We first met Dr Robert Simpson in May 1990 at University College, Cork when we were preparing for our first performance of his 7th quartet. In typical fashion he quickly dispensed with formalities (it was just, “Bob”), rolled up his sleeves and got down to business, treating us as colleagues despite the fact that it was a masterclass situation with an audience of music students, which could easily have taken on the character of another lecture. The couple of problems that we were having in the work were dissolved almost instantaneously when we became attuned to his extraordinary sense of structure. Certain passages, for instance, we were trying to play too expressively, and somehow this missed the inscrutable beauty of the music.
Bob was an astronomer, and like the cosmos itself, his music has an expressivity that transcends the confines of earthly emotion. There are vast expanses, great stillness, explosive violence, immense structures and an innate order, all governed by a potent will. These qualities became even more apparent to us when we came to tackle his 14th quartet. Technically, this was a tough nut to crack, but we were always struck by how much better the work sounded when we listened to the broadcasts than how we felt it was going as we played it! This gave us the confidence to commit this work, together with the fifteenth quartet and the quintet for clarinet, bass clarinet and string trio, to CD – a project of which we are proud.
We last saw Bob at his home in Kerry when we played to him for his 75th birthday. Physically devastated by his stroke, he nevertheless kept us amused with the odd story or joke, and enthused about the two Beethoven quartets we played for him. “What a guy!” he said, referring to Beethoven, but that was in fact what we thought of Bob. Like Beethoven he had his feet squarely planted on the earth in an uncompromising, no nonsense attitude of utmost honesty and integrity. They say that Beethoven would often be seen looking skywards as if aware of some other reality, and that this can be sensed particularly in his late quartets. Well, Bob had his telescope, and if a poet can see a world in a grain of sand, this composer has caught the cosmos in a string quartet. We’ll miss him.
The Vanbrugh Quartet