Robert Simpson: A Listener’s Guide. Pt. 5: The Mid-Period Symphonies


Originally I had planned to group the symphonies in pairs, as there are 8 available to stream. But since nos. 6 and 7 were written in the same year (1977) it makes no sense to separate them, and their striking difference to no. 5 makes its inclusion necessary too for context (plus, Lyrita Records released the 5th and 6th Symphonies together for the centenary). So I apologise for the longer post this week, but it must be done!

Its also worth mentioning that between the 5th and 6th Symphonies, Simpson wrote the three c. 40min Quartets that inspired my doctorate; his 4th, 5th, and 6th – aka. his ‘Rasumovskys’. Each of the quartets is directly modelled on its counterpart in Beethoven’s op. 59 ‘Rasumovsky’ Quartets. Sadly they will not feature in this series due to lack of streamable recording, but I will definitely be discussing them later as part of my PhD blog.

Symphony No. 5 (1972)
YouTube Recording

YouTube Recording (split in 5 parts).

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

The 5th Symphony to me represents the pinnacle of drama in Simpson’s work. It is also a turning point in his symphonic approach representing both the culmination of the tonal conflict and drama in his symphonies up to this point that the more subdued and organic symphonies that follow seem to attempt to reconcile, and a departure from the more traditional sound worlds in the first four. It also sparks a newfound compositional energy that manifests itself with a return to the genre of the string quartet a year, completing the 3 ‘Rasumovskys’ before the next symphonic instalment in 1977.

One would’ve been forgiven if the classical structure of the 4th Symphony represented the start of a ‘neoclassical’ era of Simpson, but the 5th Symphony immediately throws those illusions out of the window. Its structure is a nearly 40-minute, single movement in arch form from some perspectives: opening and closing allegros surrounding a “patrol”-form Scherzo, with slow Canons either side. Simpson describes “patrol form” as “Essentially a crescendo-diminuendo, like a band approaching, passing and receding” (Simpson, Symphony No. 5 – Programme Note, 1984).

It is one of his most exhilarating pieces, never straying from my top 3 favourite Simpson symphonies, and is his most recently performed symphony (2012 at the RCM). It was also lucky enough to get the recording of its première released by Lyrita Records for his Centenary last year in 2021 along with the 6th Symphony. This recording only amplifies the violence of the work through a rowdier brass section and faster tempo of the opening Allegro when compared to the (still excellent) Hyperion recording.

The juxtaposition of calm/still and dissonant/violent reaches its polar extremes in this work resulting easily in Simpson’s most violent writing in his entire output in the faster sections, and his most still. The work emotional and structural conflict is the violent relationship between the extreme stillness of the opening string hexachord that dominates the work like cosmic-background radiation (not inappropriate metaphor given Simpson was a keen amateur astronomer and member of the Royal Astronomers Association), and the note of the whole-tone scale not allowed to be part of it (B-flat).

The opening Allegro presents this conflict in its raw form, the stillness of the chord vs the bombastic and the violent material that follows. The first, wind led ‘canone’ deconstructs the chord one note at a time before reaching the short central scherzo dominated by a relentless rhythmic ostinato. The second canone that follows it is much darker and brooding, starting with the basses and bassoons and slowly getting higher with each addition of string and wind pairing, accompanied by the previous instruments insisting on rhythmic fragments hanging over from the scherzo. The slow and immense build of tension and return of the chord through this canone provides the ideal platform for the second allegro (molto allegro con fuoco) to be unleashed.

When compared to the orchestration, harmonic and rhythmic language of the earlier symphonies, this symphony is a new world for Simpson (especially noticeable in the last 2 sections). Particularly striking is the high trumpet writing and combination of the horns and percussion – always a goosebump moment for me about 5-minutes into the final section.

The final section is the longest by far, more than double the length of any prior. It opens with a similar concept to the subdued dynamic of the finale of the 3rd Symphony – the potential energy of fast music at a quiet dynamic that builds and builds returning to the thematic material from the first allegro, the minor third that was so instrumental to the conflict against the chord at the beginning becoming more dominant here. Ostinati and oscillating figures are more common here, tying over from the canons and scherzo, techniques that were not so common prior to the Scherzo of the 4th Symphony in his output. The music begins to rise to more and more sub-climaxes each resetting and building to a greater one finally settling in a sustained climaxes at a loud dynamic for several minutes with some of his most virtuosic orchestral writing, especially for the high trumpets playing wind/string like figures.

