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The Power of Robert Simpson – A Biography
Robert Simpson, Composer: Essays, Interviews, Recollections

The Symphonies

Hyperion CDS44191/7 Review by Paul James

Simpson is one of the greatest symphonists in contemporary music. His cycle of 11 symphonies has deservedly attracted considerable attention, thanks especially to the enterprising series of recordings of many of his orchestral and chamber works on the Hyperion label. His music is characteristically powerful, rigorously structured, serious in intent, conceived on the largest of scales, harmonically inventive and full of living energy and momentum. These works stimulate the intellect at the highest level. Simpson is a composer of 'absolute' music – music which exists for its own sake, the large-scale structures developing naturally and intricately out of a limited set of melodic and harmonic seeds, rather than needing a programme or background story to explain why things happen when they do. In Simpson's works, everything can make sense from within itself, although such is the complexity of the structures that many hearings are required to come to terms with them. And the richness of compositional thought that is revealed guarantees that the journey of discovery is always enthralling. Simpson's sound world is invariably serious, sometimes harsh and often densely dissonant. He never makes discourse to emotion, never plays on one's feelings. These are works for the intellect, yet the emotions are served indirectly: through the tremendous energy and rigour that is developed.

Simpson's greatest work is a piece that is vital listening for all those with a serious interest for contemporary music. The Symphony No. 9 (1987) is indeed, in my opinion, perhaps the greatest symphony ever written in this century. It's stature has probably not yet been fully recognised by the music world as a whole, in spite of much critical acclaim. It is a single movement work, some 50 minutes in length, entirely played on a single unremitting pulse, although the way this pulse is emphasized undergoes modifications as the work progresses. There are then three principal seeds from which the tremendous structuring develops. Firstly, a basic wedge-shaped motivic sequence fans out chromatically from an initial tone. This idea recurs throughout in various forms. Secondly, many of the motifs are decorated by an upward curving tail (one semi-tone). This gives the work a phenomenal sense of energy and the building-up of momentum. Indeed, the sense of harmonic direction is often inexorably upwards, giving a sense of unstoppable power. Thirdly, and perhaps the most important factor of all, the work has no key as such, but tonal centres undergo continuous shifting, usually by raising the tonal plane by a fourth, again and again in a cyclic manner. Hence, the work is highly chromatic and dissonant – but this is precisely where Simpson's genius is most apparent. Once the ears have adjusted to it, it becomes like a wholly new musical world. The dissonant melodic lines now make perfect sense even though an untrained ear would complain throughout about 'wrong-sounding' notes. The shifting of harmonic planes is also made smooth and inevitable by the intricate melodic invention. The symphony has a great sense of continuous development. A long opening section gradually builds up phenomenal power, reaching a first great climax which moves straight into a scherzo-like sequence and a second shorter climax. Almost 30 minutes are over and the underlying pulse has kept up a sense of unstoppable momentum. Then a much quieter section brings necessary relief, although the pulse still never entirelly dies away. A further final section leads to a climax and then a quiet coda. The coda is exceptionally profound. The wedge-shape, the upward-turning tail and harmonic shifting that gave the work so much energy are still present, along with the pulse, but now a quiet peace is descending. At the end, sequences of rising scales are played reaching high into the upper registers. These scales alternate between hitting the tonic as they pass through octaves and missing it a semi-tone either side (a memorable device earlier in the work). Finally they reach the D-sharp tonic that the work had opened with – seemingly a final resolution. But the final chord is modified by the upturning tail once again – a profound gesture. Even in the peace of late evening, a sense of energy remains unbroken.

The ninth is a masterpiece of great stature, yet Simpson's other symphonies are also fine works which are not wholly overshadowed by it. The greatest of them is Symphony No. 5 (1972) which is also highly stimulating for the intellect. The whole work is based on a 5-note whole-tone chord (C, D, E, F-sharp and G-sharp), played highly spread out. At the opening, the Chord is played quietly and mysteriously, before the full orchestra explodes into furious action. This is a very clever, inventive symphony; its outer movements full of vigour and dissonant activity. The inner movements are seperated by a short scherzo. In the first, the Chord is gradually taken apart one note at a time and converted into Messiaen-like birdsong on the woodwinds. In the second, the Chord is gradually reconstructed as a complex, chromatic sequence, and its exact tonal mirror image, lands and then stays put on each note of the Chord successively. The work ends with a loud climax, which disintegrates in stages to leave the Chord quietly staring us in the face once again.

