Robert Wilfred Levick Simpson (2 March 1921 – 21 November 1997) was an English composer and long-serving BBC producer and broadcaster.
He is best known for his orchestral and chamber music (particularly those in the key classical forms: 11 symphonies and 15 string quartets), and for his writings on the music of Beethoven, Bruckner, Nielsen and Sibelius. He studied composition under Herbert Howells. Remarkably for a living contemporary composer, a Robert Simpson Society was formed in 1980 by individuals concerned that Simpson's music had been unfairly neglected. The society aims to bring Simpson's music to a wider public by sponsoring recordings and live performances of his work, by issuing a journal and other publications, and by maintaining an archive of material relating to the composer.
Simpson was born in Leamington, Warwickshire. His father, Robert Warren Simpson, was a descendant of Sir James Young Simpson, the Scottish pioneer of anaesthetics; his mother, Helena Hendrika Govaars, was the daughter of Gerrit Govaars, founder of the Leger des Heils , the Dutch arm of the Salvation Army. Simpson studied at Westminster School. He was intended for a medical career and studied in London for two years before his determination to be a musician gained the upper hand. A conscientious objector in World War II, he served with an ARP mobile surgical unit during the London Blitz, while taking lessons from Herbert Howells. Howells persuaded him to take the Durham University Bachelor of Music degree, and in 1952 he gained the further degree of Doctor of Music from that university, the submitted work being his First Symphony. After the war Simpson lectured extensively and founded the Exploratory Concerts Society; in 1951 he joined the music staff of the BBC and became one of its best-known and most respected music producers, remaining with the Corporation for nearly three decades. Simpson was a great champion of Havergal Brian's music, and under the BBC's auspices he produced many broadcasts featuring Brian's works. These included the mammoth "Gothic" Symphony in 1966 under Sir Adrian Boult, and in 1973 the 28th Symphony under Leopold Stokowski who, at the age of 91, was premiering a work written by a 91-year-old composer.
Simpson married Bessie Fraser in 1946; she died in 1981 and the following year he married Angela Musgrave, a fellow BBC employee and relative of composer Thea Musgrave.
In the latter part of his career as a BBC producer Simpson frequently clashed with the management of the organisation. In the 1970s he was one of those – Hans Keller and Deryck Cooke were others – who started the (unsuccessful) revolt against the report Broadcasting in the Seventies and its plan for "generic broadcasting" (i.e. separate networks for pop, classical and speech). A decade later Simpson was energetic in his opposition to a cost-cutting reorganisation that ultimately proposed the decommissioning of five of the eleven BBC orchestras. During the ensuing musicians' strike (which caused the cancellation of the first several weeks of the 1980 BBC Promenade Concerts) Simpson chose to disregard BBC staff regulations and discuss the matter with a national newspaper; he then resigned from the Corporation, publicly alleging a "degeneration of traditional BBC values in the scramble for ratings". (Hans Keller later described these criticisms as "demonstrable fact". ) Had Simpson remained silent for a few more months he would have been able to retire with a full pension, but his feeling was that such a course would have compromised his principles. Abominating the ethos of Thatcherite Britain, in 1986 he moved to the Republic of Ireland, settling on Tralee Bay in Kerry. In 1991 he suffered a severe stroke during an English lecture tour, which caused damage to the thalamus and left him in debilitating pain for the remaining six years of his life. He died in Tralee in 1997.
Simpson's other great passions were astronomy (he was a member of the British Astronomical Association and – unusually for an amateur – was made a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society) and pacifism, specifically addressed in the title of his Tenth String Quartet, For Peace. He was awarded many honours, including the Carl Nielsen Gold Medal, 1956 (for his book Carl Nielsen, Symphonist, published in 1952), and the Medal of Honor of the Bruckner Society of America, 1962. He refused appointment as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1980.
Dedicated as he was to renewing the classical tradition of a dynamic musical architecture built on the gravitational power of tonality, Simpson wrote very few small or occasional works and concentrated on large-scale genres. He wrote 11 symphonies as well as concertos for violin, piano, flute and cello. (The Violin Concerto was subsequently withdrawn.) His extensive output of chamber music comprised 15 string quartets, two string quintets, a clarinet quintet, piano trio, clarinet trio, horn trio, violin sonata and a number of non-standard chamber ensemble works as well as works for piano, a sonata for two pianos, and a major organ work entitled Eppur si muove (after the famous remark attributed to Galileo). He tended to avoid vocal music but his output includes two motets. Variation form was important to him, and in addition to variation-movements on his own themes he composed orchestral variations on themes of Nielsen and Johann Sebastian Bach, as well as a set of piano variations on a palindromic theme by Haydn to which he returned in his large-scale String Quartet No. 9, which is a series of 32 variations and a fugue on the same Haydn theme. String Quartets Nos. 4–6 can be regarded as variations upon the compositional processes, rather than the themes, of Beethoven's three Rasumovsky Quartets, Op. 59.
