More of Simpson’s Superb Symphonies

SIMPSON: Symphony No. 1 / London Philharmonic Orch.; Sir Adrian Boult, cond / Symphony No. 2 / New Philharmonia Orch., Jascha Horenstein, cond / Symphony No. 3 / London Symphony Orch.; Jascha Horenstein, cond / Symphony No. 4: I. Allegro moderato; II. Presto; III. Andante; IV. Allegro vivace / Kensington Symphony Orch., Russell Keable, cond / Symphony No. 5: I. Allegro; II. Canone I; III. Scherzino; IV. Canone 2; V. Finale / London Symphony Orch.; Andrew Davis, cond / Symphony No. 6 / London Philharmonic Orch.; Charles Groves, cond / Symphony No. 7 / Royal Liverpool Philharmonic; Brian Wright, cond / Symphony No. 8 / Royal Danish Orch., Jerzy Semkow, cond / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking symphony or movement titles above

The pleasant-looking, pacifist, pipe-smoking Robert Wilfred Levick Simpson (1921-1997), who worked as a music producer at the BBC for nearly 30 years, was one of the most original and exciting symphonists of his time, but as far as the rest of the world is concerned, he is a non-entity.

The reasons for this are several, but chief among them is the fact that Simpson was never a self-promoter and lacked a high-powered agent to spread his name across the globe. Nor did he have a record label, as Benjamin Britten did, devoted to the recording and dissemination of his music. On the contrary, only a few of his symphonies were professionally recorded in studio settings. Most of the available performances are of live performances. These are generally very exciting and reasonably well recorded, but most of them are in mono sound and even when they are issued they tend to float through the ether of the classical world without a ripple of interest.

Of course, Simpson’s rather thorny style, based on bitonality and lacking recognizable melodies which people can hum on their way out of the concert hall, also has much to do with it. Yet even so, his friend and older colleague Havergal Brian, who became a sort of cause célèbre in the classical music world during the years 1969-1980, was and remains better known in the classical world. Although Brian’s name is still somewhat known to aficionados of modern music and there are quite a few studio recordings of his music, he too is largely ignored in the concert hall. But at least HE has a good reputation, while poor Simpson is barely known.

Simpson didn’t set out to become a composer, but rather to be a doctor. After two years’ study, however, he realized that he should switch majors. A conscientious objector during World War II, he nonetheless served with a mobile surgical unit during the blitz of London while taking lessons in composition from Herbert Howells. It was Howells who urged Simpson to pursue the Durham University Bachelor of Music degree, which he did, later gaining a Doctor of Music from that institution after submitting his First Symphony.

It was typical of his innate modesty, however, that during his long tenure with the BBC he never pushed his music but rather the music of Brian. Among his achievements were a performance of Brian’s early, late-Romantic “Gothic” Symphony under Sir Adrian Boult in 1966 and his 28th Symphony under Leopold Stokowski in 1973. The latter became something of a new item, since this symphony by the 91-year-old Brian was conducted by the then 91-year-old Stokowski.

In addition to writing 11 symphonies, Simpson also composed 15 string quartets, two string quintets, and a number of non-standard chamber works. I’ve yet to run across recordings of any of the string quartets, though I’m sure that a few exist. Happily, complete performances of Symphonies Nos. 1-8 are available for free streaming on YouTube, so that you can get a good idea of just how interesting and brilliant a composer Simpson was. These are the ones I’ve listed in the header, and now we will discuss them in order.

Symphony No. 1: Immediately announces a new and important composer with its dramatic opening. Simpson wrote in a bitonal manner, here pitting A and E against each other, and he often back off from his edgy, dramatic moments to create equally bitonal but quieter passages that evoked mystery and sometimes unease. This piece is in three linked movements, none of which are given titles or tempo designations, a practice that he would back off from with his second symphony but return to in the Sixth and Seventh. What grabs one immediately with Simpson, however, is not so much the extraordinary imagination of his writing but the strong emotional content. This was then and is today uncommon for most British symphonists, though of course one thinks of Vaughan Williams’ late symphonies (particularly the Sixth) as possible models that Simpson might have used as inspiration.

