Sinfonia antartica – a personal re/view

Sinfonia antartica by Ralph Vaughan Williams

The Philharmonia Orchestra, soprano Sarah Tynan, Philharmonia Voices, conducted by John Wilson

Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre

Thursday 9th November 2017

A personal re/view

In 1912, Captain Robert Falcon Scott died in his tent along with two other members of his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole (Lawrence Oates, as every English schoolboy over a certain age knows, had already attempted to save the others by self-effacingly leaving the tent for “some time”). In 2010, almost a century later, a mass the size of Dorset broke-off from the vast Antarctic Mertz glacier. The catastrophic environmental impact of this event is only now being seen.

Truly great art has the power to transcend its original context, to be at once pertinent, prescient and perennial. So it was that this superb performance of Vaughan Willams’s Sinfonia antartica sounded not so much like an epitaph to Scott’s expedition, but rather an evocation of humankind’s brutality towards the delicate ecological balance of the frozen continent, and a requiem for Antarctica itself.

Pitched between the roiling inner turmoil and existential anguish of the 6th (whether you think it’s about WW2 or not) and the mature eclecticism and lush sonorities of the deceptively unassuming 8th, the 7th, or Sinfonia antartica to give its Italianate name, is an expanded and revised version of the film score Vaughan Williams wrote for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic (dir. Charles Frend; scr. Walter Meade, Ivor Montagu and Mary Hayley Bell). This means that unlike much of the classical repertoire – and beyond even overtly programmatic works – we have very clear textual pointers as to what much of the music is specifically about and the emotions it intends to suggest (albeit that Vaughan Williams wrote much of the film score without seeing any shot footage).

In this brilliantly alive, masterfully subtle and deeply enthralling performance, John Wilson conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra – who recorded the original film score under Ernest Irving – did something quite extraordinary, something that only the very best interpretations allow for: inviting us, if we were minded, to encounter the work as if we knew absolutely nothing about it or its provenance other than the title.

Wilson’s quintessentially British approach of combining frost-sharp precision and emotional restraint along with subtle shadings of light and dark and infinitesimal graduations of dynamics created an overall effect that felt apt in every way, but that also left plenty of space for personal interpretation (I much prefer this approach to the works of Vaughan Williams, similar in some ways to that of the late Bryden Thomson, over the more romantic, continental, emotion-wringing approach of, for example, Bernard Haitink).

Charles Frend’s film is a genuine tragedy in the Aristotelian sense, with an expertly-structured screenplay. Starring John Mills as Scott, it closely follows the real-life events that lead Scott and his team to perish in the icy vastness of Antarctica. In one of the opening scenes, Scott’s wife reminds him that he is fascinated by “making the first foot marks”, an aspiration of humans for well over ten thousand years. In parts of Antarctica such as the McMurdo Dry Valleys, extreme cold and almost zero moisture together create an environment in which a footprint can last undisturbed for centuries.

There is also deep irony in the film’s telling early on of how Scott couldn’t raise suitable funding because of the expedition’s apparent lack of forecast economic return. The character of Edward Wilson, the expedition’s scientist, introduces a tension between science and commerce. He is more interested in discovery for discovery’s sake, while the more worldly and pragmatic Scott wants his expedition first to be funded, and then later to be regarded as a great success back home.

This dichotomy is neatly captured in a scene at the base camp before the journey across the ice begins. Having learnt that Amundsen is making for the South Pole rather than the North as originally assumed, Wilson points-out that it doesn’t matter if they beat Amundsen to the pole as they can still do valuable scientific work, indeed much better science if they’re not taking part in a race. Scott replies, “In fact I’m not going to race,” then immediately turns to the map and asks himself out loud, “Wonder what route the blighter’s taking?” He cannot help himself. In a later scene, shortly before the final team reaches the South Pole, Wilson shows Scott some coal, causing Scott to feel vindicated: they did not travel here in vain, there are natural resources to be exploited.

It’s impossible to view these scenes without feeling a strong sense of loss, that it’s our voracious desire for economic growth and exponentially increasing short-term energy requirements that have brought the planet to the brink of disaster. When, months later, Scott’s tent was discovered by a search party, his diary recounted the team’s final hours. One can’t help but wonder whether what remains of humankind in a few millennia will be as informative regarding our fate, or as matter-of-fact about how we all perished.

Scott and his team are portrayed as archetypally stoic in a uniquely British way. Combined with the frozen landscape that the music evokes so magnificently, the 7th can’t help, on the surface at least, but be less overtly emotive than many of Vaughan Williams’s other works, but under Wilson’s meticulous direction the Philharmonia edged along a narrow path that was both expressive and evocative without being either over-wrought or too contained.

Soprano Sarah Tynan and the Philharmonia Voices were flawless. Positioned just outside the auditorium and audible only through an open door, they created a spiritual layer that deepened the work’s effect and meaning. The ‘Prelude’ appeared to move from the majesty and beauty of Antarctica, the wind initially appearing as icily beautiful, to the bells, brass and timpani hammer rise/hammer fall motif which felt like the worsening environmental catastrophe that is already causing real harm to whales, penguins and albatrosses all the way down to krill and phytoplankton.

The end of the first movement, originally designed to showcase the heroism of man’s mighty endeavor in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds seemed more like tragically-flawed hubris, not just of the expedition but of humanity. The wonderfully taut and rhythmically disciplined ‘Scherzo’ with its foreboding woodwind and insistent dual falling motifs spoke to me of impending disaster for everyone and everything, not just for Scott and his expedition.