The music ends with a sustained tutti chord (over which the 2 sets of timpani hammer out the minor thirds) giving way suddenly to the quiet string chord from the opening while the rest of the music fragments and eventually disappears completely leaving the chord to slowly fade away, one note at a time leaving just the highest C at the end. The confidence required for a composer to write a static chord for such a long time is high but is totally required to balance the violence that came before it – a confidence in his material and understanding of large-scale pacing that is often demonstrated by Simpson. Another fine example is the long, slow quiet passage after the final climax of the 9th Symphony (1987).

Further Reading

Symphony No. 6 (1977)

The 6th Symphony is dedicated to the distinguished gynaecologist, Ian Craft, who suggested to Simpson a symphony that traced the growth of a fertilised cell into a grown living organism – not a difficult challenge for a composer whose symphonic and musical thinking is already so organic, but perhaps the opportunity to actively engage with this process from a descriptive perspective was an added stimulus. It is the closest thing to a ‘programmatic’ symphony in Simpson’s output, although the innate similarities between natural processes and the organic development embedded in symphonic composition render it somewhat mute.

It is immediately audible that there has been a departure from the raw and dissonant conflicts of the previous two symphonies, and in some ways, the 6th and 7th sound almost nostalgic – the opening of the 6th reminds me of the opening of the 2nd Symphony. There’s also a clear return to more Nielsenesque material and philosophies (not at all inappropriate for a symphony literally about life, which for Nielsen was the essence of music). The opening on the Spotify recording, which is from the première, has many similarities with themes throughout Nielsen’s symphonies (for example, the 2nd movement of the 2nd Symphony (1902), or the oscillating thirds at the beginning of the 5th (1922)). This was later revised for a much more interesting opening theme by Simpson who was not too pleased with the first performance. Pike discusses this new theme in his analysis, linked below.

This nostalgia is an illusion however, as, by this point, Simpson had begun to leave behind the Nielsenesque, tonal key conflicts in favour of intervallic conflicts and relationships, and tonal centres rather than the key centres that had dominated his earlier symphonies. The similarity of sound with the 2nd Symphony is simply due to the similarity of the intervallic composition of the thematic material and orchestration of the opening. There was a similar shift for one of his contemporaries, Edmund Rubbra, in his later output about 10-years prior to Simpson’s 6th and 7th. The result is a much richer, freer, and often denser, interval based harmonic language, with Simpson’s doublings at the 5th prevalent – particularly relevant to the 6th Symphony whose material relies so greatly on 5ths. This approach arguably started with the 5th Symphony but is still in its infancy 5 years later with the 6th. There are still lingering moments embedded in tonality, such as the triumphant D-major at the end of the work, or the major/minor, triadic implications of the (revised) opening theme. By the 7th Symphony, despite only being written a few months later, the transition was complete, and the musical argument is entirely derived from the inherent tensions within the intervals of the opening material. More on that later.

The symphony is a single, 30-minute movement in two halves. The first half can be perceived as the gestation period where two different, yet related thematic cells – a fluid, “male” cell made up of minor 3rds and 5ths; and a static, “female” cell, a cluster chord of condensed 5ths (Pike, 1990) – gradually combine and multiply. The first half ends with an enormous climax representing the birth of the creature (illustrated by the intense musical contractions preceding it).

The second half is the growth of the creature. The two cells from the first half have combined into one from which all the material in the second half is built from, and any new material is soon absorbed, as if the creature is learning new things. For a full analysis of the work, see Pike’s analysis.

Further Reading

Programme Note:

Symphony No. 7 (1977)

The audience Simpson had imagined while writing his 7th Symphony was ahead of its time, and somewhat prophetically dystopian. That of a person, alone in a room, listening to a recording, rather than in a concert hall. A reminder that Simpson was deeply involved in radio and television recording and broadcasting while he was at the BBC (a relationship that was, during the 70s, becoming increasingly strained), so he had a front row seat to how the advancement of technology was impacting how we experienced music.

I am unsure to what extent this had an impact on the music he wrote, but it is interesting to consider that, while listening to it in recorded form, we are listening to it how it was intended (or expected) to be listened to by the composer, which is unheard of in the world of classical music at the time, and in most cases still is today. It is perhaps even more saddening that it is so difficult to find decent recordings of Simpson’s music, that most people cannot even experience it in that form. Its worth noting the last public performance of a Simpson symphony was over a decade ago at the RCM. Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic prevented another in his centenary year of 2021 – but I was not aware of any concrete plans for one prior to the pandemic either. Simpson did however feature as ‘Composer of the Week’ on BBC Radio 3 in the first week of June that year, and there was a live radio broadcast of the 2nd Symphony by the BBC Philharmonic and Martyn Brabbins a week after.

