British symphonist, essayist, and keen amateur astronomer, Robert Simpson (March 2, 1921 - November 21, 1997) first studied medicine for two years, at the wish of his parents. However, he had always loved music, having learned the cornet as a lad. In the Forties, he studied composition privately with Herbert Howells and early on gained a reputation as a wonderful writer on music, contributing articles to Music Review and Music Survey. His writing is distinguished by its ability to be understood by the intelligent non-musician. In 1951, he earned his doctorate in music at the University of Durham, his thesis an early version of his Symphony #1.
He gained the attention of the BBC and contributed distinguished programming and lectures for 30 years, finally resigning in 1981 over severe disagreements with programming policies and labor practices. If he had waited just a few months, he would have earned full pension. However, it was definitely the BBC's loss and, quite frankly, a blot on their history. During his BBC time, in addition to composing, Simpson fought in the front lines of the Battle for Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler, not only through his writings, but through his promotions of concerts of their work. He contributed to the rehabilitation of Jean Sibelius' reputation and largely introduced to the wider world Carl Nielsen and Havergal Brian. His editing of the 2-volume The Symphony had enormous influence throughout Britain and North America. In addition, he earned a stellar reputation as a Beethoven scholar.
The rift with the BBC resulted both in a move to Ireland, where he worked with Irish radio, and in more time for composition. In 1991, he suffered a stroke which left him in severe pain for the rest of his life. In essence, it put paid to his composing. Even his String Quintet of 1995 had been mostly complete by 1991.
Very few people have shown such a deep understanding of the symphony in general as Simpson, both in his own symphonies and in his writings, particularly in his prefaces to The Symphony. Haydn, Beethoven, Sibelius, and Nielsen all influenced him. He became particularly concerned for the momentum of a work – the push and grip of an argument from start to finish. Also, Johann Sebastian Bach counted as an early hero, borne out later in Simpson's arrangement of The Art of the Fugue for string quartet. To these ends, Simpson concentrates on thematic and contrapuntal clarity and on large-scale organization of rhythm, often rhythms and tempos generated from a steady, unvarying pulse throughout an entire movement. One notes tremendous contrapuntal feats in score after score, with a special fascination for retrograde canons (canons that proceed in reverse from the half-way point) and even entire retrograde movemments, where the music reverses at the midpoint to the end. The amazing thing is, this is not simply a matter of "eye music." Simpson takes great care to fashion his canons so that the listener can actually hear these things without the necessity of following a piece of sheet music.
Beside 11 symphonies (he destroyed four early ones), Simpson also produced a distinguished chamber-music catalogue, including 16 string quartets and some wonderful brass music. His chamber music shows a concern for a conversation among equals. Everybody gets an interesting part, and each part contributes equally to the unfolding of a piece.
Unlike even Schoenberg, Simpson has no hits. His musical concerns are essentially abstract and thus alien to a broad listening public. But he has written some of the most powerful music of his time. ~ Steve Schwartz