Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 7, Sinfonia Antartica

Notes by TŌN bassist Justin Morgan

In 1969, people from every part of the world paused to turn their gaze skyward as the Apollo 11 crew took their first steps on the moon. It represented a monumental triumph not only for the United States, but for all of humanity. Our innate drive to discover and explore unknown territories has always been competitive in nature and, indeed, the race to the moon was a fierce global contest. But nearly a half century before the race to the moon, there was a worldwide challenge to reach another white, frozen, inhuman, extreme landscape: Antarctica.

Britain’s heroic but ill-fated attempt to conquer the South Pole is the subject matter for Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica. While the Terra Nova Expedition, led by Robert Falcon Scott, ultimately succeeded in reaching the South Pole, they arrived a month after a Norwegian party had already done so. Moreover, Scott and his four companions tragically perished on the return journey.

Although the work draws heavily from the composer’s score to Scott of the Antarctic (1948)—a film about Scott’s doomed expedition—the symphony should not be viewed as a suite from the film score, but rather as a unique concert work in its own right. Sinfonia Antartica represents some of Vaughan Williams most illustrative music and is an excellent example of how music can paint vivid pictures.

Pay attention to how the musical phrases of the Prelude expand, break up, and reform like drifting ice sheets in the Antarctic Sea. Do you hear the theme as heroic? Or terrifying? Perhaps both? Later in the movement you’ll hear an eerie, wordless, off-stage melody in the solo soprano and small women’s chorus. When I hear this, I imagine arctic sirens attempting to seduce Scott and his crew into danger with their sickly-sweet voices.

Deep, percolating harp and percussion sounds can be heard bubbling underneath quiet, frozen dissonances in the flutes and horns at the beginning of the third movement, “Landscape.” The muted, inexpressive, and glasslike textures in the orchestration not only give a vivid description of the landscape, but the atonality and lack of harmonic grounding also gives a sense that Scott and his crew are truly lost in this lifeless icescape.

Vaughan Williams’ choice to use a massive orchestration—including voices, piano, organ, celeste, mallet percussion, bells, and a wind machine—added to the palette he used to illustrate the landscapes charted by Scott and his crew. As you listen, don’t worry about trying to match the episodes of Scott’s expedition with each phrase of the work—instead, relax and allow your mind to paint its own pictures.

Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 7, Sinfonia Antartica

Notes by TŌN trumpet player Samuel Exline

The Background
“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.” This quote from Captain Robert Scott’s last journal epitomizes his party’s doomed expedition to the South Pole of Antarctica. The Terra Nova Expedition of Captain Scott serves as the basis for Ralph Vaughan William’s Symphony No. 7, but before completing his pictorial masterpiece of the now infamous journey, Vaughan Williams composed the score to Scott of the Antarctic, a 1948 British Technicolor film produced by Ealing studios and directed by Charles Frend. Inspired by the narrative and imagery evoked, Vaughan Williams composed much more music than necessary for film production, and thus in 1949 began composition of his aptly titled Sinfonia Antartica utilizing themes and materials unused in the film, but also creating a work unique in its own right. 

The Symphony
Sinfonia Antartica can be thought of less as a traditional symphony and more of a symphonic journey or concert suite. The manuscript, now housed in the British Library, gives a glimpse into Vaughan Williams’ vivid imagination of various scenes from the expedition: “Heroism,” “Ice floes,” “Penguins,” “Pony march and blizzard,” “Amundsen’s flag at the Pole,” “Death of Oates,” “Only 11 miles.” Completing composition in 1952 and premiering on January 14, 1953, the symphony is structured into five movements and is scored for large orchestra including a three-part women’s chorus and solo soprano. Other lesser seen auxiliary instruments in the orchestration include vibraphone, side drum, wind machine, and organ. Also unique to the symphony are the literary quotations present at the start of each movement. These quotations have at various times in performance and recording history been narrated throughout the performance of the work, although Vaughan Williams did not specify whether these quotations were intended to be narrated or not. The above quotation from Scott’s last journal, for example, serves as the opening quotation to the fifth movement – Epilogue. Overall, Sinfonia Antartica is a work that is the sum of one man’s imagining of both the heroism and tragedy of a real-life event, encapsulating both the human spirit and humanity’s relationship with nature.

d’Indy’s Symphony on a French Mountain Air

Notes by TŌN violinist Esther Goldy Roestan

The Composer
Vincent D’Indy was a French composer and teacher. He was born on March 27, 1851 and died on December 2, 1931 in Paris. He grew up in an aristocratic, royalist, and Catholic home. His primary instrument was the piano, and he absolutely knows how to write for pianists. In the 1870s he visited Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt, who were not only legendary composers but also pianists. During his lifetime, he loved opera, especially all the big romantic operas such as Wagner’s Ring Cycle, or Bizet’s Carmen Fantasy. His deep connection to and love for orchestral composition and music in general allowed him to have a lot of freedom and range.

