Sinfonia Antarctica

Just time for a quick post while I eat my breakfast this morning about last night’s Scott Centenary Concert at St David’s Hall Cardiff. The concert was given by the City of London Sinfonia (conducted by Stephen Layton) and last night’s performance was actually the third date in a tour which takes them next to Cheltenham and then to the Cadogan Hall in London. I mentioned this concert in a post last week.

The main music for the evening was written by Vaughan Williams. The concert started with excerpts from his score for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic, interspersed with dramatic readings from Scott’s own diaries and letters, by actor Hugh Bonneville. Apparently Vaughan Williams found the subject matter of the film so compelling that he wrote a huge amount of music, most of it before even seeing the screenplay, and only a small part was actually used in the movie soundtrack. He later re-worked much of this material into a full symphony, The Sinfonia Antarctica, his 7th, which was performed in full after the interval. Musically speaking, therefore, the opening piece was really a taster for the full work, but the readings were deeply moving.

Scott kept full diaries all the way from the beginning to the end of the expedition so they describe the journey in remarkable detail, and with no little poignancy. The initial optimism gradually tempered turned to crushing disappointment when they discovered that Amundsen had beaten them to the South Pole. When they turned  home to try to reach safety before the Antarctic winter closed in around them, Scott’s diary asks for the first time “I wonder if we’ll make it.”  Passages describing the awful death of Petty Officer Evans and Captain Oates’ noble sell-sacrifice were included, and the last terrible days when, without food or fuel, the three remaining companions were entombed in their tent by a raging blizzard, were depicted by Scott’s increasingly fragmentary and heartbreaking notes. One can’t really imagine the depth of their suffering, of course, but the desolation of their last hours is obvious. Their bodies were not found until 8 months later.

Before the interval we heard a new commission, Seventy Degrees Below Zero, by Cecilia McDowell, featuring tenor Robert Murray. This was an orchestral setting of various parts of the scientific record of Scott’s Last Expedition. I have to say I didn’t really like the piece: the vocal lines lacked interest and the orchestral music lacked any real sense of variation or development. Robert Murray struggled to project, his rather thin tenor voice not really suited to the music.

After the interval we had a complete performance of the Sinfonia Antarctica. Although I enjoyed it very much, I’m still not sure how well this hangs together as a symphony. There’s no doubt, however,  that it contains a number of strokes of genius. The opening theme, heard at various points later on in the piece, manages to conjure up  the Antarctic landscape – not only the snow and ice but also its singular desert-like aridity – as well as a deep sense of tragedy. The second movement featuring soprano Katherine Watson and women’s voices from the Bath Camerata and Wells Cathedral School Chamber Choir in wordless singing produced a wonderful unearthly atmosphere. Later on, there’s a passage featuring an organ which gave me the chance to  hear he magnificent organ at St David’s Hall for the first time.

Projected above the orchestra throughout the performance were still photographs actually taken during the expedition. Some of these – like the one shown above – were stunning, but after a while I found them a bit of a distraction from the music.

Overall, an interesting concert rather than a brilliant one, which was well received by the (relatively small) audience at St David’s.

8 Responses to “Sinfonia Antarctica”

  1. Adrian Burd Says:


    Many thanks for this post – it brought back many memories.

    I’ve been in both Scott’s Hut at Hut Point and the Cape Evans Hut. Being inside these is a tremendously moving experience. Scott’s Hut has the signatures of the explorers, still just visible, on the wall. The cape Evans Hut is almost as it was when last occupied – all the huts have recently had restoration work done on them and Oates’ bunk is bedecked with items as a memorial to his sacrifice. There are many enduring memories of these huts – the bicycle on the wall at the Evans Hut, the sleds that these people man hauled, the anchor from The Aurora still on the shore at Cape Evans with its broken chain, the tins of Fry’s Cocoa powder and Lyle’s golden syrup, the miniature books, the science equipment. It was often said that if one wanted fame and glory one joined a Scott expedition, if one wanted to return alive one joined a Shackleton expedition (the crossing in the James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia is one of the most daring and heroic ocean exploits I’ve ever heard about). However, Shackleton didn’t get all his people out, as the anchor at Cape Evans attests with the loss of three of their team. Standing at the back of the hut and seeing that anchor one cannot help but wonder what was going through the minds of those men who had just seen their supplies, the supplies for Shackleton’s team and their transport home vanish and who had no way to contact the outside world.

