The Music Room > Composer Discussion

Robert Simpson(1921-1997)

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Dundonnell:
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.

J.Z. Herrenberg:
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...

Dundonnell:
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!

J.Z. Herrenberg:

--- Quote from: Dundonnell on March 25, 2008, 03:18:22 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!

--- End quote ---

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.

Dundonnell:

--- Quote from: Jezetha on March 25, 2008, 03:37:55 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.

--- End quote ---

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!

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