Robert Simpson’s Symphony No. 9

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.”

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.

The Symphony No. 9 is a single stretch of music, lasting some fifty minutes, divided into three large sections (or, in some descriptions, two, as the two faster opening sections are sometimes conflated into one). As he does in large-scale in the Symphony No. 9, Simpson liked to write significant works based entirely on a single pulse, with faster or slower tempos suggested by shorter or longer note-values (the String Quartet No. 2 and Symphony No. 1 are other such works). This Symphony No. 9 has been called the longest musical work written in one tempo.

The symphony isn’t really tonal in the normal sense of having a reasonably stable tonal center. It’s dissonant, but doesn’t embrace twelve-tone theory either. Simpson drew on Carl Nielsen’s notion of creating movement and tension through conflicts of tonality. As he once wrote, “I wanted to find a way to make tonal centres react against each other, not to make non-tonality react against tonality. I felt (and still feel) that to try to anaesthetise the listener’s tonal sense was to deny oneself a powerful means of expression.”

A very detailed and helpful description of the Symphony No. 9 by Lionel Pike is included as the program notes to the Hyperion recording of the symphony by Vernon Handley and the Bournemouth Symphony; you can see that at Hyperion’s website. The CD also features a guide to the work by Simpson himself, with musical examples. My own description draws on both of these.

The work open with a low D-sharp in the double basses that acts as a pedal. That long note quickly divides into a triplet rhythm that pervades this opening section of the work. Soon the notes above and below D-sharp, D and E natural are added to the mix, and that set of three notes is the starting point for the symphony.

Simpson makes much of a melodic “wedge” shape, in which notes fan out above and below a central tone, the intervals between the notes getting larger (or, later in the work, smaller) as they spread out. That central tone evolves over intervals of a fourth, and even if you can’t call the sound of a fourth into your imagination, that interval will become a familiar sound as you listen. It turns up constantly. In one early section, as the “wedge” shape takes different forms, it rises by a fourth each time, starting and ending at D-sharp after running through all twelve notes. These different forms of the “wedge” are akin to a theme-and-variations.

After this material unfolds, the figure of Johann Sebastian Bach enters the picture, first with a series of fugue-like passages, and more especially with the announcement of a “chorale” theme in the brass. Once again, each phrase is a fourth higher than its predecessor. One doesn’t hear massed brass writing of this power much outside of Bruckner, another of the big influences on Simpson’s music (he even quotes Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3 briefly at one point). One also hears the occasional obsessive repetition of a short melodic phrase or rhythm that calls to my mind similar things in the symphonies of Carl Nielsen. There are passages of great force, as well as moments in which the momentum subsides for a short while.

This development of the brass chorale builds up, over a series of waves, a lot of energy that eventually bursts forth, after a sustained climax, in a Scherzo – either the second of the symphony’s three sections, or the second part of the first of two sections, depending on which description one prefers – that calls to mind another of Simpson’s heroes, Beethoven. The “wedge” shape of the melodies is still evident, as is the interval of the fourth – here, though, the phrases descend rather than ascend by that interval. But the music flies by very quickly, and one isn’t really thinking about the technical aspects of what’ going on, but rather swept up by the energy and rhythmic excitement. The phrases get shorter and shorter, and eventually the longer notes of the original statement of the chorale theme are heard again over busy textures. Another big climax is reached, and the music seems to slow down (although, again, the entire symphony is in a single tempo), leading, after a long, sustained note, to the second of the two (or third of three) big sections of the symphony, an Adagio.

The Adagio begins with a mysterious contrapuntal passage, like a fugue, for the strings, starting high up in the violins. This unfolds over several minutes, lines gently overlapping one another, creating a lovely, complex texture. Another “wedge” theme slowly emerges in the woodwinds, this time in the form of a palindrome – it’s hard to hear, but the melody sounds the same when played backward or forward. There are moments of an almost pastoral beauty, but the mood still feels a bit unsettled. After three gradually intensifying statements of the palindrome theme, the music becomes more active and builds to another ominous climax. This time a long-held E is at the center, as the winds and strings try to pull away from it in upward-climbing scales, and the music winds down.

We hear bits of the chorale theme from earlier, culminating in a statement by the trombones, fragments of ideas flying about around it. Once again the influence of Bruckner seems pretty clear. Over a martial rhythm, pedal notes again rise by the interval of a fourth as “wedge” melodies are strongly put forward. There seem to be two tempos at work, as happens often in the work, fast triplets in some instruments and slow-moving long notes in others. This builds to another great, pounding climax.

One might think that the work is announcing its end here, but this climactic section then melts into a slow last few minutes that act as an “epilogue” and coda (it reminds me of the rather desolate final movement of the Sixth Symphony by another great British composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams). We hear, once again, the D-sharp of the opening of the symphony (here initially written in the music as E-flat), as well as “wedge” shapes similar to those in the early minutes of the work. Slow rising scales are heard, and the work’s concluding D-sharp starts low in the cellos and basses, much like the symphony’s opening moments, but this time ascends to the highest notes of the violins as the music seems to float into the heavens.

Over the late 1980s to mid 1990s, conductor Vernon Handley recorded the first ten of Simpson’s symphonies for Hyperion Records, leading the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. After Handley’s death, Matthew Taylor completed the cycle by recording the Symphony No. 11 with the City of London Sinfonia. These recordings are available in CD form. But they’re also available as a very inexpensive download from Hyperion, a great value.