    The photographs (and movies) taken during these expeditions by Frank Hurley and others are spectacular. The picture of Mt. Erebus that Peter showed is a stunning view (you can still see it erupting today as it is in the photo). If I have my bearing right, the Cape Evans hut would be slightly out of the frame to the right where Ross Island meets the sea ice. The Barne glacier that is seen at the base to Erebus and moving to the left of the frame is a spectacular thing in its own right, and is about 100 feet high where it meets the sea. And of course, the ubiquitous skua sitting on the ice.


    • telescoper Says:

      Perhaps the most moving pictures were of the lonely memorials to Scott and his men, shown during the final movement of the Sinfonia, The photograph they took at the South Pole shows them with haunted faces, their disappointment at losing the race to the pole giving way to the dread realisation that they really might not get home again.

      • Adrian Burd Says:

        The area on and around Ross Island has many memorials. They are mostly in the form of wooden celtic crosses with the names of people who have died on the continent. Observation Hill stands about 200 m or so above McMurdo and provided a vantage point for those looking for the return of expeditions. The cross there is to Scott and his companions. Climbing Observation Hill is traditionally one of the first hikes one does after arriving at McMurdo. Another cross at Hut Point (where Scott’s Hut, also called Scott’s Discovery Hut, is located) is a memorial to George Vince who was, as far as I am aware, the first person to die actually at McMurdo. He was in a group that was caught in a blizzard and rather than hunker down and wait it out, he tried to make it back to base and never arrived. Cape Evans also has its set of crosses. For me, these crosses and other memorials provided a constant reminder of how dangerous a place it is – one misstep, one ill thought-out plan, one decision made in haste, and you can end up severely injured or worse. Antarctica is an amazing continent, and perhaps my favorite place on the planet – at least among those I have the good fortune to visit. Doing science there is a real challenge. I hope that the tourist industry and the geopolitics of greed do not destroy it.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Mt Erebus, Antarctica: Some say the world will end in fire,
    Some say in ice….

    • Adrian Burd Says:

      Mt. Erebus is fascinating as it is one of the handful of volcanos with a persistent lava lake, allowing vulcanologists to study many processes that they would not otherwise have access to. There are also amazing fumaroles and caverns in the ice created by venting from the volcano (the Herzog movie about McMurdo had great scenes from inside some of these). There are many other amazing features of Erebus, including Erebus crystals, pumice bombs etc. The Erebus Ice Tongue is also quite something and extends quite some distance into the ocean. Fortunately, the other volcanos on Ross Island are either extinct or at least dormant.

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    Ah. This reminds me I should transfer my set of recordings of the Vaughan Williams symphonies to my MP3 player. They are from Andrew Preview André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra.

    Oh. Them again.

  4. David Whitehouse Says:

    Vaughan Williams has been a passion of mine since a boy. I often traverse the country to attend a performance.

    The readings can be best heard in the, IMHO, Sir Adrian Boult recordings with the London Phil, Margaret Ritchie and John Gielgud. I recall they were available for many years on the Decca Eclipse label, along with the fine 3rd and 6th, though now of course on cd. Previn’s antarctica is also fine (his 3rd is magnificent). Bernard Haitink much later with the London Phil seems to pull something different out of the work and it’s a shame that the late Richard Hickox didn’t get round to it in his VW’s symphonic cycle (or I don’t think he did).

    Conventional symphony it may not be, but the wordless voice, the wind machine and the pityless chords are magnificent.

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