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A guide to Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 7 'Sinfonia Antartica' and its best recordings

The story of what influenced the composer Vaughan Williams' 7th Symphony, Sinfonia Antartica, and its best recordings

Published: May 10, 2022 at 12:54 pm
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By the time that Vaughan Williams composed his score for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic, this story of heroic endeavour had long passed into English mythology – having failed to be the first team of explorers to reach the South Pole, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his colleagues froze to death on their return journey, just 11 miles short of safety.

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After completing the music for the film, Vaughan Williams sensed further mileage both in its underlying theme of mankind battling the elements, and in the range of musical ideas he’d already come up with. The result was the five-movement Sinfonia Antartica – the seventh of his nine symphonies, in which he reverted, with old-age mastery, to the free-form, suite-like method he had used in A Sea Symphony four decades earlier. A soprano soloist, women’s chorus, organ and wind machine are all part of the orchestral armoury.

When did Vaughan Williams compose Symphony No. 7 'Sinfonia Antartica'?

Vaughan Williams composed Symphony No. 7 'Sinfonia Antartica' between 1949-52, and it premiered on 14 July 1953 at Free Trade Hall. It was performed by Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli

The seventh of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies is based on the score that he composed in 1947-8 for the Ealing Studios film, Scott of the Antarctic, about Captain Robert Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1912.

He wrote much of the music without seeing any of the film because he was so gripped by the subject and by the opportunities for depicting snow and blizzards. He was also dismayed by the incompetence of much of the planning of the expedition.

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The film was shown in 1948, and by June 1949, he asked for the score to be returned so that he could get on with what he was already calling Sinfonia Antartica. But his work was interrupted by revisions of his long-gestated opera, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and preparations for its world premiere at Covent Garden in 1951, as part of the celebrations for the Festival of Britain. Shortly afterwards, his wife, Adeline, died.

He was also working on a Concerto Grosso for strings, a cantata, The Sons of Light, with words by Ursula, the Romance in D flat for harmonica, strings and piano, written for Larry Adler and the Fantasia on the ‘Old 104th’ Psalm Tune, for piano, chorus and orchestra.

For the following year, 1952, a number of concerts were planned to mark the composer’s 80th birthday on 12 October. As a tribute to Vaughan Williams, Sir John Barbirolli conducted the existing six symphonies during the Hallé Orchestra’s 1951-2 season in Manchester.

How was Vaughans's Symphony No. 7 'Sinfonia Antartica

Vaughan Williams took the full score to Manchester in March 1952 to show to Barbirolli, who related later that ‘Vaughan Williams was loath to show it to me, for he feared I might not like it and wanted to spare me the embarrassment of saying so’.

The symphony was played through at sight by the Hallé pianist, Rayson Whalley, a feat that amazed the composer. There was another full play-through in November and nine hours of rehearsal. After the first performance, two months later, Vaughan Williams declared it to be his ‘first flawless first performance’ and dubbed Barbirolli ‘Glorious John’. On the evening before he set off for Manchester for the first performance, Vaughan Williams asked Ursula Wood to marry him, which she did on 7 February.

The first performance was a resounding success, and was attended by Scott’s son Peter, the artist and naturalist. Although there was debate about whether Antartica was a symphony or a suite of film music, one important critic noted the work’s ‘masterly and completely unified symphonic form’.

The use of the wind machine and wordless women’s voices to describe the Polar winds and ice, the organ’s climax in the glacier sequence and the depiction of whales and penguins caught the public imagination right from the first.

Perhaps the germ of Antartica could be said to be in Vaughan Williams’s one-act opera Riders to the Sea, another example of man against nature. The keening voices of the women mourning for a drowned man anticipate the wordless voices of the Antarctic winds.

Best recordings of Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 7 'Sinfonia Antartica'

Sir Adrian Boult (conductor)

Norma Burrowes (sop); London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra (1970)

EMI 903 5672 (part of 13-CD set)

INFONIA ANTARTICA’S WIDE range of ideas and musical devices makes it a tricky work to bring off with complete success. The opening Prelude and the tragic Epilogue call for interpretation in the grand manner, while also drawing convincingly together a sequence of loosely connected musical ideas. Then there are the three central movements – a Scherzo depicting whales and penguins, a central Landscape, and an Intermezzo (where Scott writes a letter to his wife) – requiring wry humour, a Sibelius-like command of big-scale nature-depiction, and gentle romantic wistfulness.

Made in 1970, the second of Adrian Boult’s (right) two Sinfonia Antartica studio recordings has his trademark directness of purpose and tight-reined pacing. It’s also the only one, in modern or modern-ish recorded sound, that excels in all five of the work’s very different movements. The Prelude’s tempo marking of Andante maestoso calls for heroic grandeur without portentousness – a difficult ask, and Boult does it better than anyone. The icebound wastes of Landscape are portrayed with extra bleakness; and while other versions convey the Epilogue’s final tragedy, Boult’s focused interpretation is the one that leaves you truly disturbed. Leading the landscape-evoking, wordless female chorus, Norma Burrowes’s delivery of the soprano part – beautiful and emotionally detached – is the best on record.

Vernon Handley (conductor)

Alison Hargan (sop); Royal Philharmonic Choir, RLPO (1990)

EMI 575 7602 (part of 7-CD set)

Vernon Handley’s 1990 recording features fine digital sound, revealing a phenomenal range of detail in the virtuoso scoring, plus massive power in the big moments. It also excels in its grand-manner portrayal of the human struggle: Handley’s choice of tempo in the Prelude is closer to Adagio than Andante, but the effect is memorable (as are the Scherzo’s roistering penguins). This disc’s party-piece is the climax in Landscape, where a fortissimo organ solo depicts a towering ice-wall blocking the explorers’ path. Recorded separately in Liverpool Cathedral and overdubbed, the result is awesomely loud and impressive. Drawbacks include Handley’s not-so-subtle Intermezzo, and Alison Hargan’s gorgeous, but too-sexy soprano solo.

Andrew Davis (conductor)

Patricia Rozario (sop); BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra (1996)

Warner Classics 2564 698483 (part of 6-CD set)

Davis’s approach to Sinfonia Antartica’s musical panorama is the very opposite of Handley’s. No other interpretation so tellingly brings out the Debussy-and-Ravel connection in Vaughan Williams’s scoring – as in the poignant Intermezzo, where Davis’s beautiful touch is the mark of an experienced opera-conductor responding to the moment. Fine orchestral playing is enhanced by the acoustic of St Augustine’s Church in London, spacious and beautifully clear; and since the organ solo in Landscape is recorded there too, its grandeur avoids the surreal element of Handley’s recording. But in the Prelude and Epilogue, Davis’s instinct to avoid bombast undercuts the music’s heroic tone too much.

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André Previn (conductor)

Heather Harper (sop), Ralph Richardson (speaker); Ambrosian Singers, London Symphony Orchestra (1969)

RCA 8287 6557082

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Previn’s 1969 recording includes the written superscriptions – by Shelley, the biblical psalmist, Coleridge, Donne and Scott himself – with which Vaughan Williams prefaced Sinfonia Antartica’s movements, but a fair enough idea in principle is subverted by Sir Ralph Richardson’s melodramatic delivery. Previn’s conducting engages well with the music’s epic manner: while his tempo choice for the Prelude’s Andante maestoso is Adagio-broad, the reprise of the movement’s main theme towards the end of the Epilogue is powerful. There are countless fine moments, among them the ethereal flute solo in Landscape. There are also blind spots, as in the Prelude’s premonition of the death of Captain Oates – a sequence of heavy chords that lack menace. And soprano Heather Harper’s portamento scoops don’t convince.

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