Poles apart

Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge

In 2020, the Scott Polar Research Institute, here in Cambridge, is celebrating its centenary. Following the tragic deaths of Robert Falcon Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates, and Edgar Evans, while returning from their expedition to the South Pole, public sympathy led to a large sum of money being raised to support their families, and to maintain the legacy of the expedition.

£6,000 of the £76,000 raised was used by Cambridge University to set up Scott Polar, which moved into its current lodgings on Lensfield Road in 1934. SPRI have a good collection of polar related music and music literature, some of which was associated with Scott’s original expedition (discover this on iDiscover). It includes CDs featuring the music which accompanied the expedition to the Pole – comic songs were popular, as was Enrico Caruso and the latest in musical theatre. alongside opera highlights, the Blue Danube, and the National Anthem. Here at the UL, we’ve also got an interesting collection of music charting the fascination for polar expeditions that would eventually lead to Scott’s own fateful journey.

The earliest song to have a direct connection with the Antarctic is probably The Antarctic Mariner’s Song written by James Croxall Palmer in 1843, with music by James Dana. Palmer and Dana were both involved in the United States Exploring Expedition (popularly known as the US Ex-Ex) from 1838-1842. Palmer was Assistant Surgeon to the expedition, while Dana worked as a geologist and mineralogist. Palmer had an especially exciting expedition, being on board former warship, Peacock, which sank on its way back to the States – thankfully the crew were uninjured. Palmer lost his journal during the scramble from the ship, but was able to remember the expedition in great detail. These details would form an integral part of his poem Thulia: A tale of the Antarctic, celebrated as the first Antarctic poem. Dana, who was a keen guitarist and flautist, provided the music for part of Thulia, so creating the first Antarctic song.

The opening of The Antarctic Mariner’s Song by James Croxall Palmer and James Dana.

We don’t have a copy here at the UL, but there is one at SPRI.

Around the same time there was renewed interest in Arctic exploration too, as Captain Sir John Franklin’s expedition disappeared while on a quest to find the Northwest Passage.

Interest was re-kindled in the UK in 1875 when the British Arctic Expedition under Sir George Strong Nares, set out to find the Polar Sea, an ice-free area of water, which it was believed surrounded the North Pole. The Victorian music machine was entranced by this attempt, and a number of musical works were produced to celebrate the expedition including The Arctic Expedition Galop (A1877.39) by the appropriately named William Lane Frost, and The Arctic Waltzes (A1876.682) by G. Jervis Rubini. To listen to an excerpt from The Arctic Waltzes, click here.

There were numerous attempts to reach the North Pole over the next 30 years with varying degrees of success. Robert Peary failed to reach the North Pole, though he did establish that Greenland was an island in 1891. Revered Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen nearly got to the pole in 1896, but sensibly turned back as frostbite, mechanical problems, and food shortages took their toll on his team. The 1897 Arctic Balloon Expedition ended in disaster, although what actually caused the deaths of the party remains a mystery; theories range from polar bear attack to trichinosis or vitamin A poisoning.

Peary returned to the Pole in 1909, and is generally believed to be the first person to reach the North Pole. A surgeon, who had taken part in Peary’s earlier expedition, Frederick Cook, counter-claimed that he had reached the pole in the previous year. Although the accounts of both men are still disputed, it is generally accepted that Peary was the first man to reach the North Pole.

It is no coincidence that in the same year as Peary’s conquest of the Arctic, a musical work was released to celebrate the journey – Ezra Read’s The North Pole : a descriptive musical fantasia. It is a remarkably rare work, with just a solitary copy held in the UK, at Scott Polar, and only one other copy recorded on OCLC in the National Library of Australia. You will be pleased to hear that a copy will be making its way to the UL shortly, following a chance find while writing this blog post.

Coming soon to a shelf near you…

In contrast to contemporary music written about Arctic exploration, there is little published at the time about the race to the South Pole, which would ultimately be won by Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen. This is perhaps surprising, especially in view of the public’s interest in Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, and the outpouring of love following the deaths of the members of the expedition.

In 1948, Ralph Vaughan Williams was commissioned to write the music for the biopic, Scott of the Antarctic. The eerie score (a celesta and wind machine added to the chill of the work) became popular, and the project was such an inspiration to Vaughan Williams himself, that his 7th symphony, the Symphony Antartica, would grow out of the film score. It was, to my knowledge, the first musical tribute to the men of the Terra Nova expedition.

More recently, Cambridge graduate, Jake Wilson, composed a cycle of songs, All’s well, as a tribute to those who died, with the help of the Scott Polar Institute.

The memorial to Cherry Apsley-Garrard in Wheathampstead Church.

It is hard to imagine the awful conditions that Scott and his men endured on their trek to the Pole, but you can get some idea of it from Cherry Apsley-Garrard’s memoir The worst journey in the world. Apsley-Garrard was one of the youngest members of the expedition, and endured a hellish trek in an attempt to collect penguins’ eggs for scientific research. He was to suffer for the rest of his life with what would now be recognised as PTSD. Buried in Wheathampstead, his memorial in a quiet corner of the church shows him in his Antarctic gear, fully equipped for his journey.


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.