Five magnificent works of classical music inspired by Antarctica

These are just a few of the unexpected works of classical music inspired by the fantastical frozen continent, ranging from symphonies depicting the icy landscapes to otherworldly documentary soundtracks exploring its oceans…

The breathtaking scenery of Antarctica, the world’s southernmost continent, has long inspired artists, dancers, and musicians.

Despite the fact that 98 percent of the land is covered in ice and snow, the frozen continent has one of the most diverse and varied landscapes on the planet, with towering mountains and volcanoes, as well as ice caves and fragile glaciers.

Famous classical composers such as Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Howard Goodall, and Peter Maxwell-Davies have written their own love letters in the form of music to the frozen landmass, inspired by this dramatic and otherworldly environment.

Listen to their musical interpretations of the frozen continent, as well as those of many others, below.

Howard Goodall’s Shackleton’s Cross is a landmark in Antarctica.

This serene piece for solo piano is Goodall at his best. A simple melodic tune with a soundworld that transports you to the still polar desert of the south.

The evocative use of the upper registers on the keyboard evokes the delicate and fragile nature of ice, as well as the silence that must surround this frozen wonder of nature, lest it shatters.

Sir Edward Shackleton was a major figure during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration at the turn of the twentieth century. The Anglo-Irish explorer led three British expeditions to Antarctica, and the title of Goodall’s 2012 piece refers to the stone cross that stands in Shackleton’s memory on an island 2,000 kilometers north of the continent.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica
The film theme composed by English composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams, originally written as the soundtrack for the 1948 epic film Scott of the Antarctic, later became the basis for his five-movement-long seventh symphony Sinfonia Antarctica, written in 1953.

At the beginning of each movement, a literary verse is inscribed at the top of the score, alluding to the text from which Vaughan-Williams drew inspiration when writing the music, despite the fact that the composer never visited the continent.

The fifth and final movement, which begins with a heavy march-like motif, contains a line from Captain Scott’s final journal. Scott, the subject of the film, was a British naval officer who led two expeditions to Antarctica in the early twentieth century.

“I do not regret this journey; we took risks, we knew we took them, things have turned against us, so we have no cause for complaint,” he writes in his journal.

Peter Maxwell-Davies’s Symphony No. 8 (Antarctic Symphony)
After being commissioned by the British Antarctic Survey to write music to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Vaughan-Williams’ score, Scott of the Antarctic, the late Peter Maxwell-Davies traveled to Antarctica for three weeks.

The eighth symphony of the British composer was premiered in May 2001, 48 years after Vaughan-Williams’ own seventh symphony. Maxwell-Davies’ orchestral work, unlike the elder composer’s, was written in a single 40-minute movement.

Maxwell-Davies stated in his program notes for the work that he was inspired by the stillness of the water because he was traveling on a scientific vessel that made remarkably little noise, allowing the composer to appreciate the tranquillity of the environment.

Then the ice broke as the ship ‘rammed her way’ through the hard frozen sea. “The ice crashing along the bows was one of the most exhilarating sounds I ever heard,” the composer wrote, “with electric zipping and cracklings sounding off into the far distance as fissures extended for miles from the ship.”

Nigel Westlake’s Antarctica Suite for Guitar and Orchestra
Nigel Westlake, an Australian composer, takes a page from Vaughan-Williams’ book, as his Antarctica Suite was originally conceived as a film score.

Westlake, who composed the music for the Babe and Babe: Pig in the City films, also composed the score for Antarctica, an IMAX documentary film released in 1991.

He then adapted this music into a four-movement orchestral suite for Guitar and Orchestra, which was commissioned by Australia’s ABC for their 60th anniversary year in 1992.

Listen to acclaimed guitarist John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra perform the suite’s magical third movement, ‘Penguin Ballet,’ below.

Alex Wurman’s March of the Penguins
March of the Penguins was a National Geographic Society documentary about the southern continent bird released in 2005. It was voiced by Morgan Freeman’s distinctively deep voice.

The English version of the documentary was composed by Emmy Award-winning American composer Alex Wurman, who has a background in both classical and jazz music, which can be heard throughout his acclaimed score.

Wurman weaves between depicting the beautiful and delicate frozen landscape and communicating the harsh realities and dangers that the windy continent presents with each track.

Recent posts

GDPR Cookie Consent with Real Cookie Banner