ONE HUNDRED years ago five men perished in the teeth of a howling Antarctic blizzard. Swallowed up by the elements they battled so bravely against, they became synonymous with British heroic failure. One man, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, passed into legend.
The tragic tale of the doomed expedition, which left Cardiff dock in June 1910, was played out this week in St David’s Hall by the City of London Sinfonia’s Scott centenary tour, Conquering the Antarctic. But much like the hopeful expedition, the night came close but failed to find final success.
The first act of the evening saw Hugh Bonneville take to the stage to read the final moving excerpts from Scott’s expedition diary. With accompaniment given through movements from Vaughn Williams’ haunting score for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic, concertgoers were given a glimpse into the mind of a man staring death in the face.
Bonneville, striking the air of his Downton persona Lord Grantham, delivered the doomed pioneer’s innermost thoughts to a rapt audience. Crisp curt observances as his trek failed and fell into tragedy.
All began hopefully with shivering violin chords conjuring icy tundra and shimmering beauty. But with each passing movement and diary entry the mood shifted as Scott realised they would not make it home.
“Great God this is an awful place and terrible enough to have laboured to it without the reward of priority,” Scott wrote on finding they had been beaten to the pole by Roald Amundsen’s nimbler Norwegian team. “All the daydreams must go, it will be a wearisome return.”
Ferocious weather conditions set against them as they trekked for two months back to base, losing companions and hope along the way. As the excerpts reached their terrible climax the musical interludes heightened the wait for the next development until, after losing two men to the unforgiving white, Scott was resigned to his men’s fate.
Bonneville intoned Scott’s final foreboding entry on March 29 1912, as he sat stuck in the eye of an endless blizzard. “I do not think we can hope for better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.”
This most moving act of the night was over all to quickly. Bonneville’s delivery brought Scott’s poignant words to shuddeiring life amidst the soundscapes of Vaughn Williams’ at times beautiful and doleful score.
Cecilia McDowall’s centenary commissioned Seventy Degrees Below Zero followed. The first two movements failed to capture the immediacy which the previous work had found, but the third movement pulled tightly at the heartstrings.
This was largely thanks to tenor Robert Murray singing Scott’s letter to his wife and infant child, which he titled To My Widow, rather than to the score itself.
In the letter he told his wife: “Your portrait and the boy’s will be found in my breast.
“Dear, it is not easy to write because of the cold – 70 degrees below zero. You know I have loved you and, oh dear me, you must know that quite the worst aspect of this is the thought that I shall not see you again. The inevitable must be faced. God bless you my own darling.”
The bleak snowscapes of Vaughn Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica ended the night with Herbert Ponting’s expedition photos projected behind the orchestra. Unmistakably evoking the bleak environment, the symphony – combined with the increasingly numbing effect of the St David’s Hall seats – dragged out a night which began at the height of poignancy but ended flat.