Dramatic Vocalise Database

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)

Sinfonia Antartica [#7] (1952)

It is clear from an essay Vaughan Williams wrote in 1944, “Film Music,” that he greatly enjoyed writing for the genre.

As regards the score to Scott of the Antarctic, Ursula Vaughan Williams states:

The score for Scott of the Antarctic, composed in 1947–48, so engaged the composer that he wrote some of the music well in advance of the actual scenes being shot. The film was first shown in London on 29 November 1948; the soundtrack was a recording of the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Ernest Irving.

Just as thematic material from the opera The Pilgrim’s Progress (1949, rev. 1951–52) would be a part of his own Fifth Symphony (1938–43, rev. 1951), so Vaughan Williams adopted music from his score for Scott of the Antarctic for a symphony. According to Ursula Vaughan Williams:

The ensuing Sinfonia Antartica was composed between 1949–52, and is dedicated to Ernest Irving, conductor of the film score.

The full score of the symphony gives the following information regarding the premiere:

The premiere at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester featured Margaret Ritchie (soprano) and the women of the Hallé Choir, in addition to the Hallé Orchestra. The first performance in London occurred a week later on 21 January, again with Margaret Ritchie as soprano soloist, at a Royal Philharmonic concert at the Royal Festival Hall.

Although Vaughan Williams left no indication in the score as to the placement of the solo soprano and women’s (SSA) chorus, a review of the premiere in 1953 tells of its location:

The wordless aspect of the chorus drew the attention of Michael Kennedy:

Kennedy again touches upon the subject of the wordless chorus within the same article when he descriptively writes (with perhaps a reference to Debussy) of “the voices howling like sirens of the snows in the blizzard in Sinfonia Antartica.” 7

Music that accompanies bleak images of ice, of glaciers, and the sea in the film, appears in the first and last movements of the symphony, and is built upon the same motive previously mentioned in regards to Vaughan Williams’s earlier works. The vocalization in the first movement of Antartica also has a melodic content and contour very similar to the end of Maurya’s elegy in Riders to the Sea.

Vaughan Williams, Sinfonia Antartica, mvt. 1, mm. 68–75 8

As in the ending of that opera, a solo soprano voice sings a descending figure accompanied by interspersed rocking undulations from the women’s choir singing the Ravel-like motive also found in Vaughan Williams’s earlier works. Another representative example, and one that again shows the two themes juxtaposed against one another, comes from further in the same movement.

Vaughan Williams, Sinfonia Antartica, mvt. 1, mm. 139–50 9

The first and last of the five movements, “Epilogue” and “Prologue” respectively, share similar thematic material and are the only ones that include the chorus and soprano soloist. As Colin Mason notes in his review of the premiere of the symphony:

The quotations given in the printed score for the outer movements are as follows:

Movement 1:

Movement 5:

Colin Mason continues:

The similarity between the outer movements is readily apparent through a comparison of the above examples with one from the last movement.

Vaughan Williams, Sinfonia Antartica, mvt. 5, mm. 172–90 14

The ending of Sinfonia Antartica is similar to that of Riders to the Sea. Both pieces end with solo wordless soprano with melodic material comprised of the same motive first found in the third of the Five Mystical Songs, and also the Ravel-like theme used to represent the sea.

William Kimmel, in his article on Vaughan Williams’s melodic style, notes the similarities among these pieces:

Although written in 1941, Kimmel’s notion is equally applicable to Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica. In addition, his comments in the second quoted paragraph are equally applicable to works by other composers that include dramatic vocalization such as Debussy’sSirènes,” the third movement of Roussel’s Évocations, and the “Lamentations de Guilboa” from Honegger’s Le Roi David.

(Nauman 2009, 184–90)



mvt. 1, mm. 69–88

mvt. 1, mm. 140–59

mvt. 5, mm. 173–90


1 Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Film Music,” RCM Magazine 40 (1944): 5–9; reprinted as “Composing for the Films” in National Music and Other Essays, 162.

2 Ursula Vaughan Williams, liner notes to Sinfonia Antartica, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, RCA Victor 09026-61195-2, 4.

3 Ibid., 5.

4 Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sinfonia Antartica (London: Oxford University Press, 1953), [ii].

5 Colin Mason, “Vaughan Williams’s ‘Sinfonia Antartica,’” Musical Times 94 (1953): 128.

6 Michael Kennedy, “The Unknown Vaughan Williams,” Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 99 (1972–73): 40.

7 Ibid., 32.

8 Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sinfonia Antartica, 10.

9 Ibid., 27–28.

10 Colin Mason, “Vaughan Williams’s ‘Sinfonia Antartica,’” 128.

11 Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sinfonia Antartica, [i].

12 Ibid.

13 Colin Mason, “Vaughan Williams’s ‘Sinfonia Antartica,’” 128.

14 Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sinfonia Antartica, 144–45.

15 William Kimmel, “Vaughan Williams’s Melodic Style,” Musical Quarterly 27 (1941): 495–96.