Friday, 5 April 2013

Sinfonia Antartica - Vaughan Williams (195?)

From New Zealand, we move slightly further south, for a musical examination of Antarctica - Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica. This piece was adapted from the incidental music Williams’ wrote for the 1948 film Scott Of The Antarctic. The first performance of this sinfonia was in 1953 by the Hallé Orchestra under the direction of Sir John Barbirolli. There is no date anywhere on this LP, but as it is performed by the same ensemble, I’m assuming it was recorded not long after its debut.

Sinfonia Antartica is broken into five movements, all combining elements of soundtrack and modern classical music. The first section (Prelude) starts slowly, with a sense of our team embarking on their great adventure into the unknown. At around the 3:00 mark, things get interesting; we hear the appearance of what the composer referred to as ‘antarctic shimmerings’ of xylophone, piano and harp and an eerie female soprano - sounding as if lifted from a seventies horror movie score - enters the scene. A trumpet fanfare announces the coda, and the orchestra turns its attention to the main melody for the remainder of the section.

The second movement (Scherzo) opens with a whirl of woodwinds and tuned percussion over slightly ominous chords and follows this pattern for the rest of the section. The liner notes inform us that in this section ‘there is the unmistakable sound of penguins’. I’ve listened to this LP a lot and I studied a colony of penguins for my thesis, yet I’ve never been able to discern them on this record. I reckon Scott Goddard is talking nonsense. 

The third and fourth movement (Landscape and Intermezzo) share a band on side two. More antarctic shimmerings can be heard in these movements before building up to a dramatic peak of brass and woodwind. From the liner notes: ‘This is the illusory region of atmospheric and visionary impressions[...] Slowly the landscape reveals itself through the mist and huge outlines appear.’ At around 5:00 (in what I assume is the beginning of the fourth movement) a lovely section of harp, reeds and bass strings is introduced. — At just before 7:00 an organ blasts out of nowhere! Things eventually quiet down and the pace slows; this is the appropriately sombre music which accompanied Oate’s death in the original film score.

The final movement (Epilogue) alludes to all the preceding themes and attempts to wrap them up in a satisfying conclusion. The Epilogue turns the bombast and tragedy up a notch depicting the ultimate fate of our embattled heroes. A wind machine can be heard and the melody from the first movement is repeated. In the final couple of minutes the female soprano reemerges, accompanied by a chorus and more wind machine and nicely evokes the bleakness of the Antarctic landscape.

For other great pieces of music which attempt to evoke the Antarctic, check out Vangelis’s soundtrack to the 1983 film Antarctica and Benjamin Bartlett’s Antarctic Spring and Spirits Of The Ice Forest from the excellent Walking With Dinosaurs soundtrack.

Label: HMV
Released: Mid-fifties
Players: Sir John Barbirolli - conductor
Margaret Ritchie - solo soprano
Hallé Orchestra and choir

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