Robert Simpson: A Listener’s Guide. Pt. 6: Brass – Nielsen and Reger


A return this week to Simpson’s brass music, leaving just one to talk about in a later post – Vortex. The main focus of today’s post is on his later and longer brass band pieces – the Four Temperaments and the Introduction and Allegro on a Bass by Max Reger (my favourite of all his brass music). We start with another personal favourite, the much smaller Canzona from 1958. Both the Introduction and Allegro and the Canzona have notable references in my own music – namely in my own Introduction and Allegro on a theme by Bruckner (2021) and Fanfare 1969 (2019) respectively.

Having now had the chance to prepare all of these posts, there are two remaining after this one: Vortex and the 8th Symphony, and the three Concerti (he did write 4, but the Violin Concerto was later withdrawn). The week after I will compile all the recordings and links I have used in these posts, plus other recordings of some works that have multiple to bring the series to a close. I hope to return to this in the future however once the new discs of chamber music are released, and with the news of Hyperion’s sale, perhaps we may see more Simpson appearing on streaming platforms at some point too.

Canzona for Brass (1958)

Starts at 8:55.

Simpson’s Canzona and as of yet unrecorded Brass Quintet (1989) are his only brass ensemble works not for brass band forces; the Canzona written for an orchestral brass ensemble of four trumpets (including one D trumpet which is heavily featured), three trombones and a tuba.

It is a short piece, only around 5 minutes long, and immediately creates an almost Gabrielli-esque sound world. The texture is sparse but idiomatic, full of sustained notes in the lower instruments with high proclamatory statements in the trumpets, led by the D trumpet. The work is in ABA form with a calm and quiet central section.

The Hyperion disk that features the Canzona also features the only recordings of Simpson’s two choral works – Media morte in vita sumus (1975) for SATB, Brass and Timpani – the text is his own translated into Latin; and Tempi (1987) – a choral work whose entire text is musical terms; and his 30-minute organ tour-de-force, Eppur si Muove (1985).

The Four Temperaments (1982)

The Four Temperaments suite takes as its starting point the same as Nielsen’s 2nd Symphony (1902) – subtitled The Four Temperaments – does: the four temperaments of the human persona: the sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic, and choleric (Norbury, 1987). Simpson’s approach is to assign each a musical form which outlines the four movements of the work:

  • Sanguine – Scherzo
  • Phlegmatic – Intermezzo
  • Melancholic – Elegy
  • Choleric – Fantasy

The work shares much in common with its brass band predecessors – Energy and Volcano – and clearly demonstrates a progression in his ability and confidence in writing for such a demanding ensemble. Unlike them however it was rearranged for an orchestral brass ensemble later by the composer for performance at the RNCM no less. It is also significantly longer at 22-minutes and is in separate movements in the form of a suite, rather than the single-movement, ‘symphonic studies’ of the earlier works – that is not to say that it is any less ‘symphonic’ in its construction. Symphonism was not an approach easily turned off for a composer like Simpson.

Many other characteristic features of Simpson’s language with which you will be familiar by this point, if you have been following this series of posts, are on show – quintal and interval-based harmonies and characteristic rhythmic figures for example. It’s worth noting that this came only three years after Volcano, and between them came the 8th Symphony and the colossal 9th Quartet. I shan’t go into more detail about the content of this work as Kevin Norbury’s excellent article on the piece is more than sufficient in that regard, including Simpson’s own descriptions of each of the temperaments.

Introduction and Allegro on a Bass by Max Reger (1987)

While the titles of the previous three pieces for brass band we have discussed thus far (and the one remaining to be) have dealt with natural or human processes, or processes brimming with energetic potential, this piece marks a departure, at least in its title. However, in practice, its undeniable energy and power come not from external concepts or processes, but instead has purely musical origins – and quite obscure origins at that!

The ‘bass’ in question comes in the ritenuto at the end of Max Reger’s Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor op. 135b for organ, a work he held in high regard ( bar 103-5). It is an illustration of Simpson’s ability to see immense musical potential in the least obvious places. Having scanned the organ score of the Reger, it does not jump out as a theme, it is in amongst the counterpoint. Simpson’s recontextualization of it as a theme however fully demonstrates its musical potential within it, with only minor alterations: “[Simpson changes] Reger’s compound time signature to 3/4 and flatten[s] one note of it to make it more combinable with a string of rising fourths which grow from the last notes of the bass”. (Wilson, 1988).

As the title makes explicitly clear, the work is in an extended introduction followed by an allegro lasting a combined 16 minutes (the second longest of Simpson’s band pieces). Instead of presenting the them, as one would in a theme and variations, the introduction, instead, gradually consolidates various fragments of the theme prior to its first full statement at the beginning of the allegro, which is preceded by an accelerating passage of heat-beat-like low brass and percussion notes that bridges the two sections. The allegro is through-composed however it is often fugal. The theme appears in various guises, gradually transforming throughout the allegro but returns with its full original vigour at the end.

Pacing is of foremost concern to Simpson, as it should be for all organically minded symphonists. For Simpson its often evidenced in his discussion of his own music. For example, how the development in his 7th Quartet “was beginning to move on too fast for the sake of the music and its ideas so far, and at this point the progress needed to be held back” (Pike, An Astronomical String Quartet: A lesson From Robert Simpson, 1992), referring to a bar with nothing but the open C string of the cello in this case. In the introduction and allegro, this consciousness of the pacing of his development is evident too. Notice how after the initial flurry of activity in the allegro the dynamics and texture are pulled back (not unlike the third movement of the 3rd Symphony discussed earlier) and the development becomes more fragmentary, with the theme becoming less prominent to allow its return at the final climax to be properly prepared and given the weight its most certainly earnt by that point.