Simpson, Robert 1921–1997

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Simpson, Robert 1921–1997

(Robert Wilfred Levick Simpson)

PERSONAL: Born March 2, 1921, in Leamington Spa, England; died November 21, 1997, in Tralee, Ireland; son of Robert Warren and Helena Hendrika (Govaars) Simpson; married Bessie Fraser, April 26, 1946 (died, 1981); married Angela Musgrave (a music producer), 1982. Education: Attended Westminster City School, 1941–44; University of Durham, D.Mus., 1951. Politics: Socialist. Hobbies and other interests: Astronomy.

CAREER: British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), London, England, music producer, 1951–80; composer and writer, 1980–97. Military service: Served in mobile surgical unit during World War II.

MEMBER: Incorporated Society of Musicians, Royal Astronomical Society (fellow).

AWARDS, HONORS: Carl Nielsen Gold Medal, 1956; Kilenyi Medal of Honor, Bruckner Society of America, 1962, for contributions to studies on Anton Bruckner; Gramaphone Award, for Symphony No. 9.


Carl Nielsen, Symphonist, 1865–1931, Dent (London, England), 1952, revised edition, Taplinger (New York, NY), 1979.

(Editor, with Oliver Press) Guide to Modern Music on Records, 1958, Anthony Blond (London, England), 1958.

Bruckner and the Symphony, BBC Publications (London, England), 1960.

Sibelius and Nielsen: A Centenary Essay, BBC Publications (London, England), 1965.

(Editor) The Symphony, Penguin (London, England), Volume 1: Haydn to Dvorak, 1966, Volume 2: Elgar to the Present Day, 1967, reprinted as Mahler to the Present Day, David & Charles (London, England), 1972.

The Essence of Bruckner: An Essay towards the Understanding of His Music, Gollancz (London, England), 1967, second edition, 1977, Chilton (Philadelphia, PA), 1968.

Beethoven Symphonies, BBC Publications (London, England), 1970, University of Washington Press (Seattle, WA), 1971.

The Proms and Natural Justice: A Plan for Renewal, Toccata Press (London, England), 1981.

Contributor to musical journals.


Symphony No. 3, Unicorn (London, England), 1970.

Clarinet Quintet, Unicorn (London, England), 1970.

Brass Now and Then, Ace of Diamonds, 1970.

Volcano, Chandos (London, England), 1980.

String Quartet No. 7; String Quartet No. 8, Hyperion (London, England), 1984.

String Quartet No. 9, Hyperion (London, England), 1984.

String Quartet No. 10: For Peace; String Quartet No. 11, Hyperion (London, England), 1988.

Symphony No. 6; Symphony No. 7, Hyperion (London, England), 1988.

String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 5, Hyperion (London, England), 1990.

Symphony No. 3; Clarinet Quintet, Unicorn-Kanchana (London, England), 1990.

Symphony No. 10, Hyperion (London, England), 1991.

Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 4, Hyperion (London, England), 1992.

String Quartet No. 14, Hyperion (London, England), 1993.

Horn Trio; Horn Quartet, Hyperion (London, England), 1994.

The Complete Solo Piano Music, Hyperion (London, England), 1996.

Symphony No. 1, Hyperion (London, England), 1996.

Canzona; Media morte in vita sumus; Tempi; Eppur si muove, Hyperion (London, England), 1998.


Composer of eleven symphonies and fifteen string quartets altogether; also composer of other concertos, sonatas, and other instrumental, and occasionally vocal, works. Also wrote incidental music for plays.

SIDELIGHTS: Robert Simpson was considered by many to be one of the most original British composers of the twentieth century. The composer of eleven symphonies, fifteen string quartets, and many other pieces, most notably instrumental works for brass, he was unique in his efforts to write pieces that centered on the tension between tonality and atonality. The inspiration for this method of composition came from Schoenberg. "Schoenberg is far from being my favorite composer," Simpson once said in a quote from the Robert Simpson Society Web site, "but it so happens that the idea of a new treatment of tonality came to me from listening, not to [Carl] Nielsen or any other composer I love, but to Schoenberg's Piano Concerto."

In addition to his music, Simpson was also respected for promoting deserving composers who had been ignored in England, and for his insightful criticism, which helped explain music to the layperson. He was the founder of the Exploratory Concert Society, which promoted the work of little-known musicians and composers such as Havergal Brian and Carl Nielsen, and he was well known as a producer for the BBC, where he worked from 1952 until 1980, promoting the music of his favorite artists, such as Beethoven and Anton Bruckner, about whom he wrote several books. Simpson left the BBC, however, when the company cut its budget for orchestral music. A pacifist, he then left England for Ireland to protest the aggressive foreign policies of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The last years of Simpson's life were spent focusing on his music, which he described in Contemporary Composers this way: "My work aims at recapturing the momentum to be found in classical music and at direct human communication. It is not 'atonal' and most of it is not (in the classical sense) 'tonal,' but seeks to release the energy locked in the basic intervals and resonances. This, too, is an essentially human rather than academic aim. I have been described as 'an avant-garde radical' and I suppose that hits the nail on the head. I have no interest in trends or fashions."



Contemporary Composers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1992.


Robert Simpson Society Home Page, (December 26, 2002).

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Simpson, Robert 1921–1997

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