Born on 2 March 1921 in Leamington Spa, Robert Wilfrid Levick Simpson was the son of Robert Warren Simpson and Helena Hendrika Govars. After finishing his education at Westminster City School, he read medicine in London for two years but, happening to hear Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony at a BBC Promenade Concert, he decided to make music his profession.
During the Second World War, Simpson, a confirmed pacifist, served with an ARP mobile surgical unit. He studied music privately with Herbert Howells from 1942 to 1946, the year of his first marriage, to Bessie Fraser. In 1947, together with Harold Truscott, he founded the Exploratory Concert Society with the aim of promoting music which was unfashionable at the time – by, amongst others, Carl Nielsen and Max Reger. In 1951 he obtained a doctorate in music from Durham University, presenting his First Symphony as the required work; the same year he joined the Music Division of the BBC.
Thus began a thirty-year association with the Corporation, during which Simpson worked with various other musical luminaries of his generation, notably Deryck Cooke and Hans Keller. Many Radio 3 listeners from that era will remember with particular pleasure and affection the series The Innocent Ear, where Simpson’s gravelly voice would identify the music only after it had been heard. In 1980 he resigned his position at the BBC, the result of his growing disillusionment with its policies. Another major personal change came at the same time, with the death of his first wife; a second marriage, to Angela Musgrave, followed in 1982. After many years of living in rural Buckinghamshire Simpson moved to the west coast of Ireland in 1986. He had been composing extensively all the while until, in 1991, during a lecture tour in England, he suffered a severe stroke which made work very difficult. He died in Tralee, Co. Kerry, on 21 November 1997.