Obituary: Robert Simpson

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The Independent Online
Robert Wilfred Levick Simpson, composer and writer: born Leamington Spa, Warwickshire 2 March 1921; married 1946 Bessie Fraser (died 1981), 1982 Angela Musgrave; died Tralee, County Kerry 21 November 1997.

Robert Simpson was arguably Britain's most important composer since Vaughan Williams; he was certainly one of the century's most powerful and original symphonists anywhere.

He was born in Leamington Spa in 1921, son of an English father and a Dutch mother. His parents intended him for medicine, but music was the stronger calling - although, as a conscientious objector, he did serve in a mobile surgical unit during the Second World War. From 1942 to 1944 he studied under Herbert Howells in London, and took his DMus at Durham University in 1951, presenting his First Symphony (in truth, the fifth he had composed; he rejected the first four) for the occasion.

His first public activities were with the Exploratory Concert Society he founded in London after the war, where, with Donald Mitchell and Harold Truscott, he would present music by composers he felt were undeservedly neglected. In 1952 he joined the BBC as a producer. He spent the next 28 years there, becoming one of Britain's best-known broadcasters, his low, gravelly voice articulating penetrating insights into the music of the composers he most admired: Bach, Sibelius, Nielsen, Bruckner and, above all, his beloved Beethoven.

Robert Simpson was one of the finest writers on music that the English language has yet produced. His prose was uncluttered, his metaphors direct and highly imaginative - and often extremely funny - and his command of the subject unfailing. In the Preface to his 1967 study The Essence of Bruckner, he wrote that "the inner processes of music reveal themselves most readily to another sympathetic composer", a remark constantly vindicated by his steady stream of discoveries, particularly in the music of Beethoven.

But he was never an academic theorist: he was a communicator, because he cared passionately about the music he admired, and his articles and broadcast talks were all intended to let the reader/listener perceive for himself the musical procedures at work. Describing a change of key in a Sibelius symphony, for example, Simpson would add: "But it doesn't matter if you can't tell E minor from a rissole" - the important thing was that you could hear, feel, the effect it produced. There is no missionary, hectoring zeal in his writing, simply the firm belief that good music could do its own convincing.

His views were indeed held firmly. He was a lifelong socialist and pacifist, and his move to south-west Ireland in the early days of the Thatcher era was encouraged by the fact that Ireland did not have a nuclear arsenal. Having joined the BBC at the heyday of the Third Programme, he was appalled at the degeneration of its standards; like his friend Hans Keller, he saw the corporation as the ideal means of communicating the values he held to be important - not because of any cultural snobbery but because they both believed deeply in the civilising force of great art.

The breaking-point came in 1980, when the BBC attempted to make swingeing cuts in its orchestral resources, occasioning the musicians' union boycott of BBC work that summer. Simpson resigned, writing in a letter to the Times that he could no longer work for an institution whose views he no longer respected.

Robert Simpson was also a powerful force in promoting fellow composers in whose music he believed. The British discovery of Carl Nielsen in the 1950s owed more to Simpson's committed advocacy than any other factor. And the emergence of Havergal Brian into the public consciousness came about thanks to a chance encounter with the score of Brian's Eighth Symphony in 1964, when its composer was 78. Simpson was so impressed that he arranged for the work to be performed by Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra; and with time he determined that the BBC would perform all of Brian's symphonies - 32 by the time Brian died, after an astonishingly creative Indian summer unleashed in good measure thanks to Simpson's encouragement.

But for all his prominence in British musical life it is for his own music that Robert Simpson will be remembered. He completed 11 symphonies, concertos for violin, piano, flute and cello, 15 string quartets, a good number of other chamber pieces, a substantial corpus of works for brass band, two choral compositions and a handful of none the less sizeable pieces for piano and organ.

Most of these works employ the structural principle that makes his music so singularly compelling: the tension between opposing tonalities - a reflection, perhaps, of the vast tensions that inform Simpson's hobby, astronomy. Over time, Simpson moved away from the pitting of one key against another; instead, he began to examine the generative power of an interval or series of intervals - though the controlling grip of key still gave his music a sense of purposiveness and direction that very few of his contemporaries ever achieved.

