Despite all the above, the seventh worked its considerable magic on me and I found myself transported to a very different landscape for most of its length. Where was I exactly? In a place of endeavour, chilled endurance, doomed aspiration. (Why did Scott’s story dominate the British imagination for most of the last century in a way that Shackleton’s failed to? I can only think that it was that sense of in-built, inevitable failure that haunts the whole enterprise that gave it a resonance beyond the merely heroic. The fact that Scott was a fool, and a supremely British one, is extremely helpful in this regard.) A place not made for our species, in which we are not welcome, but where we inevitably find ourselves, despite ourselves, because of what we are.
This is strange music. Recognisably Vaughn Williams, but something else. The lushness has gone. Textures are spare and hard. It’s obviously programmatic – see the penguins, feel the wind, the rolling sea, touch the ice – but there’s something going on much deeper than scene-painting. (But isn’t it wonderful that a ‘serious’ composer in the second half of the twentieth century could be writing stuff that’s so accessible. I mean, you really could put this in a movie!) I think the secret lies in the third movement, Landscape. This takes us to the heart of something that isn’t the ‘icy serenity’ of the glib phrase I tossed off earlier. There is a kind of calm, but it’s a calm founded on an extreme otherness, against which we can only haplessly struggle. We go marching into nowhere.
And this is the music of an old man! With another two symphonies to write!