Symphony for sceptics
The obituary from The Guardian (24th November 1997)
by Calum MacDonald
Copyright © The Guardian.
Robert Simpson, the composer, broadcaster and musicologist who has died aged 76, was one of the few British composers of his generation to speak directly to a wide public. His strongly individual music reinforces the 20th-century traditions of masters of the symphony such as Nielsen, Sibelius and Shostakovich. Most of his output has been successfully recorded and won numerous awards, and the Robert Simpson Society, founded in 1980, celebrates his achievements.
Simpson, born in Leamington Spa, was of Dutch descent on his mother’s side and Scottish on his father’s. His parents intended him for a medical career – a forebear was the pioneer aneasthetician Sir James Simpson – and he studied in London for two years before the lure of music proved too strong.
A pugnacious pacifist and wartime conscientious objector, he served with an ARP mobile surgical unit throughout the London Blitz, while taking lessons from Herbert Howells. It was during a bombing raid that he met his first wife, sitting in a graveyard, bereft of home and family.
After the war Simpson lectured extensively and founded the Exploratory Concert Society. He was one of a rising generation of musical commentators that also included Donald Mitchell and Hans Keller, whose Musical Survey he contributed to, although his principal musical sympathies lay elsewhere. Their first major expression was his pioneering book on Carl Nielsen (1952), which virtually introduced the Danish master to English-speaking audiences and remains the standard text on his symphonies.
Meanwhile Howells had persuaded Simpson to take the Durham bachelor of music degree and, in 1951, a doctorate. His thesis was his First Symphony, later recorded under the auspices of the British Council.
That year Simpson joined the BBC music staff. He became one of its best-known and most respected music producers, working closely with the BBC symphony orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult, and a master practitioner of the broadcast talk, with a rare ability to communicate both the human power and technical processes of great music to listeners.
Convinced that respect was often lazily accorded on the strength of received reputations, he devised the long-running Innocent Ear series, where the composers’ identity was only revealed after the works had been played. He championed unfashionable figures, notably Havergal Brian, of whose genius he was convinced and whose entire 32 symphonies he eventually succeeded in broadcasting.
Simpson often said, however, that ultimately each century produced only a few composers worth bothering about, and he felt he learned far more from his personal favorites – above all, Beethoven and Haydn – than from any contemporary. This conviction infused his writings, which included short monographs on the Beethoven symphonies and on Sibelius and Nielsen, and his classic study The Essence of Bruckner. And his own music – while sometimes highly dissonant in its vocabulary – sought to renew the classical tradition of a dynamic architecture built on the gravitational power of tonality, and to recapture the Beethovenian sense of purposeful human momentum.
Steeped in such precepts, perhaps encouraged by contemplation of the motion of the spheres – he was a keen amateur astronomer who rose to be a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society – Simpson naturally thought in large spans, where organic growth is propelled by a tremendous rhythmic vigour. Several works are cast in a single movement whose slow and fast tempi are contrasted expressions of a single underlying pulse. Radically uninterested in trends or fashions, he composed principally in the great classical forms: 11 symphonies, 15 string quartets, as well as concertos and sonatas. He also was a master of variation: the Ninth Quartet encompasses 32 (palindromic) variations on a theme of Haydn, while quartets 4–6 are personal variations upon the background of Beethoven’s three Rasumovsky Quartets.
He eschewed opera, and indeed virtually all vocal music, but there is a notable group of virtuosic works for brass band, reflecting his early activity as a trumpeter. He characterised himself as not so much an optimist as a “ferocious anti-pessimist”; and whether contemplative or muscularly energetic, his work is always fundamentally positive in its effect. A composer, he would say, ought to spread some sanity around him.
Popular with musicians, endlessly helpful to ordinary music-lovers, Simpson was no respecter of authority and was a man of unaccommodating principle. Trenchantly and sometimes hilariously critical of much contemporary art – “No one born deaf could ever be a composer, though if it could happen now is the time” – he maintained that children should be taught scepticism at school.
In the later part of his BBC tenure he frequently clashed with management: in the 1970s, for instance, over the proposed axing of five of the eleven house orchestras. During the 1980 musicians’ strike which caused the cancellation of that year’s Proms, he resigned from the Corporation, publicly alleging a “degeneration of traditional BBC values in the scramble for ratings”. His subsequent polemic, The Proms and Natural Justice, deplored the system by which over-mighty music controllers could determine repertoire for over-extended periods.
Simpson was deeply unhappy about the way his BBC career ended but felt eminently justified by the continuing slide of what he called “a very Kremlinesque organisation”.
After his first wife’s death, he married Angela Musgrave, his indispensable assistant in his BBC years, and was cheered by the growing public reception of his work. As an instinctive socialist, he abominated Thatcher’s Britain and in 1986 he could stand it no longer: he moved to Ireland, settling on Tralee Bay in County Kerry.
In 1991 Simpson suffered a severe stroke while flying home from an English lecture tour. Cruelly, it caused damage to the thalamus which left him in constant, debilitating pain, impervious to therapy or painkillers. He never recovered the use of his affected limbs. Although he remained mentally alert, further composition proved a physical impossibility, though with great effort he managed to dictate the bleak ending of his String Quintet No 2 in 1994. He is survived by his second wife, Angela.
(This article is copyright 1997 by The Guardian newspaper,
and was originally accompanied by a photograph of Simpson by Garry Weaser)