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.