The ability of tonal conflict to generate tension and momentum first occurred to Simpson not through the music of Nielsen, whose symphonies had developed along similar lines, but via the negative example of Schoenberg - surprisingly, in view of Simpson's aversion to his music. Simpson was struck by the fact that Schoenberg's Piano Concerto seemed "fixed to a tonal centre, which loomed periodically behind the murk, and was deliberately avoided at the end", and he felt that he could make a more positive use of this phenomenon: "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."

It was after Simpson had embarked on this path that he encountered the music of Carl Nielsen, which so impressed him that for months he couldn't compose: he felt that someone else had said it all before. But with the first British performance of the First Symphony, under Boult, in 1954, it was clear that an important new voice had entered British music.

Edmund Rubbra - another composer whose works, like Simpson's, were marginalised by the modernist orthodoxy that ruled musical life in Britain and abroad from the 1950s until the 1970s - commented on the strength of purpose and clear sense of direction of Simpson's No 1:

There is not a trace of diffidence in facing the issues of symphonic thought; indeed, to write a symphony in one continuous movement lasting about 26 minutes argues an assurance that is usually arrived at late in one's composing life.

Rubbra continued with a description that applies to Simpson's style throughout his nearly 50 years as a composer:

The music is rugged and uncompromising but intensely logical in its thought and if there are more than occasional echoes of Nielsen in it, both in the scoring and the actual music, it is an influence that has been so absorbed and transmuted that one is aware of an attitude rather than another personality.

Simpson's music almost always took the larger forms of Western classical music - the symphony, the quintet, the quartet, the trio - since he was acutely aware of his responsibility to the tradition in which he worked, especially as it then seemed under fire from the Darmstadt radicals who claimed that the symphony was dead. As a result, there is almost nothing in his output that is "easy" - no suites (some early incidental music apart), no songs, no concert overtures; instead, Simpson used those large spaces to grapple with particular compositional problems, often with considerable ingenuity.

The slow movement of the Second Symphony, for example, is a fairly strict palindrome. And his early (1948) Variations and Finale on a Theme of Haydn took a palindromic minuet of Haydn's as the basis for variations that are themselves palindromic. He expanded this idea in his huge Ninth Quartet of 1982: an hour-long set of 32 palindromic variations and fugue on that same theme - one of the most difficult pieces in the quartet repertoire, and also one of the most deeply moving. Ten years earlier, the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Quartets (1973-75) formed a unique homage from one composer to another: as Simpson put it, they "constitute a close study of Beethoven's three Razumovsky Quartets, op 59, that is to say, the attempt to understand those great works resulted in not a verbal analogy but music".

The 50-minute Ninth Symphony (1986-87), the work Simpson himself regarded as his greatest, is built in a single tempo, over a single basic pulse; what the listener perceives, of course, is not some stale compositional technique but an enormous organic construction of terrifying power.

The emergence of Simpson's music into the limelight began in earnest only in the 1980s, with the formation of a Robert Simpson Society (its archive is held at Royal Holloway College in Egham) and the initiation of the near-complete survey of his music on the Hyperion label - a courageous undertaking for this then small company. The award-winning CD of the Ninth Symphony was sponsored mainly by the Rex Foundation of San Francisco, a front for the charitable activities of the rock group the Grateful Dead, the source of much help for British music over the last 15 years or so (Simpson immediately referred to himself as "the grateful living").

Simpson had been composing vigorously since leaving the BBC and looked set to have a productive retirement on the south-west coast of Ireland when, in 1992, he suffered a massive stroke that left him partially paralysed and in constant pain. With the valiant, unflagging support of Angela, his second wife, he managed to complete his Second String Quintet, but the flood of new works was over. He had, at least, the satisfaction of seeing his status assured - though he never courted approval, never used his status as a senior producer at the BBC to push his own music; with the cussed determination that characterised his friend Havergal Brian, he simply ploughed his own furrow until the world caught up with him.

Yet Simpson's music is not "difficult", even if it does demand concentration from the listener. And at its best it has a visceral excitement that is bound to evoke a physical reaction in its audience: the Fifth Symphony, for example, is a ferocious explosion of energy that could easily match the century's other major Fifths - Sibelius', Nielsen's, Shostakovich's - in popularity if it were given sufficient exposure. The music, indeed, is like the man: tough and uncompromising, its stubborn integrity often illuminated by a fleet wit and surprising gentleness.

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