As the temperature climbs back up into the summer heat, it's time for the other symphony in my "music to cool down by" series: the Sinfonia Antartica (# 7) by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
This work had a most unusual genesis, as the composer developed it out of a film score he had composed for the Ealing Pictures docudrama, Scott of the Antarctic. This film presented a largely accurate portrayal of the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition. For those not familiar, a quick crash course: British explorer Robert Scott was challenging Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen to be the first to reach the South Pole. Scott's expedition depended heavily on using ponies, motor vehicles, and manpower to haul sleds loaded with supplies. Amundsen reached the Pole first. Scott arrived a month later, to find a tent, a Norwegian flag, and a message left for him by his rival. On the return journey, blizzards delayed the explorers, their fuel and food ran out, and they eventually perished in a snowbound tent just 11 miles away from a major supply depot.
Creating a symphony out of film music in this way is an intriguing procedure, since symphonic argument and structure largely depend on themes of considerable scale and substance, while film music is more apt to consist of atmospheric fragments of sound with perhaps one or two larger melodic ideas to anchor an entire film score.
I think that many commentators have dismissed this symphony on the basis of nothing more than this basic dichotomy of styles. Or perhaps the Great Experts have passed it by because it doesn't contain a sonata-form first movement. Maybe it's the five-movement structure with the longest movement in the centre that puts them off (but hey, if Mahler could do it in his # 5...). Or was it the introduction of an organ and singers into the work?
For me, though, Vaughan Williams definitely succeeded in developing a true symphony out of his film music. The completed work is by turns powerful, playful, wistful, dogged, colourful, determined, pictorial, and (in the end) deeply tragic. Of course, part of this emotional perception comes from being familiar with the history of the Scott expedition.
Let's be honest, too -- the music is, by its nature, episodic in places, and it will not cohere into a symphonic unity unless the conductor has a firm grasp of the big picture and a good clear view of the through line binding the entire work together.
Although there's no real resemblance in the sounds, or in the structure, this always strikes me as an almost Brucknerian symphony -- partly due to the predominant slow tempi, but also because of the crescendo and climax in the third movement, which resembles in form and impact the climax of the slow movement in Bruckner's Seventh.
In the score, the composer prefaced each of the five movements with a title and a superscription. There's no indication that these were meant to be spoken aloud as part of a performance, although that has sometimes been done (and that includes one or two recordings). Personally, I prefer simply to read them and ponder the music in light of those words.
1: Prelude. Andante maestoso.
"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 symphony begins as it means to go on, with a dogged, aspiring theme in moderate triple time. This significant melody, rising stepwise in a series of sequences, keeps changing its harmonic dress in the most subtle yet significant way at each upward step, giving it great distinction. After this theme has run its course, the scene shifts and we begin to hear the first of the composer's shimmering Antarctic sounds, arising from the combination of xylophone, vibraphone, celesta, and glockenspiel. Two more significant sounds then follow. First, to shivery string accompaniment, a wordless soprano solo sings a chilling cadenza, with a wordless female semi-chorus singing alternating chords like the keening of the women in RVW's operatic masterpiece, Riders to the Sea. Then tolling deep bells alternate with heavy, off-beat, bass chords, followed by the women's voices together with a wind machine. These various sounds, all representing implacable nature, stand in dramatic opposition to the human endeavour symbolized in the opening theme. A fanfare sounds, and the human aspiration of the opening returns in a challenge to battle, ending in a triumphant assertion of will.
2. Scherzo. Moderato.
"There go the ships, and there is that leviathan whom thou has made to take his pastime therein ."
-- Psalm 104
The most specifically programmatic of the five movements begins with horns and swirling figures giving a distinct sea sound, as the ships of the expedition set sail. Deep brasses intone slowly, in music plainly meant to be suggestive of an encounter with great whales. The central part of the movement is cheeky, perky music originally written to accompany footage of penguins. The movement ends quietly, with a brief reminiscence of the sea music opening.
3: Landscape. Lento.
"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 Chamouni.
-- Coleridge, Hymn Before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni.
This long, slow movement opens with one of the chilliest sounds I've ever heard in an orchestra -- a chord of a major second which then shifts to a minor second, aptly described by Michael Kennedy as "two flutes freezing together." This is repeated a number of times as a horn intones a slow, wandering melody laden with similar uncomfortable intervals. A more sweeping theme intervenes, accompanied with slow arpeggios. We then hear a quiet theme, played in bare octaves, full of steps of the minor second and augmented fourth. This is succeeded by a quiet, almost hymn-like theme in block chords. After some more glittering Antarctic sounds, the octave theme returns and is now worked up into a towering climax. At the peak, the block chords are thundered out fff by the organ -- one of the most stupendous uses of that instrument in all of music. (The organ entry originally accompanied the film footage of the immense icefall in the Beardmore Glacier -- see the superscription for this movement). The music dwindles away on a final uneasy recollection of the freezing flutes and horn and leads without a break directly into the fourth movement.
4: Intermezzo. Andante sostenuto.
"Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,/ Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time."
-- Donne, The Sun Rising
Warm chords for the harp and strings accompany an oboe melody which introduces a human note into the deadly chill left by the third movement. An interruption in the middle brings back the deep bells and off-beat chords from the first movement, and when the oboe resumes it takes on a note of sorrow and regret as a result.
5: Epilogue. Alla Marcia moderato (non troppo allegro).
"I do not regret this journey; we took risks, we knew we took them, things have come out against us, therefore we have no cause for complaint."
-- Captain Scott's Last Journal
A lengthy fanfare for the brass leads into a powerful and quick march theme, which is a loose and faster variation of the aspiring opening theme of the entire symphony. This march develops a good head of steam for several minutes, but then breaks off suddenly, and the deep bells and off-beat bass chords return, followed by the women's voices and the wind machine. And now that original opening melody appears once more, but with a significant change. At the third phrase, where the orchestra formerly aspired upwards, the music now droops downwards into a lower octave, in token of defeat. I vividly recall hearing this symphony played live, with Sir Andrew Davis conducting. His inspired performance first made me realize that this recall of the opening, with its tempo slower than the march, now takes on the role of an elegy for the dead. As that sombre threnody finishes its course, the keening voices and wind machine return to take the music slowly into silence. Never has the direction niente ("nothing") on a score had so much meaning beyond the purely musical.