Ralph Vaughan Williams

Symphony No. 7 for soprano, small female chorus & orchestra with narrator ad lib ("Sinfonia Antartica")

    Description by Mark Satola

    Of Vaughan Williams' 11 film scores, the best known is his music for Ealing Studios' 1948 production Scott of the Antarctic, the story of the failed South Pole expedition of Robert Falcon Scott. His imagination fired by the subject, Vaughan Williams raced well ahead of studio production, composing most of the music without any visual references to the movie. The resulting music was thereby of unusual independent strength and lent itself particularly well to programmatic symphonic treatment. Vaughan Williams undertook that process between 1949 and 1952, and Sir John Barbirolli conducted the premiere of the new symphony (Vaughan Williams' Seventh) in Manchester on January 21, 1953. In five movements, the Sinfonia Antartica is more of a large concert suite than a classically developed symphony. In the score, each movement is given a superscription which the composer preferred be read silently, but which are sometimes spoken in performance (words of Shelley, Coleridge, and Donne are quoted, as well as the psalms and Scott's journals). In addition, atmospheric use is made throughout of a wordless soprano soloist and women's chorus, and the orchestra is augmented by vibraphone, organ, and wind machine, marking a new interest in unusual orchestral sonorities by the 80-year-old composer.

    The opening tune, grim and striving, calls up the theme of man's stubble against implacable nature. After its dark harmonies, with their undercurrent of inevitable tragedy, we are introduced to the Antarctic continent itself by a shimmering mosaic of tone-painting, in which vibraphone, women's eerie, keening voices and wind machine make explicit the hostile environment. Into this cold landscape intrudes a heraldic trumpet call, the challenge of man to the unknown region, bringing the movement to a fine, optimistic climax, propelled by crisp rolls from the side drum. The voyage to Antarctica is portrayed in the Scherzo, sea spray and cold winds delineated in Debussy-like pointillism. Encounters with whales (a deep groaning theme in the basses) and penguins (a comic, loping episode for trumpet) are set forth before the movement ends suddenly and enigmatically, without a return of the scherzo. The most impressive sound-painting occurs in the third movement, "Landscape," originally accompanying the film's sequence on the awesome Beardmore glacier. A bare, chromatic theme, in canon in the trombones and tuba, is accompanied by icy and glittering fragments from percussion. The weight of this inexorable tune carries the movement forward to an astonishing climax in which the utter inhumanity of the southernmost land is given voice with an all-stops outburst from the organ, after which the music seems to collapse exhausted. A moment of warmth follows in the brief Intermezzo, in the composer's late lyrical style, the main theme given by solo oboe above a piquant mix of major and minor harmonies. Music originally for the apparent suicide of Captain Oates (who left the tent during a fierce blizzard) sounds an ominous note that is more fully developed in the fifth movement. "Epilogue" opens with a minor-key transformation of the first movement's trumpet call. The striving motto theme is now a resolute march, but the music of Antarctica slices into its determined optimism, with chorus and wind machine enveloping the music in a cold storm of defeat. The motto returns elegiacally, and then the wind, snow and wordless voices have the last word.


    1. Prelude. Andante maestoso
    2. Scherzo. Moderato - poco animando
    3. Landscape. Lento
    4. Intermezzo. Andante sostenuto
    5. Epilogue. Alla marcia moderato (ma non troppo)

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2019 Onyx Classics ONYX 4190
    2017 Chandos CHSA 5186
    2016 RCA Red Seal 88875126952
    2014 Melodiya MELCD 1002170
    2013 London Philharmonic Orchestra / LPO LPO 0072
    2011 EMI Classics
    2010 Warner Classics
    2009 Darla Distribution / CD41 24
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099920663
    2008 Naxos 8506020
    2006 Koss 2214
    2005 EMI Classics
    2005 EMI Music Distribution 575313
    2005 EMI Music Distribution 66543
    2005 EMI Music Distribution 47516
    2004 Decca 000213202
    2004 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 7243586026
    2004 RCA Red Seal 55708
    2003 EMI Digital
    2003 EMI Music Distribution 575760
    2002 EMI Music Distribution 75790
    2000 EMI Classics / EMI Music Distribution 73924
    1999 Karussell 461116
    1998 Naxos 550737
    1997 BELART 461442
    1997 Teldec 13139
    1997 Teldec 17047
    1995 EMI Music Distribution 64034
    1994 EMI Music Distribution 65458
    1993 RCA Victor Red Seal 61195
    1992 Chandos 8796
    1992 Chandos 9087-91
    1991 EMI Music Distribution 64020
    1990 RCA 60590
    EMI Music Distribution 747216
    EMI Music Distribution 1
    RCA Victor Red Seal 61460