Simpson's most classically constructed example is the Symphony No. 4 (1972), a powerful four movement work. The scherzo in particular is a tremendous tour-de-force, the rigorous energetic invention, lasting almost 14 minutes, would have done Beethoven proud. The Hyperion recording (CDA 66505) is outstanding in its handling of the crisp, intense dynamics of the climactic sections of the scherzo and finale. On the same disc is the three movement work, Symphony No. 2 (1956) which is an equally stimulating and inventive work, containing perhaps less of the dense dissonance characteristic of later Simpson. Its follow-up, Symphony No. 3 (1962) is classic Simpson. The powerful, tense opening movement is memorable and gripping.

Symphony No. 6 (1977) is a single movement work whose developmental ideas parallel the growth of a human embryo cell into a fully-fledged human being. The work reaches predictably a central climax representing birth. The orchestra undergoes increasingly rapid spasms, before a final violent fortissimo chord represents the moment of birth. The terror of this moment makes me consider whether the woman was giving birth to a horrific monster rather than a normal baby. But still the music itself is good! Symphony No. 7 (1977), also a single movement work, was conceived not as a concert piece but for 'one man sitting in a chair, listening by himself'. It's sound world is typically Simpson, serious, densely dissonant. The ending is very haunting – chromatic orchestral fragments disintegrate to leave a single note, C sharp, staring us blankly from the strings in the face, uncompromising. This is meant to signify our blindness of the dangers of nuclear war, which was often happily ignored at the time. Finally, Symphony No. 10 (1988) is a large-scale four-movement work which attempts to take up where the ninth left off. A hard task and one not wholly achieved despite further novel chromatic harmonic invention. The orchestration is powerful but the ideas seem not as gripping or developed as in earlier works.

The latest release on the Hyperion label, completing the survey of Simpson's first ten symphonies, featuring the First and Eighth Symphonies (Hyperion CDA 66890), is a vital purchase. For a first symphony, Symphony No. 1 (1951) is highly impressive. The sheer opulence of sound and tremendous scoring in the opening and closing sections of the first movement and in the finale make for invigourating listening. The slow central section of the work is almost unique in the symphonic music of Simpson in that it achieves a warmly expressive gentle nobility, whose polyphony may remind one of renaissance music and reminds me at times of Barber's Adagio for Strings. On the other hand, Symphony No. 8 (1981) in one of Simpson's most intensely formidable works. The scherzo in particular is an outstanding composititon: unremittingly tense, edgy and dissonant, full of craggy incident, like a severe, rocky, barren landscape. The following adagio is powerfully conceived. Here, finely scored calm episodes interrupt more intense fugal displays, the latter getting shorter in each cycle. The final movement is no less outstanding.

Simpson has written some 15 String Quartets to date. Due to their rigorous intellectual nature, I find I'm less attracted to them, with their obvious lack of a rich orchestral sound, than say the much more passionate Shostakovich cycle. Yet, they are well worth investigating due to their highly energetic, rhythmical power in sections. String Quartet No. 8 (1979) is especially fine, full of strident tightly-argued development and refined dynamics. The arch-like String Quartet No. 7 (1977) is a contemplation of the vastness of the cosmos. Slow, dark outer movements envelop a fast middle section which builds up incredible energy at its climax. String Quartet No. 10 'For Peace' (1983) is notable in that it does indeed develop a calmness, a peace that is rare in Simpson's output. Finally, the String Quintet (1987) is a very powerful one-movement work, which cleverly combines music from two separate, but simultaneously running, pulses: one slow, one fast. The opening slow pulse is gradually penetrated in increasing levels by the fast pulse, which takes over completely in the powerful central section, before the slow pulse gradually penetrates back in stages, wholly engulfing the fast pulse by the end.

Paul James

Paul James' Modern Music Review