The Music
Symphony sur un Chant Montagnard Francais, also known as Symphony on a French Mountain Air, is a very unique piece. Even though the staging looks like it’s written for solo piano and orchestra, it’s not; both the pianist and the orchestra play equally important roles. This is a three-movement work. It begins with the wind section solos, and a bed of string sounds which is absolutely perfect for such a scenic piece. The second movement is more mellow; it focuses more on the flamboyant piano and string sounds. And finally the third movement is the most joyous, folksy, and open part of the piece. D’Indy went all out with this movement, we can clearly hear the melody in each of the sections—the winds, piano, strings, and brass—and it takes us to the open mountains during good weather.

Franck’s What You Hear on the Mountain

Notes by TŌN bassist Amy Nickler

One of the First Symphonic Poems
Composed in 1845–47, César Franck’s What You Hear on the Mountain is considered to be one of the first symphonic poems ever created, even though there is no record of the piece being premiered until 1987. Franck derived his piece from Victor Hugo‘s poem Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne. Historians argue that Franz Liszt had worked independently in creating his own first large and generalized “orchestral meditation” on the exact same poem, but since his work was premiered before Franck’s, Liszt is given credit as the first composer to create a symphonic poem. Franck was inspired by his former pupil and true love, Blanche Saillot Desmousseaux, to create a large orchestral meditation in her honor using the poet’s verse from Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne. Hugo’s poem dwells on the loneliness of man confronted with nature, a loneliness reflected in his voice when opposed to the voices of natural phenomena. This symphonic poem portrays Hugo’s poem with the opposing voices of nature and humanity, and begins with a significant summoning of the natural world’s immensity. 

The Music
The piece opens with the double basses pedaling a low E, the lowest note on the instrument without the additive extension, in a pianissimo marking. The cellos then augment the drone, and it is finalized with the violins entering on the E major chord, thus setting the key and the expansion of the world, with glistening harmonics. As this continues for the next 24 bars of the piece, this affect creates an orchestral colour with a variety of registers on the same tonic triad that many later composers have borrowed and implemented in their own pieces, such as Wagner’s opening of creatio ex nihilo in Das Rheingold. Franck’s symphonic poem is a unique piece that gives a sense of the world at large, thus showing humanity the realization of how insignificant our worries can be in this vast world.

Music From Home: Linda Duan

TŌN violinist Linda Duan, at home in the Hudson Valley, plays “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” with her friend in Hong Kong, Natalie Man. The two were roommates while studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music and have missed playing music together.

#MusicFromHome: TŌN violinist Linda Duan, at home in the Hudson Valley, plays "You've Got a Friend in Me" with her friend in Hong Kong, Natalie Man. The two were roommates while studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music and have missed playing music together.#bardmusicconnects

Posted by The Orchestra Now on Monday, April 20, 2020

Music From Home: Gergő Tóth

TŌN violinist Gergő Tóth and his wife Yulaysi Tóth Miranda Ferrer perform Whitney Houston‘s “I Have Nothing” from Havana, Cuba.

#MusicFromHome: TŌN violinist Gergő Tóth and his wife Yulaysi Miranda Ferrer – Voz Cubana perform Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing" from Havana, Cuba.

Posted by The Orchestra Now on Friday, April 17, 2020

Video Flashback: 2019 China Now Music Festival

Today Bard Music Connects and the Bard College Conservatory of Music are looking back at the 2019 China Now Festival, presented by the US-China Music Institute of the Bard College Conservatory. Watch TŌN’s performance at Stanford University below.

Bard High School Early College’s Dean’s Hour

On Wednesday, four TŌN musicians took part in Bard High School Early College‘s Dean’s Hour. Cellist Pecos Singer, flutist Matt Ross, clarinetist Viktor Toth, and oboist Regina Brady performed short pieces by Bach, Mozart, Copland, and Britten, and answered students’ questions. Watch the video to hear the music and see what they had to say!

Video Flashback: Nielsen’s Aladdin Suite

This week for your listening pleasure, enjoy our 2016 performance of Carl Nielsen‘s Aladdin Suite, performed with conductor JoAnn Falletta at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts at Lehman College in the Bronx on December 18, 2016.

Carl Nielsen Aladdin Suite
with remarks from TŌN violinist Lili Sarayrah
JoAnn Falletta conductor
>Concert notes by TŌN cellist Jinn Shin

Music From Home: Esther Goldy Roestan x4!

TŌN violinists Esther, Esther, Esther, and Esther play Bruno Mars‘ “Count on Me.”

#MusicFromHome: TŌN violinists Esther, Esther, Esther, and Esther play Bruno Mars' "Count on Me."

Posted by The Orchestra Now on Monday, April 13, 2020