Robert Simpson: A Listener’s Guide. Pt. 3: The Transitionary Symphonies

Symphony No. 3 (1962)

A return to the symphonies then. The 3rd Symphony can perhaps be considered as a transitionary one, along with the other works completed in the 60s – of which there are relatively few compared to the other decades of his composing life. This was likely due to his particularly busy schedule at the BBC at the time – he worked at the BBC as music producer and broadcaster from the 1951-1980 – including the organisation of Havergal Brian’s ‘Gothic’ symphony in 1966 – a composer whose work Simpson worked tireless to promote. It’s also worth noting that this symphony comes 6 years after its predecessor (and 10 years before its successor). The only orchestral work to be composed between the 2nd Symphony of 1956 and this was the now withdrawn Violin Concerto of 1959, and only 18-minutes of non-orchestral music fills this void with the Canzona for Brass (1958) and the Variations and Fugue for Recorder and String Quartet (1959).

From the outset, the 3rd symphony is noticeably more dramatic than the 2nd, and the voice is more uniquely Simpson’s. It’s also significantly larger in orchestration – the first example in his symphonies of another favourite orchestration – 3 piccolos – also found in the 4th, 5th, and 8th Symphonies. As discussed in Pickard’s analysis, the work effectively takes the principals of organic development and tonal conflict that dominate the earlier symphonies and quartets to a new and often violent height. It also demonstrates a much more confident and recognisable approach to rhythm not present in the earlier symphonies. Like the earlier symphonies too, the form is far from standard. Whilst the first movement’s origins may lie in sonata form, the second of this two-movement symphony is a 15 minute “composed accelerando, but with the dynamics repressed” (Pickard, 1994). When the dynamics become ‘unrepressed’ at the end it is truly exhilarating and well worth the wait.

The symphony opens with an obscure passage of rising semitonal clashes between the clarinets and 3rd flute under a C pedal in the violins gradually crescendo-ing the presentation of the first subject thematic material built from simultaneous rising and falling phrases followed by a rising major second – the interval of tonal conflict in this symphony. The second subject follows the first mini climax of the first subject is calmer but unease. Its identifiable by a low rising dominant 7th arpeggio, first in the strings and in the low brass in the recapitulation. Since this and the rest of the structure is discussed in significant detail in Pickard’s analysis (Pickard, 1994) (as well as the relationship between the exposition in first movement and the corresponding movement in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, something Simpson later takes to the extreme in his 4th-6th Quartets), I shan’t expand on it much more. The recording of this symphony is also very high quality and will do more justice to itself than my attempt at a description. It is worth mentioning the multiple examples of cannons and fugal passages in this symphony; his use of heartbeat-like motifs to build and sustain tension and momentum in the second movement in particular; and the use of imitative inversions of the subjects towards the end of the first movement – a common technique in Bruckner’s music. The overt Nielsenesque aspects at the end of the first two symphonies has been replaced by original, exciting, and unleashed Simpson.

Further Reading

Symphony No. 4 (1972 rev. 73)

YouTube Recording

YouTube Recording (split in 4 parts).

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

The 4th Symphony is a strange one. In the continuity of Simpson symphonies, to me, the 3rd seems to flow into the 5th (1972) much easier than the 4th, despite them being completed in the same year (This may be just due to association however, with the 3rd and 5th appearing on the same Hyperion disk – the first I listened to religiously). In fact, to me, the 4th Symphony shares more aurally with the 10th Symphony (1988) than the 3rd and 5th. But perhaps its most interesting features are highlighted by its place in the timeline compared to those around it?

It is the first, ‘traditional’ four-movement symphony Simpson wrote, and the only one that follows the usual structure; a scherzo and a slow movement sandwiched between two allegros. It opens with a very recognisable motif of falling 5ths and rising 4ths which clearly dominates the outer two movements. The first movement has frequent hints at Nielsen, and even Sibelius and, in general, large swathes of the sound world of this symphony are much more retrospective than the 3rd Symphony – at least, until he allows it to get out of hand (and this does not continue to the 5th Symphony). This includes a direct quote from Haydn’s 76th Symphony in the trio section of the scherzo. In fact, it is fact that large parts of this symphony sound so ‘traditional’ that allow the juxtaposition of more dissonant and ‘modern’ music around it to have such a dramatic effect. This isn’t unique to the 4th Symphony either. The opening of the 10th Symphony is another example of this.

The possible reason for the older sound could be the intervals of the 4th and 5th which are much more stable than the conflicting intervals found in his earlier symphonies. 5ths are one of Simpson’s favourite intervals and form an important part of his harmonic language in his later music, starting here with the 4th symphony where we can hear frequent examples of doublings at the octave and a fifth. A great deal of the chords heard in this and future works are either collections of stacked 5ths, or other chords doubled an octave and a 5th higher, often creating 12-tone chords that span a wide pitch range. Its an interesting harmonic device as it differentiates the component chords by register (often with the help of orchestration), which despite it being a 12-tone chord, allows the listener to find more interesting chordal hierarchies within, and certainly does not sound overly chromatic. It also creates the illusion that the higher chords are in fact harmonics of the lower ones.

The most impressive achievement of the 4th Symphony is the Scherzo. 13-minutes of sustained, Beethovenian 1-in-a-bar, triple time energy. The use of ostinati and repetition allow the music to build and spiral forwards with increasing momentum throughout becoming more bombastic and exciting each time it resets. This sense of growth continues through the Haydn in the trio section getting interrupted by (or perhaps, interrupting) increasingly violent outbursts that are eventually unleashed towards the end of the movement. The art of a sustained symphonic scherzo is something Simpson only builds on in future, culminating in the relentless central section of the 9th Symphony.

The slow movement, marked Andante, is the only symphonic example of an orchestral soloist in Simpson’s output – a lyrical and moving cello solo right at the start of the movement. The movement is not all calm and lyrical however, and later it is loud and full of conflict – much like a Brucknerian Adagio (although Simpson did not acknowledge any direct influence of Bruckner until the 9th Symphony). What is particularly fascinating about this movement is the fact that Simpson revised it – not something he was known to do. He did so after the first few performances, because he considered the mood too indulgent when compared to the mood of the rest of the symphony.

The finale revisits the material of the first movement with some of the momentum of the 1-in-a-bar Scherzo and continually develops with increasing levels of unstoppable energy towards the end. This is helped by rising scales, waltz-like accompaniment, spiralling string and wind figures and dominant 7th chords. Percussion is even featured to a greater extent than in the previous symphonies as a march-like snare drum and cymbals join as the symphony reaches its pinnacle, ending with the motif that opened the symphony almost 50 minutes prior. The 4th Symphony is his longest work to date by far, almost lasting the length of the 2nd and 3rd symphonies combined.

Like all the Symphonies, they are available in pairs but for best value, the box set from Hyperion is definitely the recommended place to grab them. I am only able to discuss the first 8 symphonies in these posts, as arguably his best symphonies, 9-11, are only available to listen to in the CD/downloads from Hyperion/iTunes.