In November 1911, Robert Falcon Scott and a large support party set out from their hut on Ross Island, Antarctica, in a bid to become the first people to reach the South Pole. A much reduced ‘polar party’, consisting of Scott and an inner circle of four other men, reached the pole the following January, only to find that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it by five weeks. All five men died on the return journey.
The expedition is not without its controversies, and it is clear that its status as a story of glorious failure stems in significant part from a peculiarly early-20th century brand of English nationalism which seems very alien to us today. The story has maintained its iconic status, however, in part because of the remarkable journal that Scott wrote while on the expedition. In Antarctica sets six extracts of this journal, starting with the journey to Antarctica on board the Terra Nova and ending with Scott and his two surviving companions extremely cold and short of food, knowing that the short journey to the next supply depot will prove to be beyond them. The first three songs take place before Scott and his companions embark on the Southern Journey – the final bid to reach to the Pole – and these songs are relatively light-hearted; the final three songs narrate the explorers’ increasingly precarious situation over the course of the Southern Journey, and are correspondingly darker in tone.
All of the songs of In Antarctica refer to other music relating – more or less directly – to the Terra Nova expedition. ‘The Gramophone’ is a reimagining of the song ‘I Want Yer, Ma Honey!’ by Fay Templeton, a recording of which, with singer Yvette Guilbert, is known to have been played in the hut on Ross Island on the Antarctic coast. ‘Penguins’ takes as its basis music written by Ralph Vaughan Williams for a scene about penguins in the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic. This reference is then reprised in ‘Daydreams’; the ‘pleasanter scenes and places’ in this rendition, then, are the conditions of relative safety in and around the hut.
Most important are the repeated references to Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey). Winterreise narrates the story of a wanderer who undertakes a solitary journey in nature, with imagery of ice and snow accompanying the protagonist’s physical and psychological journey towards resignation and – perhaps – death. In In Antarctica, Scott implicitly becomes identified with the idea of the wanderer, as he makes his own lonely journey far away from urban civilisation. The direct referent is Winterreise’s opening song, ‘Gute Nacht’, in which the grimly repeating chords in the piano part represent trudging footsteps. These chords make prominent appearances in ‘Sky’ (with a degree of pictorial inaccuracy, as Scott is travelling by boat at this point), ‘Marching’, and finally ‘Cold’.
Scott has his detractors, and some writers have suggested that the tragedy that befell the Polar Party was a direct result of Scott’s mismanagement of the expedition. I am, of course, in no position to form an opinion one way or another on such questions. In the immediate aftermath of the expedition, Scott was constructed as an English hero who had lain down his life for his country, and was held up as a role model for young soldiers being sent off to the trenches of World War 1. This I do have strong feelings about, and I would want to distance myself sharply from such ideas. I am, however, inspired by the sheer resilience of these men, as well as by their idealism, and am fascinated by their willingness to put their bodies through such extreme pain for such an intangible purpose. It is this human aspect of the expedition that I have attempted to explore in this song cycle; I am interested in Scott not as a hero, but as a human being.
17th August 2021
Jessica Summers (Soprano), Jelena Makarova (Piano)
Release of recording on YouTube
Instrumentation: Soprano, Piano
1 – Sky
2 – Penguins
3 – The Gramophone
4 – Marching
5 – Daydreams
6 – Cold