Robert Simpson: A Listener’s Guide. Pt. 4: ‘Symphonic Studies’ for Brass Band


After the Quartets and the Symphonies, Simpson’s most significant musical contribution to the world came in his brass band writing, completing 5 substantial works for the ensemble. Having grown up in a Salvation Army family and playing cornet in the band, his skill at writing for the ensemble is not surprising. Both works in today’s posts were written as test pieces for the world and national brass band championships respectively.

When sweeping the web for recordings of these, they are by far the most abundant of Simpson’s work available in varying levels of quality. The recordings I selected to post are my personal favourites (not including the Hyperion collection), but at a later date once I’ve finished with these posts, I will post a list of all of the recordings I have found. There is already a playlist of the works available on Spotify compiled by @deeplyclassical on Twitter:

Energy (1971)

Energy is an essential quality in any of Simpson’s music. Even his static and calm music is often brimming with potential which is usually fully realised later in the piece – the 7th Quartet (1977) is a prime example of this. It’s also a term I found myself using more and more frequently to describe various aspects of the symphonies prior to this, whether it be the sustained energy of the Scherzo of the 4th, or the increasing energy and momentum of the finales of all 4 discussed so far. It’s an intrinsic element in Simpson’s symphonic and musical thinking and would appear to be a highly appropriate term given Simpson’s decision to title his first Brass Band piece, Energy.

The first of five significant works for the ensemble, which are probably his most performed works given their role as test pieces for brass band competitions, and are highly virtuosic, as one would expect from such pieces. The first two of these are subtitled as ‘symphonic suites’, yet another inference that Simpson was incapable of non-symphonic thinking – a thinking that places potential energy at its heart.

Energy is structured as a 10 minute long accelerando – not dissimilar to the last movement of the 3rd Symphony, although this time the dynamics are certainly not suppressed. Whilst continuous, the Hyperion recording it is split into five tempo-based tracks which clearly illustrate this accelerando:

Adagio maestoso
Andante tranquillo
Allegro grazioso
Allegro molto
Presto vivo

Ideas discussed in the 4th Symphony of the contrast between tranquil and more aurally ‘traditional’ music with the dissonance and power that inevitably grow out of it is present here too. It is not juxtaposed anywhere near as violently as it is in the 4th Symphony (or to a greater extent, the 5th) however and is allowed to build organically throughout. There are still calmer moments that steady the ever growing ‘energy’ and often fugal development which is an important and conscious tool for Simpson’s large-scale structures which left unchecked would quickly spiral out of control with unbalanced pacing. In the 7th Quartet he deliberately interrupts the development to allow it to start again and build to bigger and bigger climaxes each time, for example (Pike, 1992).

This isn’t the only aspect of the 4th Symphony in this piece. About 2-minutes from the end, you’ll notice a direct quote from the end of the Scherzo of the 4th. This is hardly surprising given the fact the two pieces were written at the same time. In fact, it is hard to know which quoted which. Both passages are seamlessly inserted into the development. This is one of the few examples of ‘Simpson on the internet’ where we are spoiled for choice with good recordings. I have only linked my personal favourite below but there are several other good renditions on both YouTube and Spotify that are worth a listen. If you are a fan of brass band music, Hyperion conveniently grouped all five works onto their brass band disc with the Desford Colliery Band whose performances are sublime and bristling with ‘energy’.

Volcano (1979)

Volcano continues in the same vein of juxtaposition of violent and calm (with the opening tempo mark amusingly, calmissimo) seen in the 4th Symphony and Energy to some extent; however, it is significantly more violent (appropriately, given the title), and features the percussion to a much greater extent (notice that before Energy and the 4th Symphony, there has been very little use of percussion from Simpson other than timpani).

It’s worth noting here that Volcano comes at the end of a very productive decade for Simpson. Its predecessor, written at the same time as the 4th Symphony coming 8-years prior. In the meantime, Simpson had completed three more Symphonies and five Quartets, including the three, 40-minute long ‘Rasumovskys’, making Volcano very much a late-mid period work, coming just 2 years before the 8th Symphony.

It is a rare example of a programmatic title, although later there are a couple of other examples in the brass band music, but none quite as descriptive as this depicting a volcanic eruption. This may be true, but as a listener it is still quite abstract and difficult to attribute a concrete story to the music, which one would expect to be able to do with purely programmatic music. It can be seen more as a natural process. This is not unique among Simpson’s structure either. The 6th Symphony depicts life growing from a cell into a grown individual.

The opening of Volcano is not unlike that of Energy. In fact, the two works very clearly demonstrate the development of the composer’s ability to write for the ensemble, Volcano taking far more risks and as mentioned before, introduces a far greater array of percussion. Perhaps it is easier to justify the use of purely timbral instruments in a programmatic work? Regardless, the result is a much more turbulent and immediately exciting piece compared to the logical and organic growth of Energy. Volcano continually peaks and troughs, each time more violent than the last until the eruption is over and stillness returns at the end.