Robert Simpson: A Listener’s Guide. Pt. 7: Symphony No. 8 & Vortex


So, this brings us to the final Symphony available to us online – the 8th. Before discussing that and the other work in post – Vortex, his final Brass Band piece – I will give a brief introduction to the three remaining Symphonies which are only available direct from Hyperion on CD or download.

The 9th Symphony (1987) is widely regarded as Simpson’s crowning achievement, perhaps only disputed by his other 9th – the hour long string quartet featuring 33 palindromic variations and fugue on Haydn’s palindromic minuet. The 50 minute, often Brucknerian, continuous symphony was the first work of his I was truly captivated by and was lucky enough to end up with one of his own copies of the Faber score of it as a teenager. The building blocks of it sound so simple in theory (a single basic pulse; a wedge shape; a chorale prelude, scherzo and fugue), yet they combine into a truly mammoth and exhilarating, yet completely refined Simpson symphonic work.

The 10th (1988) is another massive work, also approaching an hour in length, this time in a more traditional, four-movement structure (only present in his 4th and 10th Symphonies – the 8th is also in 4-movements, but not quite in the traditional formation). Compared to the 9th, the 10th Symphony is much more varied in its expression, full of richer orchestrations and contrasts, compared to the organic (and organistic) unfolding of the 9th. Dominated by intervals of 3rds and 2nds, compared to the openness of the 9th’s intervals (4ths and 5th), the mood is quite different, and often more dissonant, but with some of Simpson’s most beautiful music as well – especially in the slow movement and slow introduction to the monumental finale. The scherzo is perhaps his grooviest too, full of syncopation.

His final symphony, the 11th (1990) was clearly not written as his final symphony due to its smaller scale and content, but sadly he suffered a stroke a year after completing it and was unable to contribute any more to the genre in the last 7 years of his life. The 11th Symphony is a complete contrast to the 10th. It is shorter, clocking in at less than half an hour, in two movements for a smaller orchestra. Simpson described himself as calmer having left the BBC and moved to Ireland, but in his symphonic output, this symphony is perhaps the clearest example of that change, despite the 9th and 10th also written in Ireland. The 11th has been a personal favourite of mine for the last few years due to its serenity and economy of material – seemingly constructed from a 3-part melody and contrasting expanding wedge shape and tritone. His treatment of these elements is in the two movements creates several goosebump moments, especially in the return of the cello theme in the first movement in glorious brass in the second, creating the illusion that the second movement is actually just a reimagining of the first – a technique I find truly enticing as a composer myself.

Symphony No. 8 (1981)

The 8th Symphony returns to the scale of the 4th and 5th, after the smaller scale 7th, but with the new found emphasis on intervallic relationships present in the 7th (the 8th was actually performed before the 7th). It features the larger orchestra with the triple piccolos, mentioned in a previous post.

As described in his radio discussion with Michael Oliver (not the footballer presumably?) printed in TONIC, Simpson describes the origins of the symphony as being the response of a friend to the question “what would you like to hear in a symphony?”. A symphony in two halves with 2 movements in each (hence why I described it as different to the traditional 4-movements earlier) where the status quo in the first movement is slowly intruded on by contrasting elements that go on to dominate the succeeding scherzo. This conflict is reacted to by the slow movement that opens the second half as it becomes calmer again before the finale sets off with renewed ‘positive energy’ having recovered from the earlier trauma.

The discussion on it provides a fascinating insight into Simpson’s perception of symphonic writing and music in general – specifically the emotive nature of music – as well as his new focus on intervals which is on full display in this symphony. To quote: “I’m trying to find what intervals themselves can generate, using the resonances inherent in simple intervals like the fifth, the fourth or the third, and try to generate something from that by feeling it in a novel way”. To me, this demonstrates a defining feature of Simpson’s approach to music that sets him apart from many of his contemporaries while connecting him with composers such as Sibelius and Elgar who equally sought to find the new in the old.