It should also not be ignored that Simpson was a strong pacifist, and that a possible subtext of his work was the lurking specter of war and its debilitating effects on humanity. Benjamin Britten, also a pacifist, wrote some of his edgiest and most emotional music for his War Requiem, which somewhat resembles Simpson’s music in mood if not in structure or melodic-harmonic language. The performance by Adrian Boult- a conductor often underrated in America (possibly due to the fact that it was primarily his recordings of Holst’s The Planets that were widely disseminated here), is taut and driving in the fast passages, achingly lyrical in the slow ones. (Boult was the longest-lived of Artur Nikisch’s conducting pupils; in addition to his immaculate baton technique, he also picked up from Nikisch the Hungarian’s penchant for brisk tempi, powerful emotional projection, and the insistence that every strand of the score should be clearly heard.) Little if anything in any Boult performance was mushy or sentimental, and this in itself made him an ideal interpreter of Simpson.s music.

At the outset of the last movement, which, surprisingly, is almost a scherzo, Simpson relaxes his bitonal bias a bit, though the harmony constantly seems to be in flux, flitting from one key to another before it returns. Eventually the orchestral writing becomes very complex indeed, creating a polyphonic web of sound, which Boult’s clean stick technique keeps clear and always audible to the listener. An outstanding performance of an outstanding work, in my view the finest First Symphony by any composer other than Brahms or Mahler.

Symphony No. 2: Complete in 1956 and dedicated to Anthony Bernard, the conductor of the London Chamber Orchestra, even though it was written for a large orchestra and premiered by John Barbirolli with the Hallé Orchestra in July 1957. Divided into three separate movements with titles, it too uses bitonality but is less abrasive to the ear. Jascha Horenstein, once a formidable name among great conductors but now sadly forgotten by many, made a superb recording of this work in 1971 which is the one presented here. A famous champion of Mahler and Nielsen, Horenstein clearly knew how to cope with such harmonically complex and driving music, though by the early 1970s his approach was just a shade less intense than Boult in his prime. Of course, some of my impression may be due to the way the sound is engineered, which seems to soften some of the climaxes a bit instead of “letting them all hang out.”

In this work, Simpson uses the clashes between B and the tonalities a major third above (Eb) and below it (G). As in the case of most bitonal or atonal music, the trick is not to work within the parameters one sets for oneself but to make the music sound inspired and emotionally interesting. Havergal Brian was a master of the short, terse bitonal symphony, but as I pointed out earlier, most of these works are cerebral despite their high level of ingenuity. The difference, I think, is that Brian worked from the premise that it was up to the interpreter to add emotion to his works whereas Simpson worked from the premise that it was his responsibility to make the conductor match his intensity. Considering this, I wonder how effective Barbirolli’s first performance was, since he was not a conductor given to tight, dramatic forms but rather to more relaxed, Romantic ones.

One of Simpson’s most clever constructions is the second movement of this symphony: if one removes the last few bars, this movement is a palindrome—the same backwards ad forwards—though the naked ear doesn’t always pick this up. This, again, makes him similar to but different from Brian, who would undoubtedly have made his feature somewhat more obvious had he written this symphony. After such a placid, almost lovely movement, however, Simpson rears his bitonally edgy head with the energetic last movement, in which the angular violin melody is underscored by thundering tympani. The descriptive notes on Wikipedia refer to its “sort of Beethovinian hilarity,” but in actual practice this movement is not really hilarious at all, though it is somewhat celebratory in its edgy, bitonal way.

Symphony No. 3: The Third Symphony (1962) opens quietly but quickly moves into Simpson’s trademark bitonal edginess and power. One thing you will realize by the time you reach this symphony is that the mood, if not the notes, are very similar to each other. This is, perhaps, a weakness in listening to the entire series in quick order. There isn’t as much variety in his symphonies are there are, for instance, in those of Mahler or Nielsen. Of course, Simpson never expected that anyone would listen to his full oeuvre in order; he was lucky if he got at least a couple of performances of most of them in live concert settings.

This is the symphony he dedicated to Havergal Brian. It is in two long movements marked “Allegro ma non troppo” and “Adagio – Presto.” The first movement is typically heavy and dramatic; the repeated  heavy brass chords with tympani near the end soon recede, leading to an edgy passage for winds that gradually increases in volume, leading to a string finish.

