Hyperion CDA67016 – Review by Martin Anderson

Slowly but surely, Hyperion is drawing to the end of its survey of the music of Robert Simpson. There might have been a lot more to get to grips with, but for the stroke that partially paralyzed Simpson in 1991; it also left him in such constant pain that he was unable to compose, though, with superhuman effort and the equally superhuman support of his wife, Angela, he did manage to complete the Second String Quintet (released on Hyperion CDA66905). This disc may not present the music that would best introduce Simpson to an audience unacquainted with his mighty output (that task I would unhesitatingly allocate to the Third and Fifth Symphonies on CDA66728, masterpieces both), but it exposes his strengths – and some weaknesses – directly enough to allow the newcomer to form a fairly accurate idea of his stature. My own view is straightforward enough: he was one of the most important symphonists and quartet-composers of the twentieth century, and no two ways about it.

This new recording also allows a glimpse of Simpson’s rationalist-humanist outlook. He had no truck with religion – but death was not the end of us, he maintained: we live on to the extent that we change the lives of the people we have moved among; and Media mortis in vita sumus (“In the midst of death we are alive”) is a motet which sets a Latin translation of the text he wrote to embody this belief. It is so profound, so wise, that this poem-cum-credo deserves to survive in its own right:

The race continues in the seed.

All perceived human acts endure through the generations.

Among his fellows no man can vanish utterly, not even in death.

All human lives change others, and so through the generations.

Malignant change will kill the race.

The dead remember nothing; and multitudes must be forgotten.

Even so, every man must strive to deserve remembrance.

Thus will he vivify the unremembering generations after him.

So in life can death be overcome.

“Every man must strive to deserve remembrance” – can you imagine a better injunction to a productive, fruitful life? (The reference to “Malignant change” is Simpson the aggressive pacifist showing his shirt.) In form Media mortis in vita sumus is a prelude and fugue, scored for chorus and the same brass forces that are required for Beethoven 9, since it was written to accompany a performance of that work. Media mortis is a dark, earnest piece with a rare passion burning at the centre of it, occasionally bursting through the surface. The choral parts unfold with contrapuntal severity, underpinned by angry stopped chords from the brass and minatory tattoos from the timpani. It’s not a comforting work, but its sincerity is immediately felt.

Simpson always maintained that any text that was good enough to set to music didn’t need music – a position he defended so vigorously that one suspected he was covering his tracks: he was happy in instrumental music, where his compositional logic could be given its head; reconciling those abstract considerations with the competing claims of words was something he almost never attempted. In 1981 Julian Budden conducted a series of nine interviews with Simpson on the BBC World Service, to mark his sixtieth birthday that year (a transcription of those talks was published last year in Vol. 9 of Tonic, the journal of the Robert Simpson Society). In the last of these conversations Simpson confessed that, though he loved the human voice, “I have difficulty with words. I find that if words move me very much, I don’t want to spoil them; but if they don’t move me, then I don’t want to set them anyway. So I’m afraid I am faced with a bit of a problem.” In this light the text of Tempi can be seen as a bit of a cop-out. What Simpson did was take musical instructions – adagio mesto, crescendo, con furia, allegro con brio, subito forte, prestissimo, etc. – and set them, for chorus, in a grand arch-shape, rising out of calm to a central climax and then subsiding again (a structure he favored in quite a number of works: it allowed him to do what he loved most – to generate and dispel energy). The music works on its own terms – indeed, there’s an element of underplayed humor running through it – though I still wonder what Simpson might have done had he attempted to set a poem that was really powerful in its own right. I suppose that part of my answer, paradoxically, must be in Media mortis in vita sumus. (He was contemplating a choral symphony, which would have been his No. 12, when the stroke hit him. Wagner was toying with the idea of a purely instrumental symphony at the end of his life, as Brahms was with an opera; Simpson’s choral symphony joins those glorious and improbable ranks.)

Simpson’s massive Eppur si muove is one of the most important works written for organ since Nielsen’s Commotio – not excluding the “normal” organ composers like Messiaen & Co. Simpson was acutely aware of footsteps in which he was following. My own tiny, tangential involvement in the work came when Dr Simpson ’phoned me one day (he knew I’d done some years of Latin before I made my break for freedom and briefly became a medievalist) to say that he had composed this piece and wanted to find a Latin word to express the same kind of energy and momentum as Nielsen had managed with Commotio. In the event, he didn’t need my help: before I could come up with any suggestions, Simpson, an enthusiastic astronomer, had himself hit on the defiant Eppur si muove – “It does move” – that Galileo is supposed to have grunted under his breath when forced to retract his argument that the Earth turned around the Sun. Simpson’s Eppur si muove – and it does move! – is a ricercar and passacaglia and was written as a contrapuntal study for his monumental Ninth Symphony (on CDA66299). Half-an-hour long, it’s one of the severest works he ever wrote: tough, granitic, almost colorless in its relentless contrapuntal argument, in the same way that Busoni’s Fantasia contrappuntistica jettisons concerns with externals in pursuit of its intellectual goals. I’d love to hear it live – its physical impact must be considerable.

The disc opens with the only work not getting its first recording here, the brief by immensely effective Canzona for brass, not even five minutes long but sounding as if it subsumes all of time: calm, brooding, with a no-nonsense lyricism through which, as in Media mortis, the work’s underlying tension occasionally erupts. (It first appeared on a first-rate RCA LP of British music for brass with the Locke Brass Consort that BMG might usefully consider for re-release on CD.)

The performances throughout are entirely reliable, though there are some rather farty brass chords in Media mortis that might usefully have been retaken, and the recording quality in that work in particular is a bit congested. Strongly recommended nonetheless.

By the way, if you want to explore Simpson’s life and œuvre further, you might be glad to know that there’s a website.

Martin Anderson
Fanfare Magazine – 1999