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CD Review

Robert Simpson


  • Symphony #2 (1955-56)
  • Symphony #4 (1970-72)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Hyperion CDA66505 74:50
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Already a favorite disc.

Robert Simpson doesn't write throwaways. The major part of his output consists of symphonies (10, with four withdrawn) and string quartets (15). The gravitas of it all certainly discouraged me from plunging in, despite the fact that I had read nothing but good things about the music and always loved his writings about music. If only there had been a harmonica concerto or a cheap little ballet, I would have heard Simpson the composer a lot sooner. I finally listened, essentially on a dare. I listened to the ninth symphony first, and it knocked me over. I became a Simpson freak.

Simpson commented tellingly on Bruckner, Mahler, Beethoven, and Nielsen, partly, I believe, because they inspired his music. Having heard Simpson's symphonies, I suspect that Simpson writing about Beethoven is Simpson writing to a great extent about himself. For example, his widely-known dictum about the symphony from his essay, "Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Others" applies to his own symphonies:

In a symphony the internal activity is fluid, organic; action is the dominant factor, through and through. At the end of a great symphony there is the sense that the music has grown by the interpenetrative activity of all its constituent elements. Nothing is ever allowed to lapse into aimlessness, or the kind of inactivity that needs artificially reviving. At times the activity of particular ingredients is abated - we can find passages in Beethoven's symphonies when nothing but rhythm is left, for instance - at such times, however, we always feel that the other things are merely latent. Often it is as if all the elements of the music have suddenly concentrated themselves into a rhythm or a harmonic progression, or a flash of pure tonality; but such moments are impossible in isolation. The great thing to keep constantly in mind is that no single element is ever abandoned, or deliberately excluded, that the composer must master them all and subordinate them to the demands of the whole. In this sense a symphony is profoundly inclusive.

Simpson studied dodecaphony, to the extent of actually composing works in that language. He decided he disliked the language itself and destroyed all his efforts. Besides, he recognized that the kind of symphonic movement he wanted for his music probably wasn't possible taking Schoenberg's approach. However, he did share Schoenberg's passion for Beethoven and, I think, looked at Beethoven partly through Schoenberg's eyes. Some of his procedures and compositional concerns seem very Schoenbergian to me, particularly the micro-attention to thematic cells, often no more than four notes, and the emphasis on independent counterpoint, particularly what I would call "puzzle" counterpoint - ingenious canons with the subject played against its retrograde or inversion and especially palindromic movements (music that sounds the same played forwards and backwards). However, Nielsen's influence leavens some of this, both formally and emotionally. Simpson's music has a great deal of light and space in it. His voice is a serious one, but it also lacks the hysteria, the extreme, over-the-top statement so much a part of Schoenberg's artistic personality. It partakes of Nielsen's sane balance.

The Symphony #2 comes from the Fifties, and it must have appeared incredibly eccentric for the time. It seemed to belong to no particular English or international school. It had little in common with Vaughan Williams, Britten, Tippett, or Walton and worked on a larger canvas than Boulez or Darmstadt. Nearly fifty years later, we can easily see the influences: Nielsen, Beethoven, and Bruckner, two of the three, at least, not very well known at the time outside of Austria and Scandinavia. Simpson's language may not show strong, individual profile, so you probably wouldn't guess him in a "drop-the-needle" game. But what he does with his materials is one of a kind.

The symphony begins with that kind of "thread-y," free-floating quality I associate with the opening to the Nielsen Fifth. It quickly picks up heft and steam - a driven symphonic waltz. I should note the quality of Simpson's ideas. They're not song-like or hummable, but you do remember them, mainly because Simpson takes the trouble to build in some rhythmic or intervallic quirk - here, a dotted-quarter/eighth/quarter rhythm consisting of an upward minor third and the descent by a half-step. Yet, one mistakes them if one considers them only quirks, for these things take on a large share of the responsibility of moving the music along. The music not only moves, it opens out on large vistas, with phenomenal architectural reach. The movement builds to two main climaxes, introduced by two fugal passages - the first led by strings, the second by winds. After the second climax, the music slows with a recapitulation of the opening theme and radically fades to nothing.

