Robert Wilfrid Levick Simpson, internationally renowned as one of the most prolific 20th century composers of symphonies and chamber music, was born at 21 Rosefield Street Leamington in March 1921, where his parents, as officers of the Leamington Spa Corps of the Salvation Army in Park Street had an Army house. Mrs Simpson was Dutch, the daughter of the founder of the Dutch arm of the Salvation Army, and Mr Simpson was a descendant of Sir James Young Simpson, the Scottish pioneer of anaesthetics. When the family moved to London Simpson attended Westminster School and played in brass bands as a boy. He later studied under Herbert Howells at the Royal College of Music. He composed his first symphony in 1951 and his latest in 1990.
The symphonic and chamber music of Simpson stand as significant monuments not only to British music, but to 20th century music as a whole. His creative output was immense, invariably expressed in traditional forms but in a style of his own, logical, expressive of conflict and energy, often reflecting his deep love of astronomy. In addition to his eleven symphonies and fifteen string quartets, he composed works for brass bands which are still played regularly in competitions, concertos, non-symphonic orchestral music, chamber music for a wide range of performers, and choral and organ music. His masterpieces are generally held to be his 9th Symphony (1987) and his 7th String Quartet (1977), but recognition has been slow.
Simpson, a staunch socialist all his life, nonetheless championed often traditionalist composers, – essentially those he said most influenced him: Sibelius, Beethoven, Bruckner and Nielsen. In a clear uncluttered style designed to communicate rather than impress, he published standard works on Beethoven Bruckner and Nielsen, and was largely responsible for bringing Nielsen to British notice. As a radio broadcaster and producer, he introduced many people to the wonders of classical music with his passionate advocacy of the music he loved. He was widely acclaimed during his lifetime and considered by the cognoscenti as second only to Vaughan Williams in the pantheon of British composers of the 20th Century.
His obituary in The Independent on 24th November1 1997 hailed Robert Simpson as “one of the finest writers on music that the English language has yet produced”. His prose was uncluttered, his metaphors direct and highly imaginative – and often extremely funny – and his command of the subject unfailing. In the Preface to his 1967 study The Essence of Bruckner, he wrote that “the inner processes of music reveal themselves most readily to another sympathetic composer”, a remark constantly vindicated by his steady stream of discoveries, particularly in the music of Beethoven. But he was never an academic theorist: he was a communicator, because he cared passionately about the music he admired, and his articles and broadcast talks were all intended to let the reader/listener perceive for himself the musical procedures at work. Describing a change of key in a Sibelius symphony, for example, Simpson would add: “But it doesn’t matter if you can’t tell E minor from a rissole” – the important thing was that you could hear, feel, the effect it produced. There is no missionary, hectoring zeal in his writing, simply the firm belief that good music could do its own convincing. He is the only known composer to have had an appreciation society formed during his lifetime, by enthusiasts who felt that his work was neglected.
Robert Simpson’s views were indeed held firmly. For many years, he was head of BBC Radio 3 but shortly before he was due to retire and claim his pension, he resigned his post as Music Producer on principle, after publicly criticising the BBC plan to decommission half their orchestras. A lifelong socialist and pacifist, in fundamental disagreement with all that Margaret Thatcher and her government stood for, Simpson turned down a CBE and retired to Ireland to continue composing. The Coull Quartet, musicians in residence at the University of Warwick, have long been admirers, promoters and performers of his work. All four members attended the recent unveiling of the Blue Plaque at his childhood home in Rosefield Street.Robin Taylor