands
  • Currently Listening to:
    Bruckner, Wagner, Brian, Bax, Dyson, Delius...
Re: Robert Simpson(1921-1997)
« Reply #13 on: March 26, 2008, 07:34:54 AM »
That's a load of crap.

Your sentence isn't even that. Please refute me.
Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything. -- Plato

DavidW

  • Guest
Re: Robert Simpson(1921-1997)
« Reply #14 on: March 26, 2008, 09:41:55 AM »
Your sentence isn't even that. Please refute me.

There is nothing to refute, it's not an argument it's a collection of metaphors.

Offline J.Z. Herrenberg

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 8707
  • William Havergal Brian, symphonist (1876-1972)
    • JZH Text Services
  • Location: Delft, Netherlands
  • Currently Listening to:
    Bruckner, Wagner, Brian, Bax, Dyson, Delius...
Re: Robert Simpson(1921-1997)
« Reply #15 on: March 26, 2008, 10:00:38 AM »
There is nothing to refute, it's not an argument it's a collection of metaphors.

Granted. But behind them stands a listening experience. This note was made ten years ago, for myself. I thought it might be of interest to people who know Simpson and Brian. I expressed in images what my thinking boiled down to. To you it seemed crap. It isn't.

But if you want, I'll rephrase what I expressed there: Simpson loves process and development. His two most important influences are Beethoven and Nielsen. My point is that, whereas with them process and development take on a human form, in Simpson I can't hear that as strongly: his seems more the growth of a galaxy or a star.

Melody stems from the human voice, but Simpson thinks not vocally but instrumentally. Despite my admiration for Simpson as a symphonic thinker (and the writer of two excellent studies on Bruckner and Nielsen), Havergal Brian, who wasn't as systematic and logical as Simpson, wrote the greater symphonies, in my opinion, because the sort of processes they make audible are more human, though the elemental is there too.

That's all.
Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything. -- Plato

DavidW

  • Guest
Re: Robert Simpson(1921-1997)
« Reply #16 on: March 26, 2008, 10:25:23 AM »
I understood what you said, you did not have to rephrase it.  Your concept of melody is naive and oversimplistic.

Offline J.Z. Herrenberg

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 8707
  • William Havergal Brian, symphonist (1876-1972)
    • JZH Text Services
  • Location: Delft, Netherlands
  • Currently Listening to:
    Bruckner, Wagner, Brian, Bax, Dyson, Delius...
Re: Robert Simpson(1921-1997)
« Reply #17 on: March 26, 2008, 10:34:55 AM »
I understood what you said, you did not have to rephrase it.  Your concept of melody is naive and oversimplistic.

I like the echo of the inflections of human speech in instrumental music. Was Janacek naive when he based his music on the rhythmic patterns of the Czech language? But I'd be interested to hear your concept of melody. It's never too late to learn. Plus: teach me something about Simpson, if you can. That's the subject of this thread. Perhaps my appreciation will grow.

« Last Edit: March 26, 2008, 10:39:30 AM by Jezetha »
Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything. -- Plato

Offline Dundonnell

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 3599
  • Edmund Rubbra(1901-86)
Re: Robert Simpson(1921-1997)
« Reply #18 on: March 26, 2008, 02:58:23 PM »
Interestingly, Simpson wrote very little vocal music! 'Media morte in vita sumus' for chorus, brass and timpani(1975) and 'Tempi' for mixed voice chorus a capella(1987).

I am trying to think of another prominent British composer who wrote as little vocal music.

William Alwyn wrote an opera('Miss Julie'). Richard Arnell hasn't written much. Neither did Sir Malcolm Arnold('The Song of Simeon'-1959, Five William Blake Songs-1959, 'The Return of Odysseus'-1976 and a few others).

Does that prove anything? Possibly not!

Offline Lethevich

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 9758
  • I spilled my drink!
  • Currently Listening to:
    Rihm, Bialas, Ballif, Schumann, Schubert
Re: Robert Simpson(1921-1997)
« Reply #19 on: March 27, 2008, 12:33:32 PM »
I adore his 9th quartet - a work I find simultaneously thrilling and extremely daunting...

I have yet to become as close to any of his symphonies as I feel to his 11th, which I can't get enough of :)
Peanut butter, flour and sugar do not make cookies. They make FIRE.