I. Prelude (andante maestoso)
II. Scherzo (moderato)
III. Landscape (lento)
IV. Intermezzo (andante sostenuto)
V. Epilogue (alla marcia)
The first performance of the seventh of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies, Sinfonia Antartica, was given in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, on 14 January 1953, when Sir John Barbirolli conducted the Hallé Orchestra and the soprano soloist (Margaret Ritchie) and women of the Hallé Choir who represented the wordless voices of the polar blizzard. The work’s origin was the music Vaughan Williams wrote for the film Scott of the Antarctic, the story of Captain Robert Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1912. The subject haunted Vaughan Williams. He was appalled by the apparent incompetence of the venture and after the film was first shown in 1948 he began to re-shape some of the themes into this symphony. The symphony is scored for a large orchestra including vibraphone, celesta, pianoforte, organ and wind-machine. The première was a great occasion, with Scott’s son Peter Scott, the artist and naturalist, present. The composer was overjoyed with the performance, which he described as “the first flawless first performance” of his career. He wrote on Barbirolli’s copy of the programme: “To glorious John, the glorious conductor of a glorious orchestra”.
Some critics were dubious about the work’s status as a symphony and expressed misgivings about the use of a wind-machine (why?) but the public was thrilled and the work has gained in popularity. It marked a new phase in Vaughan Williams’s development, but a pointer to its power and scale can be found as early as 1925 in his one-act opera Riders to the Sea which also involves conflict between man and nature. Antartica is on a heroic scale. Although there is little conventionally symphonic development of the material, the imaginative use of tone-colour and the quality of the themes are strong enough to raise the symphony above mere graphic pictorialism and to give it genuine tragic stature. In this respect it resembles Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie, although the composer would have hated me for saying so. Each movement is prefaced by an apposite literary quotation.
To suffer woes which hope thinks infinite,
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night,
To defy power, which seems omnipotent,
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This... is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free
This is alone life, joy, empire and victory
Shelley (Prometheus Unbound)
The noble theme which opens the symphony is a memorable invention, representing heroic endeavour doomed to failure. After this majestic introduction has reached full close, xylophone and piano provide what the composer called “a few Antarctic shimmerings” before the soprano and chorus utter their chilling siren-song, suggesting at one and the same time the hallucinatory visions at the limit of endurance and the “terror and fascination” of the polar region, further illustrated by the wind-machine. The central section is a further description of Antarctic conditions (ice, fog and blizzard), with vibraphone chords, runs on the celesta and broken chords on the piano. At a fortissimo climax, there is a sudden pause: flute, clarinets and violins eerily introduce the sound of deep bells – supposed in the film to be ‘menacing’, the composer said – and the return of the voices. Then a trumpet fanfare sounds man’s challenge to nature and the battle is joined as the introductory theme returns.
There go the ships, and there is that Leviathan whom thou hast made to take his pastime therein.
The bustle of the start of a voyage opens this movement – horn-call, swirling harps and strings and a trumpet tune harking back to the scherzo of A Sea Symphony. At sea the ships encounter whales (the psalmist’s Leviathan) and, on landfall, penguins (scherzando on trumpets and trombones, forming the Trio section). There is no regular return of the Scherzo and the movement ends with a soft chord for muted brass and celesta.
Ye ice-falls! Ye that from the mountain’s brow
Adown enormous ravines slope amain –
Torrents, methinks, that heard a mighty voice,
And stopped at once amid their maddest plunge.
Motionless torrents! Silent cataracts!
Coleridge (Hymn before sunrise in the Vale of Chamounix)
In the film the landscape was “Ice waste – Ross Island”. This movement contains the most original and remarkable music in the symphony, an exploration of sonorities, harsh and glittering, in a manner new to the octogenarian composer. The themes, some apparently related to themes in the Sixth Symphony, are bare and fragmentary – muted horns, glittering icicles from the percussion, falling thirds in the bass, wailing major seconds on the flutes, all bound together by a slow theme for trombones and tuba in canon with a rising motif for strings and wind. A richer theme on the strings brings a human element into this white world, but the music, like the five men on the Beardmore glacier, moves inexorably towards its thunderous climax, the pealing chords from the organ which represent the impassable “silent cataracts”. After this imposing outburst the music moves quietly into the fourth movement.
Love, all alike, no season knows or clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
Donne (The Sun Rising)
Solo oboe, supported by harp, brings back lyricism and humanity, its melody (originally intended to depict the botanist Wilson’s wife Oriana) recalling typical Vaughan Williams themes from earlier works but with a disquieting difference because of the flattened inflexions. The structure of this movement is distinctly episodic. A reverie, for solo violin, is interrupted by a new version of the introductory theme from the Prelude and the return of the deep bells, followed by a quiet elegy (Captain Oates walking to his death in the film). The oboe tune returns as coda.
“I do not regret this journey; we took risks, we know we took them, things have come out against us therefore we have no cause for complaint”.
Captain Scott’s Journal
The finale is based chiefly on music from the first movement. A trumpet fanfare, taken up by horns over a gigantic tremolando for the full orchestra, is followed by a defiant march derived from the main theme of the Prelude. Soon the Antarctic blizzard – woodwind, brass and piano – intervenes and the march is swept aside by the bells, voices and wind-machine. The Prelude theme returns like an heroic elegy, but the blizzard and the voices on the wind leave the final impression of desolation.
© Michael Kennedy 2008