Sinfonia Antartica; Scott of the Antarctic – Archive recordings from the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration
P. Pelham/L. Wright ’Tis A Story That Shall Live Forever (1913) [3.30]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Sinfonia Antartica (1953) [44.42]
Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) The Dash for the South Pole (1909) [3.46]; My South Polar Expedition (1910) [3.40]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Scott of the Antarctic (1948) [8.24] {Prologue, Pony March, Penguins, Climbing the Glacier, The Return, Blizzard, Final Music)
P. Pelham/L. Wright ’Tis A Story That Shall Live for Ever (1913) [3.10]
Stanley Kirkby; Robert Carr (baritones)
Sir John Gielgud (narrator); Margaret Ritchie (soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
Margaret Ritchie (soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Ernest Irving
rec. 1953, 1948
CD41 RECORDINGS CD41-024 [67.14]

Available from

This is an interesting and unusual release – part audio-book and part classical CD which, although not designated as such, appears to be issued to commemorate the centenary of Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole (1911-1912).

The CD is book-ended by two versions of the same patriotic song, commemorating the heroism of Captain Scott: Tis A Story That Shall Live for Ever sung by Stanley Kirkby and Robert Carr. As James Hayward’s very helpful and informative booklet notes tell us, Kirkby was a popular and versatile baritone who made many hundreds of recordings. The tragic death of Scott and his companions on their return from the South Pole and the contemporaneous 1912 Titanic Disaster, featuring similar acts of self sacrifice, as that of Captain Oates on the Scott expedition (‘I am just going outside and may be some time’) were landmark events. They served as an invitation, to a whole generation of young men, to seek martyrdom on the Western Front, shortly afterwards, in World War One. This retrospectively chilling use of Scott’s example may perhaps be seen in the inclusion of the two patriotic songs on the CD (or, to be more precise, two different versions of the same song) which certainly add an authentic historical context - but I am doubtful as to their potential for repeated listening – unless you wish to sing along to them!

Sadly there appear to be no archive recordings of the voice of Captain Scott but, what we do have here, is two short recordings of Scott’s arch-rival Sir Ernest Shackleton (a far greater explorer in the views of some) – recounting aspects of his 1907-1909 expedition to Antarctica. Although Shackleton had a reputation as being a fine public speaker these extracts will, I suspect, only be engaging to those interested in the history of polar exploration. Shackleton speaks with the upper-class accent of his time - as did Vaughan Williams.

The heroic reputation of Captain Scott continued down to Roland Huntford’s biographical hatchet job, ‘Scott and Amundsen’ (1979). Huntford compared Scott’s bungling incompetence to the ruthless efficiency of the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s rival expedition, which beat Scott to the South Pole at the end of 1911. Since then, there has been a lively debate on Scott’s reputation, so that now we tend to have a more balanced picture in which Scott’s undoubted bravery is seen alongside the shortcomings of the planning for his South Polar Expedition.

The Ealing film ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ (1948) largely adopted the traditional ‘heroic’ view of Scott, although even Vaughan Williams, who composed the accompanying musical score was apparently quite shocked by the amateurishness of some of the planning. The food depots, for example, were spaced too far apart and Scott’s decision to take a final group of five men to the Pole has been criticised as the food supplies were all based on four men parties. The musical soundtrack is generally seen as Vaughan Williams’ finest contribution to the cinema and the composer later (1952) used it as the basis of his Sinfonia Antartica (Symphony No 7). The great thing about this CD is that it is the only one I am aware of which features both extracts from the film music and the complete Sinfonia Antartica. It is fascinating to hear the way in which Vaughan Williams incorporates the film score in the Symphony. For example the Symphony opens with the music representing ‘Climbing the Glacier’ in the movie score and the juxtaposition of the film music with the Symphony allows one to compare the very different endings. The movie itself ends on a heroic upbeat note (‘Final Music’) associated with the memorial cross left to Scott and his companions near his base camp in the Antarctic, which quotes from Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ (‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’). By contrast Sinfonia Antartica ends in the deepest gloom with the wind machine representing the final blizzard on the frozen wastes, which defeated Scott and the remnants of his polar party eleven miles from their food depot.

Boult’s recording of ‘Sinfonia Antartica’ is a classic one made with Vaughan Williams in the studio. Listening to it again, for the purposes of this review, I realised just how fine it is. Sir John Barbirolli made a very good premiere recording with the Halle Orchestra (EMI). Boult’s more objective way with Vaughan Williams really suits the music, creating a more genuinely terrifying spectacle with a greater sense of rhythmic urgency in places. I found Boult’s recording to be chilling in every sense of the word. The organ entry is spectacularly intimidating – especially considering the age of the recording. This version comes complete with the spoken superscriptions, before each movement, read eloquently by Sir John Gielgud. It should be noted that, unfortunately, there are no separate tracks on the CD for either Sinfonia Antartica or for the eight minutes of extracts from the film soundtrack (conducted by Ernest Irving, the dedicatee of the Symphony). Boult made a later recording of Sinfonia Antartica for EMI, without the spoken introductions to each movement – but I rather like them, as they create a sense of context, although some think that they break up the narrative of the music.

As for the recording, I did not notice any appreciable difference between this release of Sinfonia Antartica and earlier ones of the same recording on Belart, Eloquence and Decca (part of an excellent boxed set of the complete symphonies), although a more recent release of the film score extracts on Dutton, entitled ‘From Vaughan Williams’ attic’ (CDBP 9790) is a marginally better transfer. See also Pearl CD.

The accompanying notes by James Murray are first-rate and there are some excellent illustrations in the booklet including a photograph of a husky dog with an old gramophone from Scott’s expedition, a great colour panoramic photograph of an Antarctic landscape and a cover photo featuring Scott, Shackleton and Wilson, together on an earlier expedition (1902).

There are numerous recordings of Sinfonia Antartica on CD, including a fine modern version by Bernard Haitink, for example. Sadly this was one of the two Vaughan Williams symphonies which Richard Hickox did not record before his untimely death. The complete film music is also available on an excellent release in the Chandos Film Music series, conducted by Rumon Gamba. Nevertheless this curious commemorative release does claim our attention.

Jeffrey Davis

This curious commemorative release does claim our attention.