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.