Vaughan Williams provided the music for the film Scott of the Antarctic in 1947, and was so inspired by the subject that he incorporated much of the music into a symphony. The piece was begun in 1949, and composition completed in 1952, with a dedication to Ernest Irving. The first performance took place on 14 January 1953 in Manchester with Sir John Barbirolli conducting the Hallé Orchestra; the soprano soloist was Margaret Ritchie. The first American performance was given by Rafael Kubelík and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on 2 April 1953.
The work is scored for a large orchestra including:
- Woodwinds: three flutes (3rd doubling on piccolo), two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon
- Brass: four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba
- Percussion: timpani, side drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, gong, bells, xylophone, glockenspiel, vibraphone, wind machine
- Keyboards: celesta, piano, organ (used effectively in the third movement)
- Strings: harp, and strings.
Mechanics of the composition
A typical performance lasts around 45 minutes. There are five movements. The composer specified that the third movement lead directly into the fourth. The score includes a brief literary quotation at the start of each movement. They are sometimes declaimed in performance (and recordings), although the composer did not say that they were intended to form part of a performance of the work.
- Prelude: Andante maestoso (quotation from Shelley, Prometheus Unbound)
- To suffer woes which hope thinks infinite,/ To forgive wrongs darker than death or night,/ To defy power which seems omnipotent,/ ... / Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent:/ This ... is to be/ Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free,/ This is alone Life, Joy, Empire and Victory.
- Scherzo: Moderato (quotation from Psalm 104, Verse 26)
- There go the ships, and there is that Leviathan whom thou hast made to take his pastime therein.
- Landscape: Lento (quotation from Coleridge, Hymn before Sunrise, in the vale of Chamouni)
- Ye ice falls! Ye that from the mountain's brow/ Adown enormous ravines slope amain —/ Torrents, methinks, that heard a mighty voice,/ And stopped at once amid their maddest plunge!/ Motionless torrents! Silent cataracts!
- Intermezzo: Andante sostenuto (quotation from Donne, The Sun Rising)
- Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,/ Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
- Epilogue: Alla marcia, moderato (non troppo allegro) (quotation from Captain Scott's Last Journal)
- I do not regret this journey; we took risks, we knew we took them, things have come out against us, therefore we have no cause for complaint.
Occasionally in performance and recordings the preceding quotations are recited before each movement - notably Sir Adrian Boult's first recording for Decca with Sir John Gielgud (supervised by the composer), and André Previn's for RCA with Sir Ralph Richardson. However, care must be taken, because the composer instructed that the third movement must lead directly into the fourth without a pause. The final notes of the third movement can be sustained as the superscription to the fourth movement is read, thereby ensuring no interruption to the music. The effect is particularly notable - and presumably intentionally so - since the other four movements each have their superscriptions read prior to the beginning of each movement. The horrific grandeur of the third movement is thereby held over into the bittersweet intermezzo. Previn's recording is the most accurate in this regard. The quotations were not recited at the premiere, at which Vaughan Williams was present, or in the subsequent recording made by the same forces.
- Right up till as late as 5 January 1953, nine days before the premiere performance, Vaughan Williams had been wanting to call it Sinfonia Antarctica. In his letter to his amanuensis and assistant Roy Douglas of 5 January he advised he had finally accepted the correct Italian spelling Antartica. See Roy Douglas, Working with Vaughan Williams: Some Newly Discovered Manuscripts
- "Vaughan Williams Symphonies". Vaughan Williams Society. Retrieved 2008-07-11.