The slow movement begins as a kind of contrapuntal chorale, with again a characteristic quirk in the main idea - this time, "rocking" minor thirds (apparently, the "typical" interval of the symphony). About midway through, the direction of these thirds changes: instead of, say, mainly C to E Flat Major, it goes from E Flat Major to C. Indeed, the direction of all the characteristic ideas in the movement seems to shift into reverse, and it shouldn't surprise anyone that the movement is a musical palindrome (with five new bars added at the end). Now, anyone who can write music can come up with a musical palindrome. But as Simpson himself pointed out, such a palindrome has little point if the listener doesn't "get" it. I guess what impresses me most is the intensity of the movement, generated largely by the strings and reminiscent of a Bartók string quartet.

The last movement disappoints a bit. In the previous movements, Simpson pushes the envelope of what a symphony can tolerate and still remain tied to the tradition of the past two hundred years. The finale seems to fall back on something more conventional. I can imagine a composer like Arnold or Alwyn writing this movement, while I can't anybody but Simpson writing the first two. Nevertheless, it's a brilliant flourish and makes a wonderful noise, all the more wonderful when you realize he employs an orchestra of classical size.

The Fourth Symphony comes from the early Seventies. By that time, the "tonal-atonal" wars were in full rage, with atonal gaining the temporary advantage. Of course, it was a war over nothing more than turf. The mostly rather dumb aesthetic ideas - "Atonality is the Music of Our Time," "Tonality is Hard-Wired in Our Brains," "Atonality is Not Found in Nature" - may linger, but not with the same intellectual force, thank goodness. Simpson's symphony must have struck people even more strangely in this context. The long, visionary reach of the Second extends even further (the Fourth misses double the Second's length only by a little). The Nielsen influence remains (in this case, as Matthew Taylor points out, the "sound-world" of the Sixth Symphony), and Nielsen - thanks largely to Simpson's major study of the composer - by this time was a known quantity. It's not that Simpson is unclear about his aims, but people must have questioned why he wanted to pursue them. The first movement consists of various flowerings from a perky little theme, rather than a sonata-allegro. There's almost no climax to speak of, except at the end, and therefore very few builds and fades. The first movement jogs along at mainly an even keel, once in a blue moon a Tourette's blast from the brass, but usually with very bare textures, often just two lines.

The second-movement scherzo is the most blatant steal from the scherzo of Beethoven's Ninth. As Eliot wrote, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion." How well Simpson does "the good poet" astonishes me. One can of course hear the model, but Simpson's language transforms that scherzo into something equally Jovian, but more sinister and complex. Simpson takes a huge risk in the trio, which alternates between quiet immobility and thunderous immobility. It risks, because for Simpson a symphony indeed means movement - purposeful movement along an argumentative line as strong as steel. The effect, after a principal strain that moves like seven-league boots, is like waiting for the kettle to boil over, which of course it finally does.

The slow movement counts as my favorite of the symphony. Mae West once said, "I like a man what takes his time." This movement does exactly that, but with great determination and furthermore, genuine originality. Again, I find it hard to think of anybody but Simpson when I hear this movement. It's singing, but with counterpoint of a Nielsenian sort - not classroom counterpoint, but in the sense of separate planes of activity. One also finds this approach in Vagn Holmboe as well. Simpson again takes great risks flirting with immobility. The movement threatens to stop. In fact, at one point, it actually does stop, but the sense of momentum continues. One gets the feeling of palindrome again, whether or not Simpson wrote it palindromically, as elements from the beginning (slightly condensed) return in reverse order for the recap.

The finale follows immediately - a big symphonic waltz à la Dvořák or Nielsen. Matthew Taylor's liner notes talk about the transformation of first-movement themes as the basic material for this movement - "converted into a swinging, triple-time metre." In any case, the themes constantly vary here, their continual transformation far outweighing their source in importance. Simpson again supplies a brilliant coda - in his words, "of fierce joy" - and this time the fireworks are entirely his own. The final measure vividly transmutes the symphony's opening theme (full of upward fourths) to an idea both melodic and harmonically cadential and thus brings the work to a great, substantial close. For concentrated power, very little rivals it.

I can't say enough good things about Handley and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. I count the performances among Handley's considerable bests. They not only tell you of the majesty of these symphonies, they show that, like Beethoven's symphonies, you will never get to the end of knowing them and being amazed by them. Hyperion's sound is wonderful.

Copyright © 2003, Steve Schwartz