Mark Simpson – Israfel (World Première)

by 5:4

Another composer with somewhat filmic leanings is Mark Simpson, heard to good effect in his latest orchestral piece, Israfel, premièred last month at the City Halls in Glasgow. Simpson’s piece reminded me how long it had been since i’d revisited my well-thumbed copy of the works of Edgar Allan Poe; in his eponymous poem, Poe depicts Israfel—the Islamic “angel of the trumpet”—as an apogee of expressive potency and poetic inspiration, causing the very universe to quieten:

In Heaven a spirit doth dwell
‘Whose heart-strings are a lute;’
None sing so wildly well
As the angel Israfel,
And the giddy stars (so legends tell)
Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell
Of his voice, all mute.

One of the things i’ve particularly come to admire in Simpson’s music is the way he’s able to pack a lot of drama into relatively short periods of time, without sacrificing coherence. And that’s certainly the case with Israfel too, which covers a fair amount of ground in just 12 minutes.

In many ways, the essence of the piece can be found encapsulated in its first couple of minutes: a gentle woodwind line, sounding like an off-kilter organ quint stop, is heard amidst increasingly turbulent strings; far from getting swamped by them, though, the melody actually infiltrates the strings, sounding from the epicentre of ever-more swirling activity, culminating in a genuine moment of glory: a blast of sudden clarity, just a rising scale but with all the arresting power of a fanfare. If that seems an early point to have a climax, Simpson brings about another one a mere 90 seconds later, the strings erupting in a rich gush of melody delicately focused by the horns, echoed at length in the subdued episode that follows. By contrast, the work’s epicentre feels a little overwrought; the musical language becomes something of a cross between Maurice Jarre and James MacMillan, and seems to lack something of the immediacy of those opening four or five minutes. But Simpson re-establishes control via an equivalent clarity to that heard at the start, now a series of pitches that just about project beyond the resonance all around them. Whereupon Simpson plunges the orchestra into a network of glittering metallic motes, placing there Israfel‘s most telling melodic line, carried by the heavy brass. The work’s coda is rather satisfyingly strange; rising clouds of staccato notes beside oblique, dissonant string lines that don’t quite gel, rudely silenced by the bass drum. It’s a rather poignant allusion to the final stanza of Poe’s poem, imagining a reversal of roles:

If I could dwell
Where Israfel
Hath dwelt, and he where I,
He might not sing so wildly well
A mortal melody,
While a bolder note than this might swell
From my lyre within the sky.

The world première of Israfel was given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton.

Programme Note

When I read Edgar Allan Poe’s take on the Koranic angel Israfel, “whose heart-strings are a lute, and who has the sweetest voice of all God’s creatures”, I knew we were on the same page.

I wanted to write a piece that sang, floated, morphed, moved, moved us, lifted us, had power, had fragility, had hope, uncertainty, beauty – something otherworldly, something transcendental – something to shake us.

His poem perfectly conjures up the myriad emotions I wanted to take the listener through. In terms of structure the piece is divided into two parts. The first part has an ever-shifting, singing quality, and the second a faster more determined drive towards a dramatic climax. The coda however is bittersweet, as in the poem, which concludes with the author wondering whether if their places were switched, he could make a better melody from his lyre.

—Mark Simpson

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Michel Sicco

Thank you! Until recently I was reluctant to listen to contemporary classical music. Things have changed a lot since I read your blog. The number of contemporary composers I’ve discovered here is amazing!


I enjoyed the exuberant Mark Simpson piece but what is one to make of the MacMillan 2nd piano concerto which shared the same programme? Humourless, grotesque, crude….

Chris L

I’m not convinced Simpson would be flattered by the comparison, but to my ears this sounds in parts like a highly compressed version of Maw’s Odyssey. However, speaking of British composers of a more “traditional” bent, one composer whom Simpson certainly doesn’t sound like is his near-namesake but (presumably) non-relation, Robert…

Chris L

I also hear the odd hint of Ades, whom I know Simpson admires, although of course he relies much less on overt allusion than does that composer.

Chris L

BTW, is there any scope for stepping away from the Proms fray to discuss Simpson’s The Immortal, a jaw-dropping and frankly terrifying piece currently available on iPlayer?


Thank you for this nuanced review, Simon. I work in Salford and wandered into the BBC Philharmonic’s open rehearsal of Mark Simpson’s Israfael today. I was blown away. I came away wanting to learn more about the composer and the work. Thank goodness for your website! I know little about contemporary music and will enjoy learning more through your mix tapes. Keep up the good work!

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