Robert Simpson, Volcano

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert This England, performed on Jan 31, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Simpson born Mar 2, 1921 in Leamington Spa, England; died Dec 21, 1997 in Tralee, Kerry, Ireland
Volcano composed in 1979
Premiere: October 1979 by the Birmingham School of Music Brass Band under Roy Curran
Approximate performance time: 12 minutes
Instruments: 3 tenor E-flat French horns, 1 soprano cornet, 7 cornets, 1 flugelhorn, 2 B-flat baritone horns, 2 B-flat trombones, 1 bass trombone, 2 B-flat euphoniums, 2 B-flat bass tubas, and percussion

Remarkable in an age buffeted by musical fashion, Robert Simpson had the courage of his conventions and went his own way. Possessed of a blunt wit, Simpson was fearless in criticizing contemporary music: “No one born deaf could be a composer,” he said, “though if it could happen now is the time.” Furthermore, Simpson believed strongly that a composer ought to spread sanity to listeners. By sticking to his beliefs, Simpson proved to be a radical in his rejection of the various modernisms that distracted performers and audiences from the 1950s to the 1980s. Marginalized by the gatekeepers of that period in the British musical establishment, Simpson’s career rested on his probity and astonishing talent. He attracted such a devoted core of listeners and advocates that they founded the Robert Simpson Society—still active in promoting his music—in 1980 while he was still alive, a singular exception among British composers in this regard.

Simpson was a conscientious objector during the Second World War, but did not seek an easy alternative to military service, as he was a member of a mobile surgical unit during the London blitz. During this period, he studied, somewhat incongruously, with the fastidious composer Herbert Howells. Howells encouraged Simpson to take a doctor of music degree from Durham University. Simpson did so, producing his First Symphony as his dissertation in 1951. In that same year, he joined the BBC, becoming one of the most inspired radio producers of the last century. As if his BBC activities were not enough, Simpson produced a steady stream of compositions—eleven symphonies and fifteen string quartets—as well as the first study in English of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, which was published in 1952 and revised in 1979.

For all of his interest in composing in the classical forms, Simpson, who was an avid amateur astronomer, was also fascinated with the intersection of natural phenomenon and human psychology. His twelve-minute tone poem, Volcano, originally composed for brass band in 1979, illustrates musically both a volcano erupting and the explosion of a volcanic temperament.

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.