SCOTT OF THE ANTARCTIC – Ralph Vaughan-Williams
Original Review by Craig Lysy
Producer Michael Balcon of Ealing Studios resolved to tell the story of the famous British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, and his ill-fated journey to discover the South Pole. Charles Frend was hired to direct and he brought in a splendid cast which included Sir John Mills as the titular character, James Robertson Justice as Petty Officer Taff Evans, Derek Bond as Captain Oates, Kenneth More as Lieutenant Teddy Evans, John Gregson as Petty Officer Crean, James McKechnie as Surgeon Lieutenant Atkinson, Barry Letts as Apsley Cherry-Garrard, and Christopher Lee as Bernard Day. The screenplay drew by Major Walter Meade and Ivor Montagu extensively from Scott’s personal diaries, while additional dialogue was adapted from novelist Mary Hayley Bell (John Mills’s wife). The expedition takes place in 1911–1912. Scott, who in 1904 initially explored Antarctica, resolved to organize an expedition to discover the South Pole. Initially he is unable to secure adequate funds for the expedition, as the British business class is skeptical. He ultimately manages to secure government funds after an appeal to British pride. Regretfully Scott chose to forgo the traditional method of relying exclusively on dogs, instead choosing to augment his dogs with ponies and motorized sleds. This decision would ultimately contribute to his demise.
Scott and his team sets sail for New Zealand, and from there departs to the Antarctic so as to begin their trek during the more temperate southern hemisphere summer. He sets up base camp on the coast and then departs for the pole. Misfortune begins immediately as the motorized sleds freeze up. At the halfway point he is forced to shoot his ponies, as they were unable to acclimate to the cold. This forces him to send most of his team back. At the three quarter mark Scott makes the fateful decision to proceed to the pole with a five-man team. When he arrives at the pole he makes the grim discovery of a tent flying the Norwegian flag – his competitor Roald Amundsen had beaten him by a month. Adding insult to injury, he finds a note from Amundsen, which he has the audacity to ask be delivered to the King of Norway! The dispirited team begins the long trek back but ultimately succumb to some of the harshest weather ever recorded, dying a mere eleven miles from a fully provisioned camp. Months later their frozen bodies are discovered and Scott’s last journal entry; “I do not regret this journey…” The film was a commercial success in the United Kingdom, and although it premiered in the United States in 1949, it secured no Academy Award recognition.
Ealing Studios Music Director Ernest Irving solicited Ralph Vaughan-Williams for the assignment, which he eagerly accepted. Vaughan-Williams had been an acclaimed classical composer in the United Kingdom since the 1910s, writing immensely popular and influential pieces as the opera The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Wasps, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and The Lark Ascending, but came to film music late – he did not write his first score, 49th Parallel, until 1940, when he was already 66 years old. He immediately began reading books on the Antarctic to better familiarize himself with the film’s setting. He composed an amazing 996 bars of music, although regretfully less than half was used. Years later, in 1952, he would adapt the full score into his seventh symphony – Sinfonia Anarctica. His wife Ursula provides us insight into how Vaughan-Williams sought to score the film:
“The idea of great, white landscapes, ice floes, the whales and penguins, bitter winds and Nature’s bleak serenity as a background to man’s endeavour captured RVW’s imagination. He conjured dramatic and icy sounds from the orchestra . . . Here he was following ideas he had explained in an article he had written on composing for the films—‘to ignore details and to intensify the spirit of the whole situation by [a] continuous stream of music.’ ”
He understood that the score had to speak to man’s quest into the unknown, and desire to triumph over nature itself, a cruel, unpredictable and implacable adversary. To that end Vaughan-Williams supplemented his large orchestra with additional instruments, to provide the snowy, glacial and frozen landscape intrinsic to the setting. This included bells, xylophone, glockenspiel, an organ, celesta, vibraphone and even a wind machine. He envisioned austere auras, mournful legato strings and wordless female voice and choir to inform us of the harshness, impersonal coldness, loneliness and isolation that are the Antarctic, a majestic land of pristine beauty, which is ultimately, terrifying. Lastly he adopted a Herrmannesque use of unusual sonorities, especially with his percussion. In terms of themes, Scott’s Theme serves as the film’s primary identity. I believe Vaughan-Williams captured Scott’s essence, his strength, willfulness, guile, and determination. One senses immediately a striving within the theme’s phrasing, which emotes with slow, purposeful and reserved nobility. Lastly, critic Tony Thomas wrote, “Vaughan-Williams score for Scott of the Antarctic is one of the greatest achievements in film music. It transcends mere pictoralism and delves into the mystery of man’s compulsion to adventure to forbidding places.”