Two significant features of Simpson's oeuvre are his ability to write long works entirely based on a single basic pulse, with faster or slower tempi being suggested by smaller or larger note-values, and the establishment of a dynamic tension between competing tonalities or intervals.
"People who write symphonies do it because they feel able to: a lot of those who don't tell everyone else the symphony is dead ... The trouble is that the symphony as an abstraction does not exist: there may be exhausted symphonies and exhausted composers, but the response to a challenge to one's capacity for large-scale organisation and development – that can be exhausted only in individuals."
Robert Simpson is said to have written and destroyed four symphonies (one of which even used serial procedures) before his first published symphony. The official, published symphonies include the following:
From 1987 to 1996 Vernon Handley recorded all but one of the symphonies for Hyperion Records, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (in 1, 3, 5 and 8), the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (2, 4 and 9) and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (6, 7 and 10). The cycle was completed in 2003 when No. 11 was recorded by its dedicatee, Matthew Taylor, conducting the City of London Sinfonia.
Simpson composed 15 numbered string quartets; a quartet preceding this sequence was written as part of his course at Durham University and still exists there. He regarded Quartets Nos. 1–3 as forming a natural sequence, and Nos. 4–6 are a clearly distinct group related to three Beethoven quartets, though they can all be performed as entirely independent compositions. The second movement of No. 8 has the label Eretmapodites gilletti, and the quartet is dedicated to two people including the discoverer of the mosquito with that scientific name; the ninth quartet, from 1982, is a one-movement (but subdivided, with slow and scherzando sections) palindromic 32 Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Haydn; Number 10 is entitled "For Peace". (See the article by Malcolm MacDonald in the External Links.)
In programme notes for a recital consisting of quartets nos. 1–3 at the Arts Council of Great Britain building in London SW1 on 11 February 1955, Simpson wrote that "although they were not consciously designed as a group, they nevertheless seem to fall into a natural sequence". In construction and tonality there are elements of an overall symmetry encompassing the three works.
Simpson stated that String Quartets Nos. 4–6, which are on a much larger scale than Nos. 1–3, constituted "a close study of Beethoven's three Rasumovsky quartets, Op. 59; that is to say, the attempt to understand those great works resulted in, not a verbal analysis, but music". The three Simpson quartets offer, in his own idiom, "musical analogies" to the procedures of Beethoven's three quartets, but they can be performed without reference to the Beethoven and indeed without reference to each other.
Quartets Nos. 7 and 8 both explore the possibilities of the perfect fifth in shaping their themes, harmonies and tonalities.
As a writer on music (he would have disavowed the title 'musicologist'), Simpson was guided by his deep admiration for Tovey's ability to discuss a composer's sophisticated treatment of forms and keys in a manner that was accurate and incisive without ever alienating the non-specialist reader. His earliest published writings were as a reviewer and critic; but before long his focus had shifted towards being an advocate for widely unappreciated or misunderstood composers like Anton Bruckner, Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius, as well as to the analysis of better-known figures (such as Beethoven) whenever he felt able to illuminate their work from a composer's perspective. His writings can usefully be divided into five categories: (i) books written by Simpson; (ii) books edited by Simpson; (iii) contributions to other books and collections; (iv) posthumous collections of articles; (v) individual articles, programme- and sleeve-notes, etc.
Robert Simpson was also the producer for the first commercially available recordings of Havergal Brian’s music. Symphonies Nos. 10 and 21, conducted by James Loughran and Eric Pinkett respectively, were recorded at the De Montfort Hall, Leicester in 1972. The music was performed by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra and the LP was released by Unicorn Records to great critical acclaim in 1973. A special edition of the television programme Aquarius called The Unknown Warrior gave considerable coverage to the recording session and a camera crew also joined Robert Simpson and members of the orchestra during a visit they made to the composer's home in Shoreham (see video links below). Following the success of the Unicorn issue, a second Brian album, also produced by Robert Simpson, was recorded by the LSSO in 1974 at Hove Town Hall and Leicester De Montfort Hall with the conducting being shared by László Heltay and Eric Pinkett. This CBS release included the 22nd Symphony, Brian's setting of the 23rd Psalm (which clearly belongs to the mainstream British choral tradition of Vaughan Williams and Parry) and the English Suite Rustic Scenes which contains some highly original music.
