Music: Robert Simpson—A Modern Classic

There is no 20th-century composer I am more predisposed to like than Robert Simpson (1921-1997). I have been in such sympathy with his endeavors that I was actually a member of the Robert Simpson Society, a group in Great Britain that promotes his music. Since the 1980s, Hyperion Records has brought out a steady succession of CD releases containing the main body of Simpson’s work, which includes 15 string quartets and eleven symphonies. I now have 16 of these CDs, and there are several more. However, I remain daunted by the titanic challenge of Simpson’s music. This man’s music is so demanding that, beyond the few works I already love, it will take considerable time for me to reach a conclusion about it. Consider this, then, a provisional appraisal.

What predisposed me to Simpson was his music criticism. He was one of the most lucid, insightful music writers of his time. In fact, I did not know he was a significant composer until after I had read his brilliant books on Anton Bruckner and Carl Nielsen, as well as the two-volume Pelican anthology on the symphony that he edited.

I was overjoyed to hear such an eloquent voice in defense of tonality against Schoenberg and his serial sys-tem. It is worth quoting at length part of Simpson’s introduction to the second volume of The Symphony:

The human sense of tonality has many times been modified, but cannot be abolished. To attempt to abolish it is to cease to be comprehensive, to be narrowly exclusive. If I appreciate the kind of expression Schoenberg achieved (I hap-pen to dislike it), my sense of tonality, though it may be deliberately anaesthetized for the time being, is by no means abolished…. I cannot feel that such music is comprehensive. It is certainly concentrated, but that alone will not make it “symphonic”; if you lose a leg, you have to concentrate in order to move about without it, but however hard you concentrate, you cannot escape the conclusion that it is better to have two legs…. With one leg you can hop about, but will find it difficult to invent new dance steps that have more than the temporary appeal of oddity.

Ironically, it was Schoenberg’s music that set Simpson on his path as one of the premier tonal symphonists of the 20th century. In fact, Simpson began composing atonal symphonies according to Schoenberg’s system and then destroyed them. He wrote, “It so happens the idea for new treatment of tonality came to me from listening, not to Nielsen or any other composer I love, but to Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto. It struck me that in spite of the serial technique the work was fixed to a tonal center, which loomed behind the murk…. I didn’t want, as Schoen-berg did, to deny tonality—I wanted to find a way to make tonal centers react against each other, not make non- tonality react against tonality.”

What Simpson defines as his goal is nothing less than music as it was understood to operate in the Classical period, as opposing tonalities were used by Beethoven and others to propel music forward and unleash torrents of power. Haydn and Beethoven were Simpson’s musical idols. Simpson set about exploring the implications of Beethoven’s music, insofar as tonal architecture, of which Beethoven was the supreme exponent, could be used to generate energy and power. How could he take Beethoven’s discovery farther, or to put it another way, how much farther could Beethoven’s discovery be taken?

As Simpson set about to answer these questions in his First Symphony, he came in for a rude shock through his first encounter with Carl Nielsen’s music, which stunned him into a prolonged silence. Someone had been there before him. In my column on Nielsen (“Music Is Life,” November 2000), I argued that he was Beethoven’s true symphonic heir in the first half of the 20th century, because like Beethoven’s, his symphonies move forward through a series of conflicts based on the clash, and ultimate resolution, of opposing tonalities. As Simpson recovered from his shock, he embraced Nielsen for “the kind of intellectual and spiritual support I needed to help me go my own way.” That support can be heard even in the First Symphony almost at the point during its composition when Simpson discovered Nielsen. So profound was Nielsen’s impact on Simpson that one can say that Simpson’s exploration of the implications of Beethoven’s music was now redefined through the prism of Nielsen’s work.

This is one of the things that make Simpson so fascinating. Though he studied with Herbert Howells, I cannot detect any British influences in his work, except perhaps some musical reminiscences in Simpson’s Ninth Sym-phony of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Untouched by contemporary musical influences (except Nielsen’s), Simpson went directly back to the source for his inspiration. When asked to write commentaries on Beethoven’s Razumovsky quartets, Simpson refused and instead composed his fascinating Quartets Nos. 4 to 6 as direct commentaries on them. In this he reminds me of Shostakovich, whose quartets also harkened directly back to Haydn and Beethoven.

Simpson presents us with an extra-ordinary amalgamation of Beethoven and Nielsen with an almost exclusive concern over the generation of energy and power through tonal clashes. The scherzo movement of his Symphony No. 4 is a particularly delicious example of the crosscurrents in his music. Here he combines paraphrases from Beethoven’s Ninth, with quotes from Haydn’s Symphony No. 76, and melodic surges right out of Nielsen. It is a heady mixture that he pulls off with exhilarating aplomb. I have never heard anything quite like it. In his other symphonies, Simpson does not use exact quotes, but the assimilated influences are there.

The symphonic works are tightly argued, wound like giant, steel springs that are coiled to the breaking point. Through repetition, variation, scalar ascents, and accelerating rhythm, Simpson will increase the tension over a vast expanse of time, until the tension is released in a violent paroxysm of terrifying physical impact. Things then recede in scalar descents and decelerating rhythm. When it works, there is something awesome and breathtaking about the journey.

However, there is also something incessant and unrelenting about some of these pieces. As imposing as the sym-phonies are, they are sometimes forbidding. Simpson’s exertion of “maximum human power” and his effort “to express human force by means of positive musical development” can take his music to extremes that make me wonder about his expressive intentions. Of his Tenth Symphony, Simpson said, “This might be thought of as a ‘Sinfonia espansiva,’ though not in the same sense as Nielsen’s famous work, where the title comes from a particular feeling about human awareness. Here the words could be applied simply to the musical process itself, concerned with a special kind of expansion.” Yes, but what is the meaning of this kind of expansion when taken to the lengths that he takes it? Is it for its own sake, or does it have a reference beyond itself in human terms? Many of the CD jackets for the symphonies are adorned with striking photos of nebulae and star fields from various galaxies. Through its vast scale and seeming indifference to things human, some of Simpson’s symphonies seem as far away as the nebulae, and as cold.

Imagine Beethoven on the scale of Bruckner, with the predominant tonality emerging, a la Nielsen, only over the space of nearly an hour. Let us also say that there are no long-lined melodies to guide you through this process. As Simpson says of the first part of his Tenth Symphony, the ideas are “short and terse,” and “long lines are purposely avoided in view of what is going to happen afterwards.” Yes, but how long afterwards? To say that a supreme effort of concentration is required by long stretches in these works is an understatement. What they are sometimes missing in all their contrapuntal brilliance is fluidity of line, or melodic flow, principally because of the deliberate subordination of melody to the harmonic tension and tonal conflict on which Simpson builds his huge structures.

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians concludes its article on Simpson wondering “how many listeners may be able to follow the course of an extended work, appreciating longterm conflicts and key relationships in the ways which Simpson expects.” Will I be one of them, beyond the works that have already captured me? Time, and a great deal of concentration, will tell.

Meanwhile, you will be the poorer if you do not read Simpson and also hear him thinking, especially his first four symphonies and almost all the string quartets. I do not mean to imply that his music is overly intellectualized; it is also visceral in its impact, and some of it is easily approachable. Simpson’s challenge is worth taking up. The first works in both genres are particularly striking and so accomplished that it is hard to believe they could be a beginner’s efforts. Start with them to hear what Beethoven might have said had he heard Nielsen and lived in a 20th century without atonality.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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