“Main Titles” is a supreme score highlight, which graces us with a full unabashed rendering of the evocative Scott Theme. For me it offers one of the finest main titles in film score art. Notable is how Vaughan-Williams perfectly sets the tone of the film, which will tell the tragic tale where human strength, striving determination and heroism succumb to the unforgiving and implacable power of nature. In “Prologue” Scott reads from his journal regarding his first expedition to Antarctica in 1904. He relates of how he only scratched the surface of this vast continent and one day he must return. As we shift from the pages of his journal to the frozen vistas of Antarctica the music enters. Chattering xylophone and unresolved string figures are joined by wordless female voice, which create a sense of desolation, coldness, and loneliness in this land of pristine beauty. The “Sculpture Scene” cue was excised from the film. The scene reveals Scott’s wife Kathleen sculpting a bust of Robert as they discuss the troubles he is having trying to fund his expedition. We open with ambient string and woodwind auras that shift abruptly at 0:24 as the wordless female vocal returns and is joined by female chorus as they discuss his return to Antarctica. She supports his return and the A Phrase of his theme affirms his satisfaction.
“Doom” reveals Scott and his wife in Norway assessing motorized sleds. Dr. Nanson believes it is folly and counsels reliance only on dogs. Scott’s decision to go with motorized sleds is one of the decisions, which doom his expedition. Vaughan-Williams’ music is porte ntous as a dark contra-bassoon and horns make declarative statements of the A Phrase of Scott’s Theme, which crescendo powerfully. “Ship’s Departure” reveals the embarkation of their expedition ship Terra Nova, a converted whaler. Vaughan-Williams offers solemn horn far that emotes with an authentic Edwardian sentimentality, which accompanies the departure of the doomed expedition. In “Ice Floes” we are treated to a wondrous score highlight. The Terra Nova is sailing the southern sea and we see immense ice masses flowing in the currents. We bear witness to an extraordinary juxtaposition as woodwinds and percussion sparkle and shimmer over a menacing bass line, which supports the slow movement of these immense ice masses. At 1:24 we are offered some truly evocative writing as organ and horns join, bathing us in reverential auras as we pass massive ice cliffs, which tower over the ship. We culminate with a stirring crescendo of power as the Terra Nova arrives at Cape Evans.
The men come upon a colony of penguins in “Penguin Dance”. Vaughan-Williams provides a comic interlude with staccato woodwinds supporting their gait, and playful sliding descending strings supporting their slide into the water. “Aurora” reveals a view of the night sky over the base camp. It offers another glorious score highlight as we bear witness to a resplendent aurora australis, which dances against the star rich polar night sky. Slowly, but inexorably, woodwinds and strings rise, gaining voice. From out this twinkling is born brilliant horn declarations attesting to the wonder of the aurora australis as we crescendo gloriously! Regretfully due to editing, most of the cue was excised, with only the crescendo surviving – a pity. “Pony March” reveals the departure of the expedition on the quest for the pole. Vaughan-Williams uses festive carnivalesque music to support the march of the ponies as they pull sleds. This infuses a vital energy as Scott and his men seek their destiny. In “Blizzard” a fierce blizzard has befallen the expedition. Vaughan-Williams perfectly captures the blinding white terror by sowing fear with dire horn declarations, augmented with the wind machine and wordless chorus. The blizzard has doomed the ponies who are one by one shot dead, providing fresh meat for the dogs. The men are now forced to pull provisions on sleds, which slow them down and sap their strength.
