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.