The String Quartet No. 1 in F major, Op. 18, No. 1, was written by Ludwig van Beethoven between 1798 and 1800, published in 1801, and dedicated to Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz. It is actually the second string quartet that Beethoven composed.
The String Quartet No. 13 in B♭ major, Op. 130, by Ludwig van Beethoven was completed in November 1826. The number traditionally assigned to it is based on the order of its publication; it is actually Beethoven's 14th quartet in order of composition. It was premiered in March 1826 by the Schuppanzigh Quartet and dedicated to Nikolai Galitzin on its publication in 1827.
Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21, was dedicated to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, an early patron of the composer. The piece was published in 1801 by Hoffmeister & Kühnel of Leipzig. It is not known exactly when Beethoven finished writing this work, but sketches of the finale were found to be from 1795.
The Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36, is a symphony in four movements written by Ludwig van Beethoven between 1801 and 1802. The work is dedicated to Karl Alois, Prince Lichnowsky.
String Quartet No. 7 in F major, Op. 59, No. 1, was written by Ludwig van Beethoven and published in 1808.
Cyclic form is a technique of musical construction, involving multiple sections or movements, in which a theme, melody, or thematic material occurs in more than one movement as a unifying device. Sometimes a theme may occur at the beginning and end ; other times a theme occurs in a different guise in every part.
The String Quartet No. 12 in E♭ major, Op. 127, by Ludwig van Beethoven, was completed in 1825. It is the first of Beethoven's late quartets.
The String Quartet No. 8, in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2, was written by Ludwig van Beethoven and published in 1808. This work is the second of three of his "Razumovsky" cycle of string quartets, and is a product of his "middle" period.
The Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major of Anton Bruckner was written in 1875–1876, with minor changes over the next two years. It came at a time of trouble and disillusion for the composer: a lawsuit, from which he was exonerated, and a reduction in salary. Dedicated to Karl von Stremayr, education minister in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the symphony has at times been nicknamed the "Tragic", the "Church of Faith" or the "Pizzicato"; Bruckner himself referred to it as the "Fantastic" without applying this or any other name formally.
Ludwig van Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 3 in A major, Op. 69 was written in 1808, during his middle period. The sonata was composed in the same year as the Piano Trios Op. 70 and the Choral Fantasy, and the same year the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, which were begun earlier, premiered. It was first performed in March 1809 by cellist Nikolaus Kraft and pianist Dorothea von Ertmann, and dedicated to Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein, who was a cellist himself.
Ludwig van Beethoven composed his Piano Sonata No. 12 in A♭ major, Op. 26, in 1800–1801, around the same time as he completed his First Symphony. He dedicated the sonata to Prince Karl von Lichnowsky, who had been his patron since 1792.
The Symphony in C major by German composer Robert Schumann was published in 1847 as his Symphony No. 2, Op. 61, although it was the third symphony he had completed, counting the B-flat major symphony published as No. 1 in 1841, and the original version of his D minor symphony of 1841.
Ludwig van Beethoven's String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major, Op. 74, was written in 1809 and is nicknamed the "Harp" quartet.
The Fantasie in C major, Op. 15, popularly known as the Wanderer Fantasy, is a four-movement fantasy for solo piano composed by Franz Schubert in 1822. It is widely considered Schubert's most technically demanding composition for the piano. Schubert himself said "the devil may play it," in reference to his own inability to do so properly.
The String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13, was composed by Felix Mendelssohn in 1827. Written when he was 18 years old, it was, despite its official number, Mendelssohn's first mature string quartet. One of Mendelssohn's most passionate works, the A minor Quartet is one of the earliest and most significant examples of cyclic form in music.
The String Quartet No. 8 by Robert Simpson was composed in 1979 in response to a commission by the Brunel Philharmonic Society with funds made available from the Greater London Arts Association. The work is dedicated to Professor Gillett, who was the director of Biological Sciences at Brunel University in 1980, and his wife. The Quartet was first performed on 21 June 1980 by the Delme String Quartet at Brunel University.
Anton Bruckner's String Quintet in F major, WAB 112 was composed in 1878/79 in Vienna.
The three String Trios, Op. 9 were composed by Ludwig van Beethoven in 1797–98. He published them in Vienna in 1799, with a dedication to his patron Count Johann Georg von Browne (1767–1827). They were first performed by the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh with two colleagues from his string quartet. According to the violinist and conductor Angus Watson, these were probably Franz Weiss on viola and either Nikolaus Kraft or his father Anton on cello. Each of the trios consists of four movements:
Gabriel Fauré's Piano Quartet No. 2, in G minor, Op. 45, is one of the two chamber works he wrote for the conventional piano quartet combination of piano, violin, viola and cello. It was first performed in 1887, seven years after his first quartet.