To celebrate, to commemorate : the Scott Polar expedition

In March 1912 The Times ran a series of articles on the race to the South Pole. Robert Falcon Scott’s British expedition had recently been narrowly beaten to the Pole by the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen. While praising Amundsen, The Times maintained a suitably stiff upper lip supporting the British adventurer : Scott was not far behind his fellow explorer, and in any case had not been intending to race him and Scott’s expedition was the more scientific of the two. What no-one realised was that a tragedy was taking place in far off Antarctica.

The Times headline, dated February 11th 1913.

A year later in February 1913 The Times published a grim headline. Trapped by the fearsome Antarctic winter Scott and his men had been cut off. The fellow members of their expedition had thought that they had reached winter quarters and were safely installed there until the beginning of the short southern summer; but in fact as news reached London in April 1912 of the Scott Polar expedition’s scientific achievements to date, Scott and the men who travelled with him to the Pole, were already dead.

Robert Scott’s wife, en route from San Francisco to New Zealand in 1913 to meet her husband, was unaware of his death, and frantic efforts were made to get the news to her as the story broke in newspapers worldwide. Reading the February 1913 account in The Times, I was shocked. Living in an age when global communication is so easy you can forget how very remote is Antarctica. Even today it remains one of the most isolated areas of the world. With its extreme conditions NASA has used the Southern continent as a testing ground for missions to Mars.

Photographed by Josh Landis for the National Science Foundation (U.S. Antarctic Program Photo Library)

So the Scott Polar expedition was a heroic, if misguided failure? Well, no. There were lots of good things that came out of it. Not least the Scott Polar Research Institute. Botanical specimens collected during the expedition backed up the emerging theory of continental drift while specimens of Emperor penguins proved to be hugely important as control specimens proving 50 years later that DDT had polluted the environment of the Antarctic (for more on this see The Telegraph).

Musically there was also to be a legacy from the Antarctic expedition. Ralph Vaughan Williams was commissioned to write the score for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic. He wrote a dazzlingly chilly brittle score which fitted the film perfectly. The music proved to be immediately popular and was swiftly released as a recording, although, apparently not wholly with Vaughan Williams’ blessing (Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams : 1895-1958 / edited by Hugh Cobbe. p. 499 M501.c.200.96).

Following the premiere of the film and haunted by the story of Scott and his men, Vaughan Williams set to reworking the film score and turned it into his seventh symphony, Sinfonia Antartica. Vaughan Williams cheerily admitted to his friend, the publisher Alan Frank of Oxford University Press that the new symphony was “a bit of carpentry…but don’t tell anyone this” (ibid) and dedicated the work to Ernest Irving of Ealing Film Studios, who had been central to the creation of the score for the original film. Irving presented the manuscript score of the symphony to the Royal Philharmonic Society following the premiere by the Halle Orchestra conducted by John Barbirolli at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester.

Many of the themes for Sinfonia Antartica are taken directly from the film, with the opening theme of the symphony being one of the central themes throughout the film – as can be noted in the two YouTube clips above – one taken from the film, the other from the first recording of the symphony. The symphony proved to be generally popular with audiences although the large forces needed for performance has meant that it isn’t performed that often : as well as a full symphony orchestra, the work also requires a soprano soloist (an eerily disembodied voice that is surprisingly effective), a small chorus of women’s voices, organ, piano, celesta, and a variety of tuned and untuned percussion including a wind machine.

From left: Oates, Bowers, Scott, Wilson, Evans. Photographed by Harry Bowers, January 1912.

Scott Polar have a number of events to commemorate the anniversary of the expedition, while sledge pulling challenges are taking place around the country including one in Cambridge on March 25th 2012. In the week leading up to the death of Scott and his men – Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans – why not commemorate them by pulling a sledge or by listening to Sinfonia Antartica?

MJ

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