To mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, the BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBCSO) and Martyn Brabbins turned to Vaughan Williams’s score for Charles Frend’s 1948 film, Scott of the Antarctic, about the ill-fated British expedition to the south pole in 1910-12, performed as live accompaniment to a beautifully restored print of the film itself. The score is one of the greatest ever written for cinema, and also one of the most familiar: Vaughan Williams reused much of it in his Sinfonia Antartica of 1952, an equally remarkable work, albeit at times different in tone from its source.
Sections of the film have dated a bit. In particular, the opening sequences detailing preparations for the expedition and briefly sketching the lives that Scott (John Mills) and his men are leaving behind, now strike us as overly studio-bound and at times awkwardly acted. Music is used sparingly here, but when we reach the main part of the film, much of it shot on location in Norway and Switzerland, the fusion of sound and image can become overpowering with the score played live.
Shifting chords, brittle percussion and the icy sound of a wordless female chorus and soprano soloist reflect the eerie polar landscape, sometimes beautiful, ultimately pitiless, across which we watch the men struggle as the unforgettable theme that represents their desperate courage surges round them. Sudden plunges into silence are integral to the overall impact, as are the moments when the sound of the blizzard that consumes lives gradually obliterates dialogue, singers and orchestra. Vaughan Williams was perhaps equivocal about the ending, in which memorials are erected and a lofty chorale rears nobly upwards – music that tellingly finds no part in the Symphony, which ends in a mood of crushing desolation and despair.
The BBCSO played it all superbly for Brabbins, who was finely alert to every flicker of colour in Vaughan Williams’s often astonishing orchestration. The singers are more prominent in the film than the symphony: Elizabeth Watts was the soprano soloist, her voice hovering, disembodied and wraithlike, over the sinister, echoing ululations of the women’s voices of the BBC Symphony Chorus. Incredibly powerful and at times extraordinarily moving.