Robert Simpson: A Listener’s Guide. Pt. 2: A Glimpse at the Quartets


For the sake of variety, I am going to be alternating between the symphonies and other works in these posts, straying from the chronological order occasionally in order to keep the posts similar lengths.

Today we are looking at two movements from the string quartets (the only two movements available outside the CDs), and the only example of (non-string quartet) chamber music available – the Clarinet Quintet from 1968.

There are a bunch of promotional snippets from the other quartets on YouTube from Hyperion, but the examples we will look at here are the two complete movements available to us: the Allegro Deciso from the 3rd Quartet (arranged for String Orchestra) and the Molto Vivace from the 8th Quartet.

Allegro Deciso (from Quartet No. 3 arr. String Orchestra) (1954)

Despite being only a single movement from the 3rd Quartet, where the Allegro Deciso originates from, it is actually more than half the length of the full quartet. Arranged by Simpson himself the same year he finished the 3rd Quartet, it is his only example of such a repurposing of a full section of a work. Especially when it comes to string quartets this is somewhat surprising as I have a memory of a source where Simpson says that true string quartet music cannot be played by any other ensemble, but I cannot recall where I read that (I will edit this if I find it). I am inclined to agree with this idea (whether or not I read it from Simpson) that String Quartet music is so perfectly idiomatic to the ensemble that something is lost when played in a different context. That I do think applies here, much as it does with Shostakovich’s ‘Chamber Symphony’ arrangement of his 8th Quartet, but certainly does not detract from the enjoyment of both pieces as stand alone works for string orchestra regardless.

The most noticeable aspect of the 3rd Quartet that is lacking in this arrangement is the crispness of timbre of the bare 5th open strings on a solo instrument – that folk-music-like quality that is so obviously alluded to here. Repeated open 5ths dominate the texture of the Allegro Deciso in a pretty standard sonata form structure. The ‘first subject’ is an energetic and winding theme in characterised by quickly rising motifs and falling 3rds against an antiphonal exchange of repeated 5ths in 2/4.

The ‘second subject’ switches to 3-in-a-bar and a quieter dynamic, still maintaining the repeated notes, often harkening to Nielsen in a much more lyrical theme dominated by the violins. Beneath it is introduced a third theme that often appears as an ostinato throughout the development.

The development maintains a suppressed dynamic level for a long period – a technique also present in the 7th quartet (briefly discussed in my most recent PhD blog post) and in the 3rd Symphony. Despite the quiet dynamic, in each of these cases, Simpson is able to create a great deal of momentum and tension, which for those new to Simpson, is one of his compositional obsessions – rekindling the classical momentum he believed that music had lost by the 20th century.

You hardly notice the recapitulation other than the start of it (made quite obvious with the return of the opening antiphonal 5ths) as it is soon absorbed into a significantly extended coda, again featuring long periods of quiet dynamics, gradually increasing in momentum, dissonance and volume as the repeated notes seize control of the music (with some reprieves) and earlier themes return with scalic figures all around.

Clarinet Quintet (1968)

The Clarinet Quintet follows an earlier clarinet trio from 1967 and is the only other piece of chamber music written between the 3rd and 4th symphonies. It is also his most substantial piece of chamber music to date, lasting over half an hour (longer than the runtime of the all the symphonies and quartets up to this point) and is continuous – Spotify splits it into 5 clear tempi sections.

Simpson’s non-string-quartet chamber music, except for the Brass Quintet (1989) does not stray far from the ‘strings plus’ category, and he only explores a select few additions to the strings. Clarinets appear more than any other (Recorder once – Variations and Fugue for Recorder and String Quartet (1959), Horn twice – Quartet for Horn, Violin, Cello and Piano (1976) and Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano (1984), and Piano – Piano Trio (1989)) also featuring in the: Trio for clarinet, cello and piano (1967); this Quintet (1968); and another Quintet, this time for a clarinet, bass clarinet and string trio (originally 3 double basses – due to be recorded soon).

String Quartet No. 8 – II. Molto vivace, “Eretmapodites gilletti” (the mosquito) (1979)

Allegro Deciso is a fine demonstration of Simpson’s ability to write sustained fast music without the need to drop the tempo for sake of reprieve. This is one of Simpson’s music’s most characteristic features and compositional strengths, and there are countless examples of fast, sustained Beethovenian ‘Scherzi’ clocking up mind-blowing bar-counts throughout his output. To name a few: the 2nd movement of the 4th Symphony, the Finale of the 5th Quartet, the central sections of the 9th Symphony and 7th Quartet, and the 2nd movement of the 8th Quartet.

While not as long as the other examples mentioned above, this movement is both a demonstration of Simpson’s ability of writing fast music, but also the only real insight I can give to his mastery of string quartet writing with the recordings available to me. It is also a rare example of an explicitly descriptive piece of Simpson. While I shouldn’t go as far as describing it as programmatic (as there is no story or narrative to follow), it is Simpson’s musical representation of a mosquito. This is because of the dedicatee of the work, Prof. John David Gillett, who discovered this species of mosquito, and after whom it is named.

Since only this short movement is available to us without the Hyperion recording, I shan’t discuss the rest of the 30-minute, 4 movement quartet here other than saying that, along with the 7th (1977), I would consider it amongst my personal favourites, and if you were to buy any of the Hyperion quartet disks, the one with the 7th and 8th Quartet would be my recommendation. Both these quartets are refined, pure and cosmic, and to me are Simpson at his absolute best. They also come between his ‘Rasumovskys’ (Nos. 4-6), and his tour-de-force 9th, both of which actively engage with other composer’s music (Beethoven and Haydn respectively), so in the 7th and 8th we get a real insight into Simpson’s free and mature voice, 23-5 years after his last, ‘free’ quartet, the 3rd.

Further Reading