Now in his eighties, Vaughan Williams’s energy has not decreased, and he adapts a film score into another surprising and innovative symphony.
Premiere: 14 July 1953, Free Trade Hall, 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.
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.
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.
Margaret Ritchie (soprano),
Women of the Hallé Choir;
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
EMI 566 5432