The chamber music has been somewhat luckier than the symphonies, featuring heavily in the Leamington Music Festival over the past couple of years – Leamington Spa being his town of birth, his house within 10-minute walk of the Royal Pump Rooms which host most chamber music concerts in the festival – and performances of the 1st Quartet at the BBC Proms during the centenary by the Marmen Quartet and a livestream from the Bromsgrove festival by the Tippett Quartet.

The 7th Symphony shares many features with the earlier symphonies, but it is all together something new. The orchestra required is the same small, classical orchestra of the 2nd.  It is in one, 30-minute movement, like the 5th and 6th. There are variations in mood and tempo, however, unlike its two immediate predecessors, the borders between these are not so clear making it perhaps Simpson’s closest thing to a true single movement symphony, in the sense of Sibelius’ 7th, to date.

Aurally, the harmonic language and orchestration share a great deal with the 6th Symphony, written in the same year, so hardly surprising. Take for example the quintal harmonies and high wind chords. There is a fundamental difference between the two, however, mentioned briefly in the section on the 6th Symphony: that of ‘key-based’ and ‘interval-based’ tonality. The 7th is entirely concerned with the intervals that make up its opening subject. Not dissimilar to the economy of intervallic material in the 2nd Symphony, yet significantly more developed to the point where it has entirely replaced the reliance on keys.

The conflict within the symphony is twofold, and not generated in the Nielsen sense between conflicting tonalities as in the earlier symphonies. Firstly, there is a clearly audible (once directed) conflict between the intervals in the opening theme – specifically between the first interval, a perfect 5th, and the rest – when condensed, a dissonant collection of 5 notes separated by semitones – treated as a major 3rd, encompassing a major 2nd, encompassing a central note (Simpson, 1988). From a purely aural perspective, this can be generalised to be a conflict between consonant, quintal harmony, and the dissonant harmony made from 3rds and 2nds. The single note found at the centre of the 3rds and 2nds can be considered a unison, whose significance becomes apparent by the end of the work. In fact, a slight departure, but notice in this symphony that there are more structurally significant moments that involve unisons or singular pitches – a result of the move away from key based harmonies, to establish a pitch centre, over a key centre, a unison is a strong tool.

The other conflict in this work is related to this consonance and dissonance, however it is one of mood rather than intervallic relationship. Overall, this symphony is tense and turbulent, however there is a clearing in a storm: the opening of the short Adagio section just after the halfway mark. Introduced by an offbeat, pulsing violin figure but mostly characterised by two occurrences of a short brass chorale tune, which is interestingly a melodic representation of the more dissonant collection of intervals from the opening material, contrasting their role throughout the rest of the symphony.

The transition back to the Allegro is obscured by the staggering of the acceleration of different ideas. The melodic line is slower to accelerate than its accompaniment, clearly demonstrating that the change of tempi is not a change of movement. This marks the start of the final flurry of activity in the symphony. It does not end with that, however. Instead, it ends with a haunting C# that lasts well over 2-minutes, treated with a similar technique to the end of the 5th Symphony, where the chord remains after all the energy of the symphony dissipates and fragments over the top. This C# of course representing the central note, or the unison, of the major 3rd and major 2nd from the opening material.

The length of this note demonstrates one of the challenges Simpson will have had to confront when removing his symphony from the bounds of ‘key-based’ tonality. A resolution cannot be prepared with dominants or other traditional means familiar to audiences without inadvertently implying a key/tonality. The establishment of a home pitch (rather than key) requires different methods. Symmetry is one, particularly apparent in later works, but relevant here in the ‘central pitch’ between those intervals.  The arrival at the C# is in fact done through voice leading approaching it from above and below. The 9th Symphony takes this to a whole new level and constructs the entire work from a symmetrically expanding and contracting wedge shape. Duration, another. It is telling that Simpson found it difficult to ‘resolve’ this work as the C# required such a long statement for it to be a balanced resolution to the previous conflict – that is not to say that it feels anyway resolved. It hangs there for an uncomfortable eternity, occasionally questioned by quieter and quieter gestures. But it is still, stable, and final, and although it may not sound ‘resolved’ I could not call it ‘unresolved’ either. It just is. An uncomfortable truth that no matter how much it is ignored, it is still true. This has a parallel with the 1979 revision of Simpson’s analysis of Nielsen’s 6th Symphony in Carl Nielsen: Symphonist (Simpson, 1952 rev. 1979) where he frames the symphony as a journey of acceptance of an unwanted tonality – B-flat – with the metaphor of Nielsen himself coming to accept his heart problem (angina pectoris) following his heart attack of 1925.

Further Reading