VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Scott of the Antarctic
Vaughan Williams must have been gratified by the positive reaction to his score for Scott of the Antarctic. The film was selected as the Royal Film Performance at the Empire, Leicester Square, in 1948, and then went on to become the third most popular film at the UK box office the following year. The music was played on the soundtrack by the Philharmonia Orchestra (UK orchestras were named often on British films in the post-war era), who went on to record a selection of the music on an HMV 78rpm disc under the film’s conductor and music editor Ernest Irving.
In 2004, 18 cues of Scott of the Antarctic were assembled for an all-Vaughan Williams CD (Chandos, 12/02) but now we have Dutton’s complete score of 41 cues transcribed and edited by Martin Yates, the conductor of this recording. Coming in at nearly 80 minutes’ playing time to the 40 minutes of music heard on the film soundtrack, you have a good indication of how much music was omitted in the final edit. Let’s be thankful for all this extra music as a result of Yates’s exploration of the source material.
His research not only demonstrates the wide variety of music that Vaughan Williams composed for the film, most of it put down before it went into production, but also throws further light on the composition of the Sinfonia antartica of seven years later. Although some tracks are short, each is a satisfying listen in its own right.
In homing in on the essential theme of the film, man against nature, for the subsequent Sinfonia antartica, it’s fascinating to discover what Vaughan Williams retained of his film score and what he discarded, which included most of the lighter material with the notable exception of that picturesque theme for the wobbly penguins. In ‘Oriana’ the string melody, closely related to that aspiring theme in the opening movement of the Sixth Symphony, has gone, but the second half of that same cue, a plaintive tune on oboe, was retained for the opening and closing of his ‘Intermezzo’ movement.
The film score, like the subsequent Sinfonia, is dominated by the dogged heroic theme that opens both pieces. But, despite the sombre tone of much of the film music as the story moves to its inexorable ending, the mood is enlivened by character sketches of the explorers and their wives, both witty and lyrical, as well as an array of marches, one of them (‘Base Camp’), recalling ‘Seventeen come Sunday’, another (‘Queen’s Birthday March’), apparently of dubious authenticity, redolent of the marches of Kenneth J Alford of ‘Colonel Bogey’ fame.
The spectacular set pieces are given full measure by Yates and the RSNO, with the Russian soprano Ilona Domnich adding her own icy tones to those bleak landscapes. As a performance it’s in line with the dignified approach to Scott’s adventure taken by the director of the film, Charles Frend. The recording has a weight and a transparency of detail which does full justice to the panoply of colours. This is as significant an event in the VW discography as that of the 1913 version of the Symphony No 2 by the LSO and Hickox in 2001 (Chandos, 7/01).