Simpson described the second movement as “a huge composed accelerando, but with the dynamics repressed,” Wikipedia states that “It is really a slow movement and finale, and the tempo is always increasing” and that it “takes a good while to climax.” Here, especially in the first movement but also in the second, it is the inner details that arrest one’s attention, not the overall frame of the work. Simpson’s mind was always moving and, with it, so did his music. The score is rich with details, some overt and many quite subtle, and it is up to the listener to absorb them all. The lengthy “Adagio” section in the section gives the listener a respite from his normally heavy style; despite the lack of a really recognizable melodic line, the music is quite attractive.

Symphony No. 4 (1972): This was Simpson’s largest symphony at the time and his first “regular” four-movement work. Here he toys with the harmony in a different way, sometimes using chords that are the same in structure but a fifth apart. He cleverly voices these in widely-spaced registers so the higher chord sounds like the harmonics of the lower one. It is also more richly scored than previously, using a larger orchestra. Interestingly, if one listens closely one will hear wind and string figures that seem like modern equivalents of those used by Haydn and Beethoven, but the unusual harmonic settings make them sound harsh and unusual. Perhaps the excellent sonics of Russell Keable’s recording have something to do with this, but to my ears the scoring also sounds richer than in the previous symphonies. Certainly, the excellent stereo imaging allows one to hear the different threads of the orchestration better and not as one block of sound. The second-movement scherzo is surprisingly jolly for Simpson despite the edgy harmonies. It’s also a VERY long scherzo, lasting 13 ½ minutes. The “Andante” movement is unusually warm and friendly-sounding music for Simpson, followed by a surprisingly happy-sounding “Allegro vivace.” A wonderful work.

Symphony No. 5 (1972): In my review of the Andrew Davis performance released on Lyrita, I said that although it is divided into five numbered sections, it is essentially one continuous movement. At no point in its 39-minute duration does one feel bored or restless listening to it. Even the soft second section (“Comodo e tranquillo”) has a feeling of tension despite its slow pace and very sparse orchestration (mostly just the flute, and then an oboe, then a clarinet, playing above sustained chords by the basses and possibly also the cellos). In the third section, marked “Molto vivace,” the volume slowly increases until we are caught in a veritable web of snarling brass making fair to overtake the staunch little flute which just keeps on going its own way. In the next section, “Canzone 2: Adagio,” the violas play a strange but lyrical melody against rhythmic repeated notes on the basses, but if one follows the long arc of the music and doesn’t just concentrate on the component parts, his sense of construction is as remarkable as his fiery and unexpected changes of mood and turns of phrase. In short, Simpson was a creator, someone who tempered his inspiration with a strong sense of musical unity, and as such commands our attention even today. Even the little rocking motion he employs at one point in the Finale is integrated not only rhythmically but thematically into the surrounding material; it’s unexpected and surprising, but he almost makes it sound as if it were an inevitable part of the composition, and he then re-uses it later in the movement to variations on that short motif.

Symphony No. 6 (1977): 1977 must have been a good year for Simpson, because it was the only one in which he produced not one but two symphonies. This one is divided into two sections, the first lasting roughly 15 minutes and the second almost 18. This, like Beethoven’s Sixth, opens more lyrically than the Fifth, although some edgy brass chords come and go, letting you know that something eventful is on the horizon. At 1:53, Simpson begins a somewhat quirky tune with a quirky rhythm, and things begin to move. Here the basses do not remain static but play a counter-figure of their own against the upper-range activity of the strings and brass. The liner notes explain that the basic idea of the symphony, proposed by gynecologist Ian Croft, was to write a symphony that simulated the growth of a living creature from a fertilized germ, and Simpson took this to heart. Of course, music only really expresses things in musical terms, no matter how pictorial that music might be, but it’s an interesting concept to keep in mind as you listen. There are all sorts of little things going on in the inner voices throughout this symphony, and here Simpson again holds your attention without being as flashy or as overt as in the Fifth. By the mid-point in the first section, things are quite lively indeed but, except for the spiky harmonies, not really very menacing.