Another big symphony, logically progressing to the even larger 9th and 10th, the 8th has a run time of around 45 mins in the structure outlined above. Immediately noticeable in the opening is the intervallic nature of the music demonstrated by his use of symmetry to define pitch centres as we hear pedal tones with semitone inflections either side of it. The opening is calm, dominated by woodwind and strings (notably the low piccolos at the beginning) and soon develops into a waltz-like section. As the music develops, and as outlined by his friend, gradually contrasting elements begin to intrude on proceedings. Often quiet, dissonant sections at first over pedals, ominously foreshadowing what is to come. The waltz, somewhat reminiscent to Nielsen’s 3rd Symphony’s first movement, keeps trying to continue but is never allowed to really get going. More violent contrasts enter, often with the lower brass and percussion interrupting the flowing string and wind lines which are often syncopated, much like sections of the 8th quartet (it is interesting quite how often the symphonies and quartets which share a number share more than just a number).

The scherzo provides a reprieve at first, and almost doesn’t feel like a fast movement at first as it rocks between tritones. The mood is notably darker with menacing oscillations in unison strings below wind melodies, alternating with calmer and melodic phrases. This scherzo is much darker and more fragmented than the other Simpson scherzi we’ve seen so far, especially when compared to the 9th, and stands out with its double rather than triple metre. It reaches the cataclysm of the work dominated by brass and competing sets of timpani (akin to Nielsen 4) with tam-tam, after which the movement peters out over staccato celli and wind interjections.

The slow movement that starts the second half is an intense (at first) adagio fugue, dominated by the strings. As the brass enter and the music gains in intensity, much like the scherzo before it, very Simpsonesque figures, dominated by major and minor seconds and rising motifs raising the tension level as we approach half way through the movement before being replaced by isolated and tranquil violins and wind. The almost militaristic interruptions from the brass and percussion continue but lessen in frequency as the tranquillity and serenity of the aftermath gradually takes hold of on the music. An interesting point to notice in this symphony in particular is Simpson’s variety of orchestration, use of muted brass and percussion in particular, but also timbral effects such as brief moments of solo instruments and extreme register low piccolos and high trumpets etc. particularly on show in this movement. This is especially noticeable what compared to the 9th symphony whose orchestration is much more akin to Bruckner’s block, organ-like orchestrations.

The 4th movement grows directly from the adagio as the tempo and activity – or energy, in Simpson’s words – increases again. Characteristic oscillating triplet figures in the strings provide the drive and perfect 4ths dominate the brass material. As described in the first paragraph, the energy in this movement is not the violent interruptions of the beginning, but a renewed, all the more positive energy, full of rising, optimistic lines. Spiralling figures alternated with falling perfect 4ths and rising seconds and thirds passed through the orchestra gradually build as the music begins to reach its G major destination. As the movement progresses, the material originally presented in each instrumental group is shared more and more resulting in fiendishly difficult wind and brass tonguing but continually increasing the energy levels before the work comes to a close on 4, descending a 3rd each time, unison stabs.

Further Reading

Vortex (1989)

The final Brass Band piece he wrote – the only genre where we’ve managed to cover the whole lot! – Vortex returns to the ‘natural processes’ that inspired the band pieces prior to the Introduction and Allegro. It certainly lives up to its name. Bristling with energy from the get go thanks to his staple triplet motifs – this time, often in a spiralling ‘up and down’ pattern creating a musical vortex. Personally, I would describe Vortex as only Simpson’s second best ‘vortex’ giving first place to the ending of the 9th Quartet as the parts spiral inwards on the home tone after an hour’s worth of development. Not to take anything away from this piece however.

Vortex is stuffed full of Simpsonesque ideas that those who have followed this series of posts will be familiar with by now. Its (as far as my ear can tell without a score) is again in a single basic pulse throughout its 9 minute duration creating that familiar momentum. There are some moments which trick the ear into losing that pulse as the repeated staccato notes that prepare the final build enter, but when the lower brass chords enter its revealed to have been constant throughout.

The work is in three sections, each one longer than the last. Each ends on a loud unison note (each time a semitone below the last) and starts quietly building again. On the only note I could find on this piece, it describes a vortex as having a static centre with ever increasing levels of spiralling activity all around it which Simpson illustrates in several ways simultaneously. Firstly, the unchanging tempo a constant with varying note divisions spiralling around giving the illusion of increased speed, but with the central pulse never moving. Secondly, the chord progressions which often anchor the pulse and the tonal centres. Thirdly, the inevitable descent of every spiralling motif – when it goes up, it always comes down – also in the descent of each section by a semitone.

The end of the work comes much like the vortex at the end of the 9th Quartet with all the parts whirling inwards onto a central unison pitch bring to an end Simpson’s contribution to the genre.