Outside the United Kingdom, the music of Robert Simpson (1921-1997) hasn’t received much attention. Even within the U.K., his works are performed and recorded only occasionally these days. He was once, however, well-known as a BBC producer and writer as well as composer.
Inspired by a recent online discussion I happened upon, I returned to Simpson’s music recently. I can’t say that I know his output that well, but I’ve heard several of his major pieces. One that, in listening to it again several times, struck me particularly powerfully – and which was apparently the composer’s own favorite of his works – is the Symphony No. 9 of 1985-87. It’s a very forceful, intellectually stimulating but also viscerally gripping, work, worthy of more attention and discussion.
Robert Simpson was born in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England. He studied at Westminster School, thinking that he might go into medicine as other members of his family had. But music won out. During World War II, as a conscientious objector, he served with a mobile surgical unit, while also continuing his music studies with composer Herbert Howells. Simpson ultimately received a Doctor of Music degree from Durham University.
In 1951, he joined the music staff of the BBC, where he worked for over thirty years as a much-respected broadcaster and producer. In that position, he championed the music of composers like Gustav Mahler, Havergal Brian, and Carl Nielsen. Later, however, he butted heads with BBC management about cost-cutting and reorganization efforts, eventually resigning when he made his dissatisfaction known too publicly. In 1986, he moved to the Republic of Ireland, where he died in 1997 at age seventy-six after suffering for years from the effects of a debilitating stroke.
The balance of Simpson’s catalog of compositions is interesting. He seems to have had little interest in vocal music, and wrote only a handful of chamber and orchestral works, including four concertos, outside of his main focus, perhaps the two most serious of instrumental forms – the string quartet, of which he produced fifteen (the same number as Dmitri Shostakovich), and the symphony, of which he completed eleven (with another four early symphonies allegedly destroyed).
Along with his music, Simpson also wrote much, specifically books and essays on the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Anton Bruckner, Jean Sibelius, and one of his heroes, Carl Nielsen. His Carl Nielsen, Symphonist (1952) and The Essence of Bruckner (1967) are still very well-regarded. In 1980, a Robert Simpson Society was created by his fans who wanted to make sure his work remained in the public eye. Its website is a treasure trove of information on Simpson.
In an obituary, Martin Anderson called Simpson “arguably Britain’s most important composer since Vaughan Williams; he was certainly one of the century’s most powerful and original symphonists anywhere.”
Continue reading “Robert Simpson’s Symphony No. 9”
The Symphony No. 9 – described in an oft-quoted Gramophone review as “as hypnotic as the star-filled night sky” – was composed over the years 1985 through 1987. Commissioned by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, with funds provided by the Arts Council of Great Britain, the symphony is dedicated to Simpson’s wife Angela. It was first performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Vernon Handley in Bournemouth on April 8, 1987.