Robert Simpson: A Listener’s Guide. Pt. 1: The Early Symphonies


“What’s your PhD on?”


“What’s his music like?”

These are questions I have been asked a lot recently, and while I can easily talk about the music of Robert Simpson all day, it’s very difficult to introduce it to people through my words alone. With a lot of composers, this is not such a problem as one can easily say: “check out x on Spotify and you’ll see what I mean”. With Simpson however, there is a void in freely available (or stream-able) recordings of his music, and those that are there are often difficult to find.

That is not to say that his music has not been recorded. In fact, most of it has been, and the remaining unrecorded works are in the process of being recorded by the Robert Simpson Society now. However, the bulk of the existing recordings of his music are not available on any streaming site, only in CD or download format. While this is admirable from the perspective of the label and musicians involved, it does make it rather difficult to introduce people to his music without telling them to go and splash out on CDs without any knowledge of the music they will be paying for.

My intention for this series of posts is to briefly introduce you to each work that is available to listen to online a few at a time, and direct you to the recordings and any articles on the pieces for those whose interested is sparked. If you find yourself curious about his other works that I cannot present here, such as his 16 String Quartets (which I will likely be posting about more often during my PhD) and his later symphonies, those fantastic recordings can be found to purchase either from Hyperion direct as a CD or download or on iTunes.

Symphony No. 1 (1951)
YouTube Recording

YouTube Recording (split in 3 parts).

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

While I will not go into a great deal of biographical information about Robert Simpson in these posts (as that is easily obtainable elsewhere), it is worth noting the origins of the First Symphony. The piece was written as his Doctoral (DMus) thesis at Durham University. Very little of Simpson’s music prior to this survives, the most notable would be the Piano Sonata of 1946 and the (soon to be recorded) String Quartet in D (not to be confused with No. 1) of 1945. There was also the Haydn Variations for piano in 1948 which he would later rework into his mammoth 9th String Quartet (1982). For a full chronological list of Simpson’s work, see the Robert Simpson Society website.

Whenever I have described this symphony in the past, I always describe it as a work in 2 parts: Simpson before, and Simpson after Nielsen. For those unfamiliar with Nielsen’s music, I would highly recommend listening to some of his symphonies before diving into Simpson (there’s only 6 of them, about 30mins each). Later Simpson would go on to write one of the definitive texts on Nielsen, and was awarded the Carl Nielsen Gold Medal in 1956 for it and his other work raising the profile of the Danish composer. This is particularly relevant to this piece as it was written during the time Simpson first discovered Nielsen’s music (specifically the 3rd Symphony) and its impact is most definitely audible in the symphony.

Nielsen’s 3rd Symphony and Simpson’s 1st share a tonal concept – a conflict between two keys, a tritone apart (A and Eb). For those familiar with Nielsen, such tonal conflicts are an integral part of his music resulting in ‘progressive’/’emergent’ tonality. Simpson was doing the same in his symphony and when he had discovered Nielsen had already done it it caused him to cease composition of the work for a while. When he returned to it, Nielsen’s music had embedded itself in his style. So when I describe the first Symphony as being in 2 parts, it is quite literal – the beginning doesn’t have Nielsen’s influence, the end does.

The symphony itself is actually in 1 movement in 3 clear sections opening with a striking minor 3rd played on two high D trumpets. The powerful opening highlights semitonal tensions to be tackled by the rest of the work. After this the music subsides into a quiet fugue lead by the strings, the main subject of which returns, slower as the main theme of the central adagio section of the work, some of Simpson’s most calm symphonic writing – particularly impressive for a debut in the genre. Early hints of Nielsen appear here, especially in the ‘sighing’ minor 3rd gestures.

The finale emerges out of the slow section with fast rhythmic string passages followed by the brass taking the second theme from the adagio and combining it with the fugue subject from earlier which truly starts the finale. A similar passage to the earlier fugue follows lead by the strings again, but this time significantly more Nielsenesque in every respect. The recapitulation of the opening material with his new-found confidence of style shows his early but true mastery of formal design and long form composition.

The work is also in a ‘single basic pulse’ throughout, meaning that all tempo changes are directly related to one another. This is an obsession of Simpson’s appearing throughout his works. The most famous and impressive example of this is the 9th Symphony (1987) which is a 50-minute, single movement symphony written entirely in one basic pulse.

Further Reading

Symphony No. 2 (1956)

The Second Symphony is for a smaller, Haydnesque orchestra than the first with the addition, yet again, of 2 high D trumpets. It represents a refinement in many senses of the word after the rawness of the first symphony, and Nielsen’s influence has further embedded itself in his style. Between the two symphonies came the first 3 string quartets (unfortunately only available on CD/download, so won’t feature in this series, but may in other posts later in my PhD).

This was also (sadly) the only Robert Simpson symphony to be “performed” (live broadcast by the BBC Philharmonic) during his centenary year in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic – likely thanks to its smaller orchestra. Thankfully there were more performances of chamber works in the centenary and overspilling into 2022 to make up for it (mostly in his hometown of Leamington Spa).

The symphony lasts roughly half an hour and is in 3 movements:

  1. Allegro Grazioso

Simpson’s approach to composition was well summarised by Lionel Pike in his essay on the 7th Quartet. In essence, Simpson’s process was material driven; the intervals and implications of his thematic material would be the building blocks of entire works. The 2nd Symphony is a prime example of this. The opening theme of the symphony is very Simpsonesque; outwardly simple, yet full of potential for growth and development. It is built entirely from 3rds and 2nds, with a perfect 4th at the end. A quick skim over the score of the first movement and you can see quite how integral these intervals become as the music progresses. In fact, you’d be pressed to find a melodic (horizontal) interval that is not a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th (or with octave displacement) in the whole symphony! Feel free to have a look – the score is on nkoda!

For a more detailed analysis, please the TONIC article by John Pickard.

  • Largo cantabile

Here we see an early – although not the earliest – example of one of Simpson’s favourite techniques, palindromes. Although not obvious in the slightest on first listening – and perhaps it wasn’t intended to be, given its omission from Simpson’s programme note (see below) – the entire movement (apart from a short coda at the end) is a palindrome (the same backwards as it is forwards). For those interested, the midpoint appears during a calm passage featuring a melody on a horn and flute. In the score it appears shortly after figure 7 on page 51 and is emphasised by a dynamic swell to mf in the melody. Simpson’s true mastery of Palindromic composition however can be found in the 9th Quartet (1982). An hour long set of 31 strictly palindromic variations and a fugue on Haydn’s Palindromic Minuet from the 47th Symphony.

  • Non troppo allegro, ma con brio

The finale is highly energetic and upbeat compared to its predecessor, and arguably more flowing when compared to the first movement. The thematic link discussed in the first movement is still very much present here but with a newfound positivity. Here Nielsen’s influence on Simpson is very clear, not just compositionally – which is especially noticeable in the rhythmic and harmonic language of this music, not to mention the brass writing – the horns at figure 21 on page 90 – but philosophically too.

Further Reading

Programme Note (Robert Simpson):
Analysis (John Pickard):