From a screenwriting perspective, it’s worth noting here that the film not only has a perfect midpoint (at 52’42” with 52’42” remaining) with a Fade To Black/Fade In, but also in story terms a perfect Midpoint scene (at 52’52”) in which Scott sends Dimitri off with letters home (as the editing here makes clear, the expedition is now almost entirely cut-off from civilization and at the mercy of nature). The twelve-man team is now closer to the endpoint (danger/death) than they are to their origin point (safety/life). This metaphorical Rubicon-crossing at the Midpoint of a screenplay is an idea that is innate in practised storytellers.

Although the third movement most betrays the symphony’s film music roots, ‘Landscape’ (initially at least) thrillingly conjures the raw beauty, harsh extremes and awe-inspiring size of the continent. Wilson’s control of dynamics here was superb, rendering every moment intensely suspenseful and keeping one firmly on the edge of one’s seat. When the Royal Festival Hall organ thundered into the movement, it felt like the brutal horror of humankind attacking the continent’s fragile ecology full force.

The ‘Intermezzo’ further ramped-up the sense of apprehension, repeating the bell/timpani death knells, though now under woodwind/strings. These softer, yet more emotionally-forceful knocks at the door by the ‘Reaper of All Things’, sounding not as a bell tolling for Scott and his expedition, but as the final muted blows falling on Antarctica itself, the real damage having already been done. The final oboe solo sounded a premonition of the very last Antarctic penguin standing on the ice, wondering what happened to its colony and its home (a recent photograph of the world’s last male Northern white rhino probably playing on my mind at this point).

The ‘Epilogue’ marched inexorably towards what felt like unavoidable annihilation, as the influence of ‘civilization’ obliterates everything in its path, the trumpet motif from the ‘Prelude’ now sounding like a funeral march for Antarctica.

Human-made climate change caused by ever-rising levels of carbon dioxide (now at levels not seen for 3 million years) has caused acidification of the ocean and a decrease in sea ice, on which the entire ecosystem of the Antarctic relies. The distribution and levels of Antarctic phytoplankton, the fundamental building-block of the entire food chain on the continent, are being altered by these changes in sea ice. Krill feed on these phytoplankton beneath the ice sheets. Diminishing ice means diminishing krill.

Twice in the past four years the annual breeding cycle of the Adélie penguins who inhabit the Petrels Islands has been hit by catastrophe caused by the changes in ocean currents and ice formation brought about by the break-up of the Mertz glacier, and by extreme weather events that are also a direct result of human-made climate change.

Only two Adélie penguin chicks survived in the colony this year, from breeding pairs numbering around 18,000. A lack of sea ice close to the breeding location meant the adults had to travel over 100km to feed on krill, leaving the chicks to die from cold and starvation. Some have predicted that Adélie penguins may soon become extinct on the Antarctic Peninsula, which is seeing some of the most increased winter temperatures anywhere on the planet. Almost ninety percent of the land glaciers there are melting.

Emperor penguins, the Antarctic’s other indigenous penguin species, are currently classified as ‘Near Threatened’, with some predictions forecasting more than half of current numbers being lost within the next 80 years (one lifetime). Again, this is due to diminishing sea ice leading to drastically reduced food sources. Antarctica is also under threat from increased tourism, shipping disasters, oil spills and from non-treaty-bound governments and private companies prospecting for natural resources.

As the symphony’s haunting winds and ethereal spirit voices faded into nothingness, I couldn’t help but feel a visceral dread for the fate of the now-thawing continent as its future hangs in the balance. In those precious moments of silence between the last audible reverberations and the first wave of applause, a question hung in the air: was the requiem for Antarctica or for us, who mostly refuse to respect anything but that which quenches our own ceaseless need for gratification.

Read as an urbanoia/survival horror, Scott of the Antarctic is about a group of “First World” dwellers who travel deep into the wilderness without due care, attention or respect. They ignore the advice of the wise ‘local’ (Nansen) who tells them “dogs, dogs, dogs”, deciding instead to take some dogs, but also ponies and two mechanical sleds, which become useless early on. The ship’s lucky black cat squirms out of Scott’s arms and runs back on board when it’s suggested she should accompany Scott to the pole. Later, perfectly healthy ponies are shot because they have become more useful as husky food than pack animals. Within a horror frame, it’s crystal clear that Scott and his expedition have transgressed against nature and will be duly punished in return. Of course, neither Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates or Evans fight back, rather they accept their inevitable fate with the most British of stiff upper lips.

Stoicism is the polar opposite (pace) of what we need now. Indeed, it is Antarctica that has no choice but stoicism, as it endures everything that human actions throw at it (the burning of fossil fuels worldwide will have set a record high by the end of 2017). Nor, like Wilson and Scott in the film, do we have time to indulge in dream-like flights from impending fate (only eleven miles from safety, Wilson imagines his wife walking towards him through verdant green, in a cinematic trope reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil).

Humanity now has three choices: take radical action immediately, sacrifice ourselves for the good of the planet and its non-human inhabitants, or ultimately find ourselves just another in a long line of extinct species, many of which we have ourselves hastened to their untimely end.

After more than a hundred years of snow, the tent in which Scott, Wilson and Bowers died is now encased under twenty metres of ice within the Ross Ice Shelf, as are, we can only assume, the bodies of Evans and Oates. As the polar ice melts, breaks off and floats away with escalating pace, we can only hope that all five men can rest in peace till nature, in time, reclaims her icy domain.

Greenpeace Antarctic Sanctuary

WWF The Antarctic