Dynamic Conundrums in my 4th Quartet

I realise that I had set up this section of my website for updates on my PhD, but had not yet made use of it, yet alone introduced my project.

In October, I returned to the RNCM to start my PhD in composition with Adam Gorb and Adam Swayne as my supervisors. My project is rather unusual on the face of it as I am both studying composition, but also the music of another composer – Robert Simpson. I am therefore straddling a line between musicology and practice-based, composition research. Defining this particular balance is of constant concern at this stage of the project and my views on it are always in flux. I may attempt another post in future where I articulate this in more detail.

This post will instead focus on the early stages of my first composition in the project. The only bit of pre-information needed to understand what I’m doing here is that my project is interested in 3 of Simpson’s String Quartets in particular – his 4th, 5th, and 6th. These quartets are of interest because they are closely and deliberately modelled on Beethoven’s op. 59 Quartets. How they are related is what my project is concerned with, not only in terms of analysing those quartets, but in doing it myself to further understand them and build on their principles. This post is not really an update or an introduction to this. Instead, I am using it as a chance to articulate my thought processes and various conundrums I have come across while composing.

The work I have chosen to model mine on in this case is Simpson’s 7th Quartet resulting in what will be my 4th Quartet. Another post I am working on provides an overview of Simpson’s music which one can listen to without the Hyperion CDs. Sadly, none of the quartets are available without it so I am unable to share the work which it is modelled on. At the bottom I will link a couple of articles that discuss it from the Robert Simpson Society Journal though.

The first section of my quartet follows Simpson’s material bar-by-bar, much like he does in his 4th Quartet. While writing the piece I was concerned solely with the notes and the general thematic and structural elements of Simpson’s quartet, as discussed in the literature.

I encountered several problems with modelling on his 7th Quartet, mostly down to its simplicity and highly characteristic textures which are hard to write analogous to – i.e. the pulsing quaver rhythm thought the opening and alternating open and stopped strings. My solutions to both these cases were to avoid those things in an obvious way, and instead, engage with them more subtly with the intention of bringing them more to the foreground towards the end, therefore giving my work a different macro-structural emphasis whilst remaining close at a bar-to-bar level.

The pulsing pedals were replaced by held double pedals a semitone either side of Simpson’s usually played on a single instrument as double stops. This immediately changes the simple and calm character of Simpson’s opening to a tenser and denser argument in mine. This simple change had profound consequences for the character of the work, much like similar decisions in his Rasumovskys had (usually structural when something Beethoven had done was too unique and defined that Simpson would either have to copy it exactly or do something unrelated instead.

In my piece, partly due to my approach to writing it which has been different to my usual approach, which I have found hugely engaging for this opening section (although it is proving difficult to apply to the faster tempo of the scherzo), I wrote all the notes without any expressions or dynamics as I had anticipated that those would be nearly identical to Simpson’s, since my material was so different to his. My material however, I deliberately treat differently to Simpson’s at a conceptual level. Pike discusses Simpson’s deliberate avoidance, or even suppression of development in this section in his piece as a means to extend its duration. He uses the low C string of the cello as a hand brake at points when the music seems to be beginning to develop too quickly. He also suppresses the dynamics not only throughout the opening adagio but for the first half of the scherzo giving a significant sense of climax to the recapitulation at the end of it. However, I allow my material to develop to a greater extent. The handbrake moments in Simpson’s often cause the main material to partially reset after each interruption.

The handbrakes in mine not only themselves develop significantly, but the resumption of the main material afterwards often continues as if it had never stopped. This I feels fulfils one of the most important aspects of Simpson’s Rasumovsky models, the differentiation with its model highlights the significance of that element in the other. In this case, comparing my quartet with Simpson’s, it makes it far more obvious that Simpson was deliberately restraining his material.

The implications of this going forward is that my quartet will ‘need’ to peak sooner than his which in turn completely alters the structural weight of the work – similar to how Simpson’s simple change of time signature from 4/4 to 3/4 in his 4th Quartet compared to its Beethoven counterpart moves the argumentative weight of the piece from the first movement to the finale. Or alternatively, result in a much longer or more intense climax (which, if you know the climax in Simpson’s 7th quartet, will be a monumental challenge). The third option would be to emphasise the structural disparity and the overly developmental nature of my material by placing the climax in the same place as Simpson’s, which would likely cause my material to be stretched much further than it should.

There is one way in which these various options can be controlled however, and that, as far as I can see at this stage, is through the use of dynamics. Even just experimenting with various iterations of the dynamics on the Sibelius playback it has profound effects on the distribution of weight in the work. Perceiving this Adagio as a standalone work, the option for the dynamics which seems to work the best and is most true to the nature of my material and its development is essentially a continuous crescendo (with a few peaks and troughs along the way, often with the handbrake moments) right up until a few bars before the scherzo where it releases the tension which had built up. In fact, the moment where mine is at its most tense and potentially at its loudest, is almost identical to Simpson’s in terms of harmony and motion. The only difference is that the section preceding it has a great deal of forward motion, whereas for Simpson, his music is heading in the other direction reaching a point of total tranquillity at this particular moment.

The question I am confronting now is whether, from the wider perspective of the whole piece (of which the opening adagio is just over a 3rd of the duration), using dynamics to emphasise this point of difference will impact the following 10 minutes of music (the scherzo and adagio coda) so much that it needs to completely depart from Simpson’s structure. Or whether, if I deliberately suppress the dynamics for the opening adagio, whilst keeping the harmonic and thematic tensions in place, this will allow the following music to remain closer to Simpson’s, albeit, somewhat unbalanced by the development in the opening.

What I love about this particular dilemma is that it is totally in fitting with my understanding of similar troubles Simpson had with writing his Rasumovskys, and its notable that with each one, he progressively allows his material many more freedoms when it comes to things like this. The 4th Quartet, as mention earlier, has its weight completely flipped by a time signature change in the first movement, which is very similar to this dilemma of mine, except instead of metre and duration, it is dynamic weight, and somewhat in the other direction.

My approach to this quartet is also quite similar to Simpson’s first attempt too, where his music follows Beethoven’s at a micro-level, where bar numbers almost exactly line up. If maintaining that approach in my quartet, then the answer is simple – maintain the dynamics and the bar-to-bar modelling. But, my material is more different to Simpson’s and it is treated differently, unlike Simpson’s 4th quartet where the themes and textures are very recognisable as Beethoven models. In that regard, my quartet is much more like the latter 2 of his, where the relationship is more conceptual and the music is allowed to more freely go down its own path. Taking that approach, I would embrace the implied dynamic development in my opening Adagio and allow it to impact the flow of the rest of the piece.

This decision, whichever way I decide to lean, will have profound consequences for the start of the Scherzo – which is where I must turn my attention to next – which also presents many questions regarding character and level of analogy to deal with the individuality and simplicity of Simpson’s, specifically when it comes to metre and rhythm.


Lionel Pike’s introduction to Simpson’s ‘Rasumovskys’: https://robertsimpson.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/tonics/Tonic1_4-1982.pdf#page=10

Pike’s discussion of the 7th Quartet: https://robertsimpson.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/tonics/Tonic4_2-1992.pdf#page=3