The Antarctic Symphony was commissioned by the British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge, in association with the Philharmonia Orchestra, to mark the fiftieth anniversary (more or less!) of the film Scott of the Antarctic, for which Vaughan Williams wrote the music, and of the Sinfonia Antartica he later fashioned out of it.
A condition of the commission was that I go to Antarctica myself, to experience the subject matter at first hand. I made the journey in 1997, as a guest of BAS.
It was midsummer when I sailed from the Falkland Islands to the Antarctic Peninsula and, each day, as we progressed south, the light became brighter and longer. Our ship, the RRS James Clark Ross, being constructed for delicate and sensitive scientific research, was unusually silent and free from vibration, so that one could appreciate the profound stillness of a totally flat sea, with no wind whatever, and exult in the light’s intensity, seeming to pulse from within ancient green and blue icebergs, and leap in eye-piercing shards from the endless expanses of snow and ice.
All silence was shattered when the vessel rammed her way through the hard frozen sea – the ice crashing along the bows was one of the most exhilarating sounds I ever heard, with electric zippings and cracklings sounding off into the far distance as fissures extended for miles from the ship.
Another extraordinary sound experience was at the edge of a heavy, but gentle, avalanche of snow from cliffs towering high on either side of the narrow channel through which the ship was passing – the chilling powder enveloped us all on the deck, with a whisper and hiss that paradoxically seemed to be more profoundly quiet than the previous silence; no-one could speak for minutes afterwards.
These two sounds – the ice-break and the avalanche – determined there and then that I use a Pentecost plainsong, associated with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, in this palpably most un-Christian symphony. I chose one I had used previously – Dum complerentur dies pentecostes. The new symphony cannot be described literally in terms of any programme associated with my Antarctic experience – it is, rather, an abstract work, using transmuted sound images distantly based on those experiences.
Equally important in my calculations was the modified concept of time (as I interpreted this) from recent research into, at one extreme, the smallest unicellular creatures discovered in the rock below the polar ice, which live for centuries, and, at the other extreme, relatively large sea-creatures whose slowness in metabolic rate and physical movement, and their long life span, are related to the restricted food supply and very cold water. In a musical work of given duration one can only suggest these layerings of time, including its near suspension, and the (to us) unusual rates of directly experiencing the breathing of time.
The symphony is in one movement. The short Introduction, originating in the physical breaking of ice, leads into an allegro of fierce dynamic contrasts, which I think of as an exposition. The following slow section starts with a very simple clarinet melody, accompanied by pizzicato cellos. The next quick section is a development of the first one, reworked in terms of a scherzo. This ends in what I think of as a ‘junk-yard’ – parts of Antarctica have bits of junk from earlier journeys of exploration (of course, these days everyone working in Antarctica must remove their rubbish) – here I refer to several of my recent works, consigning them to an ice-bound junk heap. A further slow section intensifies and crystallises the previous slow section (I was preoccupied with translucency and inner light) – and we revisit the allegro material in new configurations directly derived from observing familiar icebergs change shape during midsummer partial meltdown. The final brief slow gestures refer back to the opening of the symphony – or rather, to the harmonic essence, as if the ice has melted, revealing the rock beneath.
© Peter Maxwell Davies
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