‘I’m not interested in vogue... What is in the substance of the music is what is important.’
2021 marks the centenary of the birth of Robert Simpson, a composer’s composer whose impressively single-minded – but now almost entirely neglected – body of work is crowned by 11 symphonies and 15 string quartets.
A distinguished BBC producer and broadcaster in the 1960s and 70s, Simpson also wrote extensively on the work of Beethoven, Bruckner, Nielsen and Sibelius – all composers who influenced his own mission of creating dynamic musical architectures linked to tradition through the gravitational forces of tonality. His unashamedly tonal style, however, was deeply unfashionable, and Simpson’s trenchant criticisms of modernist musical establishment further reinforced an over-simplified image of him as a backward-looking regressive. Listening to his music now, with the benefit of several decades distance, it is clear to anyone willing to open their ears that the best of his work displays a far more positive and progressive spirit: a burning belief in the ability for the great traditional forms of the past to continue to grow and live on well into the second half of the 20th century and beyond.
Described by the Guardian as ‘one of the best-kept secrets of post-war British music’, Simpson’s 11 symphonies display an incredibly vivid creativity. Simpson never repeats himself; his approach always seems formally and harmonically fresh, without ever slavishly following a tonal agenda (the level of dissonance is often quite high).
One of Simpson’s most thrilling and concise statements is the Seventh Symphony, a gritty work from 1977 whose harmonies seethe with troubled energy. Beginning with a determined statement in the bass regions of the orchestra, it ends 28 minutes later with a drawn-out, eerily expressionless C-sharp in the strings. Some wondered whether Simpson was portraying nuclear annihilation or some other apocalyptic event. He answered, ‘The end is C-sharp,’ but added that it could be ‘a picture of people not facing a fact that stares them in the face.’
Other Faber Music works include his epic 50-minute Symphony No.9 – which has been conducted by Sir Simon Rattle – and the String Quartet No.9, which also lasts almost an hour and takes the form of 21 variations and a fugue on a theme of Haydn.