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CD Review

Robert Simpson

Symphony #9

  • Symphony #9 (1987)
  • Simpson talks about his symphony and provides musical examples
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Hyperion CDA66299 66:21
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Amazing.

Robert Simpson led several lives: producer for the BBC, writer on music, and composer. He promoted the works of Mahler, Bruckner, Carl Nielsen, and Vagn Holmboe in the English-speaking world at a time when none of these composers could get arrested as such (in fact, his superiors at the BBC actively discouraged his efforts to scare up performances of Mahler and Nielsen). He resurrected, just about single-handedly, the music of Havergal Brian and inspired Brian to continue to compose. His Carl Nielsen: Symphonist remains probably the most influential of his works and still a really good read. Simpson was rather diffident about his own composition. Indeed, when your heroes are Beethoven, Mahler, Bruckner, and Nielsen, this probably increases your modesty. Furthermore, Simpson's two main forms were symphony and string quartet, and I suspect that Beethoven's examples daunted him.

Simpson studied with Herbert Howells. He also for a brief time came under the influence of Schoenberg and wrote serial music, all of which (if I remember right) he destroyed. His creative work depended on tonality, although his approach to many of the problems of composition retained a somewhat Schoenbergian view. On the other hand, both composers share the influence of Beethoven, and this could well be what Simpson responded to in Schoenberg. Simpson had real integrity, severing his connection with the BBC over Proms programming policy and resolutely championing composers prevailing opinion deemed unworthy. At one point in the Fifties, I believe, he actually had to persuade the BBC to record Horenstein's Mahler 8th. They did it, but solely as a favor to Simpson. Even so, Simpson's own music highlights his true grit even more strongly. He destroyed, for example, four of his symphonies. Even so, he managed eleven. The remaining works – tonal, but chromatic – make few concessions. They demand the listener concentrate, but they also repay that concentration.

Simpson's Ninth shows the large influence of Beethoven and, to a slightly lesser extent, Bruckner. Its argument occurs over one gigantic span of roughly 48 uninterrupted minutes – a mighty piece of symphonic construction. "Span" implies that the listener perceives the symphony as all of a piece, despite the perception of major blocks. In his talk, Simpson, one of the great explainers of how music works, tells you (with musical illustrations) how he did it. He presents his points beautifully and remarks up front that while none of this kind of explanation will likely convert someone who hates the piece to begin with, it does show listeners for whom the symphony already works why it might work on them in a certain way. I won't go into the detail Simpson does – why cover the same ground? – but I want to talk about the larger movement of the symphony. A good bit of Simpson's unity stems from the fact that all tempi – slow and fast – relate to a single pulse. For example, the tempo of the scherzo is six beats for every beat of the opening section; in other words, the scherzo moves exactly six times faster. All the themes derive from what Simpson calls a "wedge." That is, imagine a central pitch (say, C) and successive notes increasingly further away above and below – ie, C' B C#' Bb D' A Eb', and so on. The odd notes in the series represent a rising chromatic scale; the evens, a falling one. This "wedge" spreads out from the center. The first two large subsections, through the end of the scherzo, make use of variations on this idea. The final two subsections make use of the reverse – notes converging to a central pitch. We also have palindromic themes – that is, themes which sound the same played forwards or backwards. Thus, the symphonic rhetoric is "about" opening and closing, expansion and folding in. I almost wrote, "like a sine wave," but that implies something drier and more sterile than Simpson's actual achievement. For the symphony is a powerfully dramatic work. One doesn't really sustain interest over the long haul through abstract pattern alone.

As I've said, Beethoven stands behind much of this symphony, Simpson's idiom may be more complex, with heavier reliance on counterpoint than Beethoven's, but I can't imagine anyone who knew the Beethoven symphonies not able to hear many of their bits in this work. Yet, Simpson doesn't merely appropriate. The work indeed speaks a modern musical language, and the tension between the Beethovenian games and Simpson's own message gives rise to glory. After all, it's no easy thing to take for oneself music as distinctive as Beethoven's. Yet other shades hover over this work: Bruckner and Nielsen – Bruckner in Simpson's use of the chorale-Prélude form to build climaxes (Simpson refers to, without direct quote, the first movement of Bruckner's Third); Nielsen in the way the first movement proceeds and in the clash of key-centers throughout (cf. the Nielsen Fifth especially). At the opening, Simpson lays out his material in a way similar to Beethoven's opening of his Ninth. Fragments eventually coalesce into themes and, more importantly, movement. The main technical difference between Beethoven's opening and Simpson's is that Simpson's occurs on a much larger time-scale. The scherzo flies by, felt by the listener as an explosion of the energy built up by the previous movement. Events happen quickly. One of the few ideas that linger is a riff Simpson appropriates from the opening of the Eroica scherzo. This occurs against pitch-clashes that build up and linger. In fact, Simpson remarks that Beethoven might well think a lunatic had gotten hold of one of his scherzi. The transition from an instrumental extravaganza of the scherzo climax to the adagio (beginning as a fugue for strings alone) is for me one of the finest such passages in the literature, including the transitions in the Beethoven Fifth from scherzo to finale and in the Brahms First (itself undoubtedly influenced by Beethoven's previous examples) from third to final movement. With Simpson, it's not just a question of a dynamic drop or a rhythmic slowdown. The dynamic drop points back to the opening section and all rhythmic transitions are mathematically (rationally) relatable. As to the fugue, palindromic themes lace it. Writing a palindromic theme is no big trick. Writing a good one is. Simpson himself remarks that an effective palindrome depends on the listener's ability to perceive it as such. Simpson often breaks his palindromic themes along the fault of some rhythmic or intervallic quirk in the line. The quirk catches the ear and provides the key to the palindrome. For the slow movement, Simpson acknowledges his debt to Bruckner's adagios. Because of the large proportions of the symphony's first half, Simpson felt the need to provide a second half of equal weight, with a slow-movment climax (corresponding structurally to the explosion into the scherzo) large enough to feel like the climax for the entire work. Like Bruckner, Simpson does this mainly through his "chorale." The climax, in which most, if not all, of the major pulses play simultaneously, immediately falls off into a long quiet coda, in effect similar to Vaughan Williams' symphonic epilogues.

Again, I emphasize that, while a lot of composers hover about this symphony, the work strikes me as above all very original. Simpson can use his predecessors without them swallowing him up because he makes something new of their tropes.

By any measure, this symphony's a mighty handful. The time-scale Simpson envisions goes way beyond most previous composers, possibly excepting Wagner, Mahler, and Bruckner. Handley is a fine conductor and gives us an heroic reading. But it's essentially a first reading, and given Simpson's own remarks about the large structure of the work, not entirely successful. The sense of forward momentum doesn't quite get as far as it needs to, and an overenthusiastic attack of subsidiary climaxes weaken the major symphonic climax Simpson has written in. Still, it's a fabulous effort and the level of playing very high indeed. Counterpoint – both in its "school" sense and in the larger sense of competing symphonic strands – always stands out clearly. Handley brings off the triumphant buildup to the scherzo and the diminuendo to the slow movement. The coda comes across as a bit limp, lacking the sense of mystery Simpson, in his talk at any rate, has called for. Nevertheless, one must live with a work like this a long time. Conductors, to do it justice, need to keep at it and probably could benefit from the viewpoint of others as well. For now, however, this recording represents a tremendous first effort, and no one will likely take up the challenge proposed by the symphony any time soon. If Simpson grabs you or if just the thought of work like this intrigues you, take a serious listen to this disc.

Sound is superb.

Copyright © 2000, Steve Schwartz