Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, as part of their celebrations of the Vaughan Williams 150th anniversary, performed a live orchestral version of the score to one of the iconic British films of the 1940s, Scott of the Antarctic. Rarely has a film score had such a rich and varied life beyond it being part of a creative whole. Vaughan Williams was so enthusiastic about the project that he composed a massive score even before the film was made. So, when the film was being edited, they had all the music they needed to hand. Inevitably much of the score was not used and the composer was loathe to let this material disappear without trace. The result was his later refashioning of the whole score into the Sinfonia Antartica. Nevertheless the music that remained is a substantial achievement and adds significantly to the films enduring appeal.
What interested Vaughan Williams was not the heroism of the ill-fated adventure, but Scott’s foolhardiness at trying to tame a nature so harsh and alien without proper preparation or respect for it and every bar of his score for this film is imbued with tragic foreboding. The theme of man’s insignificance in the face of huge forces had been present in many of his works from the Sea Symphony to his operatic masterpiece, Riders to the Sea. Vaughan Williams is often thought to be a fluffy composer of folk-inspired lighter works, but in fact, if you look at his output, the majority of his works are dominated by an obsession with death and the end of things. Sometimes this end can lead to an agnostic heaven, as in the Fifth Symphony, and at other times it leads to defeat and bleakness, as in his Sixth Symphony.