Measure by Measure

Death in Antarctica

Vaughan Williams’s Seventh Symphony

By Sudip Bose | July 12, 2018
Henry Bowers's portrait of the group, taken January 18, 1912: Edward Wilson, Robert Falcon Scott, and Lawrence Oates (standing); Henry Bowers and Edward Evans (sitting) (Wikimedia Commons)
Henry Bowers's portrait of the group, taken January 18, 1912: Edward Wilson, Robert Falcon Scott, and Lawrence Oates (standing); Henry Bowers and Edward Evans (sitting) (Wikimedia Commons)

Two weeks ago, while visiting Belfast for the day, I went to the museum that tells the story of the RMS Titanic, constructed in the Northern Irish capital during the city’s heyday as a center of shipbuilding. There’s much to take in, and one could spend considerable time lingering over the many exhibits. For me, however, the crowds were overwhelming, and only much later, having escaped the bustle, was I able to think about what I had all too hurriedly seen. Quiet contemplation of the ship’s perilous journey across the North Atlantic put me in the mood for a similarly evocative piece of music. And though I can’t think of a work of classical music depicting the sinking of the Titanic, I have, of late, been revisiting a piece about another ill-fated and nearly contemporaneous voyage, full of harrowing sound pictures that suggest the futility of human endeavor when confronted with the awful, awesome forces of nature.

Although best known for his tone poem The Lark Ascending and his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis—to say nothing about his symphonies, concertos, ballet music, song cycles, chamber music, and choral works—Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) also composed 11 movie scores. The most famous of these was for Scott of the Antarctic, a 1947 film about the disastrous Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole, during which Robert Falcon Scott and his team perished in the expansive icy wilds of the southernmost continent, after running out of supplies during a blizzard. Vaughan Williams took to the idea at once, so much so that he wrote a good bit of the score without actually seeing any of the visuals. Afterward, he reworked much of this material into a five-movement symphony. This Symphony No. 7, which he called Sinfonia antartica, received its premiere on January 14, 1953, with John Barbirolli conducting the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester.

Not surprisingly, the work sounds cinematic, and not just because it conjures up wondrous visions of the sea, the wind, the ice, the vast immensity of an unforgiving landscape—but also because so many subsequent film scores seem indebted to its harmonies and idioms. Each of the movements is prefaced with a quote, sometimes uttered in performance, sometimes not; these come from Shelley, Coleridge, and Donne, as well as the Book of Psalms and Scott’s last journal. A few lines from Prometheus Unbound set the tone:

To suffer woes which hope thinks infinite,
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night,
To defy power which seems omnipotent …

What follows is a grand and sweeping melody, with a palpable feeling of disquiet in its harmonic development—a theme, given its swells and constant motion, that has the feel of the sea. When Vaughan Williams presents us with a first glimpse of the Antarctic, he uses the sparkling, cold timbres of the vibraphone—a million brilliant flecks of white illuminating an endless night sky. Much of the feeling of iciness is conveyed by the solo soprano voice and women’s chorus, who sing wordlessly, calling to mind Daphnis et Chloé by Ravel, with whom Vaughan Williams studied between 1908 and 1909. Against a background of surging string tremolos and the bitter chill of a wind machine, the voices sound lonely and alluring, like sirens calling the travelers to a certain death. A bright trumpet fanfare leads to some hopeful passages and a heroic climax that seems to echo Shelley’s words,

This … is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free,
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire and Victory.

Of course, listening to this symphony is like watching any cinematic account of the Titanic. You know from the outset that things aren’t going to end well.

The second movement scherzo portrays Scott’s journey across the seas, with music that is lighthearted and episodic (with some languid comic passages in the trumpets painting a picture of penguins lolling about)—a lovely interlude before the stunning third movement, the heart of this great symphony, a slow and stately piece showing us the landscape with which Scott and his team had to contend. The epigraph comes from Coleridge’s “Hymn before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni”:

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!

Appropriately enough, the movement begins with a note of mystery and at a glacial pace. It’s as if we’ve entered an otherworldly and frightening realm where time itself has ceased to function normally. Given how spare Vaughan Williams’s materials are—the relentlessly bleak theme in the brass, for example, is almost naked—everything takes on increased gravity and weight: the haunting flute melody that’s here for a moment, then gone; the striking of the gong; an almost Shostakovich-like dirge played by the strings. The music builds and builds, constructed out of static, immobile musical blocks (like icebergs, perhaps), until an organ explodes from out of nowhere, playing a passage that is, for me, the greatest musical surprise of its kind since the finale of Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony. Soon thereafter, however, the musical threads seem to come apart, a marvelous and eerie disintegration.

The fourth movement is a lyrical respite, with an oboe melody, subsequently taken up by the flutes and the strings, sounding a note of humanity after the cold, implacable forces of nature we have just encountered. Yet in the ominous march that concludes the symphony—preceded by words from Scott’s final journal entries (“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”)—the feeling of hopelessness returns. The first-movement theme reasserts itself, growing with terrifying grandeur, until we hear the wind machine again, as well as the chorus and soprano, floating above the music’s surface, singing their wordless threnody.

This symphony may ostensibly be about Scott, yet I can’t help hearing echoes of other tragedies—over the years, Vaughan Williams lost close friends and witnessed close at hand the horrors of two world wars. His Seventh may not be an optimistic work, singing as it does about desolation and futility, yet it is unforgettable.

Listen to Adrian Boult conduct Vaughan Williams’s Seventh Symphony, with Margaret Ritchie, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and John Gielgud reading the five epigraphs:

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