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 (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.
1. Prelude: Andante maestoso
- 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. (quotation from Shelley, Prometheus Unbound)
2. Scherzo: Moderato
- There go the ships, and there is that Leviathan whom thou hast made to take his pastime therein. (quotation from Psalm 104, Verse 26)
3. Landscape: Lento
- 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! (quotation from Coleridge, Hymn before Sunrise, in the vale of Chamouni)
4. Intermezzo: Andante sostenuto
- Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,/ Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time. (quotation from Donne, The Sun Rising)
5. Epilogue: Alla marcia, moderato (non troppo allegro)
- 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. (quotation from Captain Scott's Last Journal)
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) in 1954, 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.
- Barbirolli—Ritchie (sop)—Hallé Choir—Hallé. HMV ALP 1102 (Free Trade Hall, June 15–16, 1953)
- Boult—Gielgud (narr)—Ritchie (sop)—LP Choir—LPO. Decca LXT 2912 (Kingsway Hall, Dec. 10–11, 1953)
- Previn—Richardson (narr)—Harper (sop)—Ambrosian Singers—LSO. RCA Victor SB 6736 (Kingsway Hall, Sept. 14–16, 1967)
- Boult—Burrowes (sop)—LP Choir—LPO. HMV ASD 2631 (Kingsway Hall, Nov. 18–21, 1969)
- Cox—Pierce (mezzo)—ASO Women's Chorus—American SO ( + music by Mendelssohn). CRQ Editions CD 251 (Carnegie Hall, April 13, 1970)
- Haitink—Armstrong (sop)—Ladies of the LP Choir—LPO ( + Symphony No. 5). LPO-0072 (Royal Festival Hall, Nov. 27, 1984)
- Haitink—Armstrong (sop)—LP Choir—LPO. EMI CDC 7 47516 2 (Abbey Road, Nov. 28–29, 1984)
- Rozhdestvensky—Dof-Donskaya (sop)—USSR State Chamber Choir—USSR StSO ( + Symphony No. 6). Melodiya CD 10-02170-5 (Philharmonia Building, Leningrad, April 28, 1989)
- Thomson—Bott (sop)—LS Women's Chorus—LSO ( + Toward the Unknown Region). Chandos CHAN 8796 (St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, June 19–22, 1989)
- Handley—Hargan (sop)—Liverpool Philharmonic Choir—RLPO ( + Serenade to Music). EMI Eminence CD EMX 2173 (Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, April 1990)
- Slatkin—Hohenfeld (sop)—Philharmonia Women's Chorus—Philharmonia ( + Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’). RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-61195-2 (Abbey Road, Nov. 28–29, 1991)
- Leppard—Labelle (sop)—women's chorus—Indianapolis SO ( + Fantasia on a Theme by Tallis). Koss Classics KC 2214 (April 27–29, 1992)
- Davis-A—Rozario (sop)—BBC Symphony Chorus—BBC SO ( + A Pastoral Symphony). Teldec 0630-13139-2 (St Augustine's Church, London, March 1996)
- Bakels—Russell (sop)—Waynflete Singers—Bournemouth SO ( + Symphony No. 8). Naxos 8.550737 (Poole Arts Centre, Sept. 6–7, 1996)
- Davis-A—Eriksmoen (sop)—Grieg Kor—Bergen Phil Choir—Bergen Phil (+ Concerto in C for 2 Pianos and Orchestra + Four Last Songs). Chandos CHSA 5186 (Grieghallen, Bergen, Jan. 30 to Feb. 2, 2017)
- 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. Archived from the original on 2008-07-17. Retrieved 2008-07-11.
- Discogs listing