In “Distant Glacier” the clouds dramatically part and sunlight reveals the glacier they seek. We are graced by a resplendent twinkling brilliance by woodwinds and percussion that is simply glorious. Vaughan William perfectly captures the beauty and magnificence of the imagery. Regretfully much of the cue was excised from the film. “Climbing the Glacier” reveals the men tiring as the struggle to climb the glacier. Dark horns declarations, low register organ and rumbling percussion support their progress on the hardest leg of the journey. “Scott on the Glacier” offers a score highlight as Scott and the men struggle to gain the glacier’s crest. Slowly and inexorably their victory is supported heroically with a powerful and validating rendering of his theme. The marriage of film imagery and music is sublime as we culminate gloriously atop horns trionfonti. In “Snow Plain” the men struggle making progress across the vast plain. A plaintive solo English horn and kindred woodwinds join percussion and strings as Scott debates internally, which five men will make the final push to the pole. Shattering horn declarations and tolling bells inform us that Scott’s decision portends his doom.
The men are devastated do discover with the fluttering Norwegian flag, that Amundsen has beaten them. “The Return” reveals the men beginning the 900 mile trek back to base camp. We bear witness to a grim marcia di tormento as the men must pull their sled, which bears life sustaining provisions. A make shift sail they make to assist them fails when the wind shifts. Woodwinds and strings furioso sound the alarm as the cue ends with discordant futility. In “Descending the Glacier” the men are weakening, slowly being drained of strength and will by the bone numbing cold. Vaughan-Williams supports their progress with a grim, plodding cadence shorn of all hope. In “The Death of Evans and Oates”, dark repeating phrases by a deep pedal organ portends doom as Evans succumbs. Elegiac horns honor his passing. Winter has returned early and they are confronted with fierce winds and a bone numbing sixty degrees of frost, which presents an insurmountable impediment. As they push on the grim organ line assumes a funereal bearing as Oates gives up hope, and leaves the tent to commit suicide. The film ends with a rescue team discovering the frozen bodies of their fallen comrades. We close poignantly with the sight of a large wooden cross that bears five names of the dead inscribed on it, as well as an immortal quote from the novel Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” In “End Titles” we are presented with a well-deserved reprise of Scott’s Theme that is solemn, and reverential.
I wish to thank Brian Pidgeon, Rumon Gamba and Chandos Records for this superb re-recording of Vaughan-Williams finest film score, which also features selections from two other Vaughan-Williams scores – Coastal Command and The People’s Land, both from 1943. The sound is pristine and of the highest quality. Vaughan-Williams was tasked with supporting both a poignant human struggle as well as the beauty, majesty and implacable coldness that is the Antarctic. He supplemented his large orchestra with additional instruments, to provide the snowy, glacial and frozen landscape intrinsic to the setting. Indeed for me the confluence of music and film imagery brought chills. He also created a main theme for the ages, which fully captured the spirit, determination and resoluteness of Scott. What endures here, is that in scene after scene Vaughan-Williams offered a soundscape that fully matched the visual splendor of the vast frozen vistas, while also being perfectly attenuated to the unfolding human drama. This score is one of the finest of the Golden age, Vaughan-Williams Magnum Opus, and one, which I believe is essential to your collection.
I have embedded a YouTube link to the timeless Main Title for those of you unfamiliar; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vw_wbP_U-ZE
Buy the Scott of the Antarctic soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Main Titles (2:06)
- Prologue (1:56)
- Doom (1:20)
- Sculpture Scene (2:08)
- Ship’s Departure (1:14)
- Ice Floes (4:48)
- Penguin Dance (0:53)
- Aurora (2:54)
- Pony March (0:56)
- Blizzard (2:02)
- Distant Glacier (2:07)
- Climbing the Glacier (1:10)
- Scott on the Glacier (2:23)
- Snow Plain (3:11)
- The Return (1:42)
- Descending the Glacier (2:37)
- The Death of Evans and Oates (5:17)
- End Titles (2:38)
Running Time: 41 minutes 15 seconds
Chandos Records CHAN-10007 (1948/2002)
Music composed by Ralph Vaughan-Williams. Conducted by Rumon Gamba. Performed by The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus featuring Merryn Gamba. Original orchestrations by Ralph Vaughan-Williams. Recorded and mixed by Stephen Rinker. Score produced by Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Ernest Irving. Album produced by Brian Pidgeon, Ralph Couzens and Mike George.