As we move into the second part, the music becomes calmer. Apparently our living creature has found sustenance and perhaps a mate and thus sounds quite content with life. Simpson keeps on inventing, developing and switching themes and motifs as the work continues; he has a large fund of ideas, they’re all good, and somehow he makes them work together. At the 11;10 mark in this second section, for instance, he uses blocks of sound and strongly syncopated rhythms together, and a bit later on the tempo doubles as he works his theme out. Things become more and more hectic as our living creature, apparently pissed off at the world, seems to be going on a bit of a rampage.

Symphony No. 7 (1977): Though written in 1977 like the Sixth Symphony, it didn’t receive its premiere until 1984. It opens with slow, ominous-sounding basses, then violas with high winds above them. We are told that this symphony “explores resonances inherent in a ‘cluster’ harmony which is introduced in horizontal form at the very outset of the symphony,” but I, as a listener, am more focused on what the music conveys to me rather than such niceties of construction. As usual, Simpson is focused on the harmony as the genesis for all his other ideas, including both melodic lines and their variants. Though in one continuous movement, the symphony is in three distinct sections although the first takes up more than half the symphony (it runs over a half-hour). One thing I like about Simpson’s symphonies are their terse construction; at no point does one say to oneself, “This is repetitive” or “This is going on too lung.” He says what he has to say, then moves on to the next statement/section. Simpson used harmony the way other composers use melody or rhythm, which is to say as the genesis for all the other features of the music. He played in his mind with the harmony for so long that various different permutations presented themselves to him, and he went to work allowing these to dictate the progression. In a sense, it is not unlike the improvisation of a jazz musician except that he took time to flesh out his ideas with extraordinary orchestral textures. All of his music is inventive but none of it is “comfortable” listening. Brian Wright’s performance, the world premiere of the work, is for some reason recorded in mono sound, which puts a bit of a damper on our appreciation of his use of texture, but the different strands of the music are certainly clear enough for us to appreciate what Simpson accomplished.

Symphony No. 8 (1981): By the time the Seventh Symphony was premiered, Simpson had already written his Eighth Symphony, which ironically was premiered in 1982, two years before the Seventh. Due to his use of unusual modern harmony, it’s hard to call any of Simpson’s symphonies “jolly,” but this one opens with what is, for him, a surprisingly lighthearted “Poco animato” that almost sounds like a scherzo. It is scored for high strings and chirping flutes, with the basses playing a somewhat foreboding drone figure underneath which takes the music a bit outside of its “jolly” tone. Nor does this mood last: as the movement develops, it slowly but surely becomes more stark and violent and less cheerful, with punching brass outbursts. Just as it reaches its climax, it collapses into a genuine “Scherzo” but one which is threatening and sinister. This mood is, again, created from the harmonic placement on up, not from the top down, and to my ears the tempo seems just a bit slow for a scherzo.

Predictably, the ensuing “Adagio” is quite passionate, starting with a slow fugue. Slowly, the nightmarish first part gives way to calm and serenity before eventually moving into the “Allegro” finale, energetic as always in his symphonies.

A complete set of Simpson’s symphonies, along with the Variations on a Theme by Nielsen, was issued by Hyperion Records in 2006. Most of these are conducted by Vernon Handley, though the 11th Symphony and Nielsen variations feature the City of London Sinfonia conducted by Matthew Taylor. Although Hyperion is offering most of this set for sale as MP3 downloads at Presto Classical for only $40, several pieces are only available if you buy the physical CDs, i.e. the second half of Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6, the last movement of the Symphony No. 5, the first movement of the Seventh, the first and third movement of the Ninth, the last movement of the Tenth and the second movement of the 11th. In order to get all of the music, you have to purchase the physical CDs, and that’s a problem because the set is OUT OF PRINT. You can, however, get a used copy on Amazon for $124. Thus even the one label that has done Simpson a service by recording them all in the studio impedes your hearing these marvelous works unless you cough up some serious coin.

What Hyperion should do is to make the set available for streaming on Spotify, which gives the record company some financial remuneration each time a listener uses that service. But of course such a thing never occurred to them; they’d just as soon have the records out of print than to make this valuable music available to a wider public.

Nonetheless, I urge you to investigate these marvelous works on YouTube if nothing else. They will reward your patience with some seriously invigorating listening.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “More of Simpson’s Superb Symphonies

  1. Try the Hyperion website: all movements are available for download there*, string quartets, and lots of other works too.
    *In the UK – maybe there are licensing issues in the US.


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