Seventy Degrees Below Zero

Cecilia McDowall (1951)

Seventy Degrees Below Zero 2012

2222 - 2200 - perc(1) - strings
Duration 
20
Solist 
Language 

Seventy degrees below zero was commissioned by the Scott Polar Research Institute and the City of London Sinfonia as part of the Scott 100 Festival of Events, 2012. First performed on 3 February at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, by the City of London Sinfonia, conducted by Stephen Layton, with Robert Murray, tenor, Seventy degrees below zero receives subsequent performances in the Corn Exchange, Cambridge (4 February) St David’s Hall, Cardiff (7 February) Cheltenham Town Hall (8 February) and Cadogan Hall, London (3 March). Seán Street was specially commissioned by the composer to write two poems for Seventy degrees below zero to sit alongside extracts from Robert Falcon Scott’s Journals and Scott’s letter addressed, ‘To my widow.’ The commission has been financially supported by the Scott Polar Research Institute, the RVW Trust and the Richard Hickox Fund for New Music. Cecilia McDowall and Seán Street have collaborated on two other works; the choral work, Shipping Forecast and orchestral song cycle, Theatre of Tango.

Words by Robert Falcon Scott and Seán Street

1: We Measure | 2: The Ice Tree | 3: To My Widow

In 2009 Heather Lane, Librarian and Keeper of the Scott Polar Research Institute, invited me to the Insitute and Museum while it was undergoing an extensive renovation programme; an interesting and atmospheric time to visit SPRI. It was possible to see, in the dark recesses of the basement, artefacts safely stored during the renovation process and examples of the Institute's enormous polar collection; there were cabinets, drawers and shelves full of fascinating scientific instruments, bulky warm clothing, all manner of camping equipment and sledges - all of which looked dauntingly heavy for dragging across the icy plains of the Antarctic. Later that same day Heather introduced me to the diaries and letters found in Scott's tent and, most poignantly of all, Scott's tender letter addressed 'To my widow' written in pencil, made faint by time and ice. I took a phrase for the title from Scott's Letter to his wife; 'Dear, it is not easy to write because of the cold - 70 degrees below zero.' The scientific exploration and data collected by Captain Scott’s team at the beginning of the 20th century still powerfully underlines the research which continues to this day. It was with a desire to join the past with the present that I asked the poet, Seán Street, to write two poems to accompany Scott’s words; words from ‘then’ and words from ‘now’.

Seventy degrees below zero is a three movement work for chamber orchestra and tenor soloist. In the first movement, We measure, Seán Street takes extracts from Scott’s Journals to outline the journey to the Pole, and binds them into his own poem. The tenor begins by reading one of the entries from the Journals; ‘This, the third stage of our journey, is opening with good promise.’ Horns and trumpets exchange calls, both near and far, which unfold into a pulsating string accompaniment, driving purposefully towards ‘the Pole’. Scientific instruments measure and document the data of exploration. After the bleak arrival at the Pole on 17 January the second half of the movement (the return journey) uses similar material to the opening section but this time measurement is of a different kind; ‘Nothing to measure now but Time’. The movement closes with the brass calling out across the vast icy plains.

In the second movement the delicate imagery of Seán’s poem, The Ice Tree, casts a glacial light over the passage of time, as if looking backwards through the telescopic lens of the ice core. Slow and intense, with the bowed vibraphone bringing a chill to the orchestral texture, the wide intervallic opening of tenor line stretches out. Before writing this movement I watched some silent footage of Scott and his team hauling the sledge together across snow and ice. The bent figures, hunched against the polar air, suggested a falling, dragging motif which is first heard in We measure. This motif underlies all three movements, but is most pronounced in The Ice Tree; a symbolic struggle against the elements. The brass, in muted dialogue, take the opening tenor phrase to close the first section. In the central section Seán Street gives a subtle intimation of today’s fragile ecological balance with the lines, ‘And Earth dissolves, the wilderness shrinks, breaks in acid seas, leaves fall,’ a falling, fractured line, sung by the tenor soloist.

The final movement, To my widow, opens with a gentle, folksy melody as Scott writes tenderly to his wife. The fluid, almost conversational tenor line gives way to something more urgent as the orchestra becomes the writing of the letter. The outburst ‘You must not imagine a great tragedy’ is followed by a full orchestral falling down with the dragging motif stretching and dovetailing into a return of the lighter opening material. The following section brings a renewed poignancy and urgency with the words, ‘oh dear me, you must know that quite the worst aspect of this is the thought that I shall not see you again.’ The work closes with the return of The Ice Tree tenor phrase (God bless you my own darling) taken up again by the brass, calling in increasingly muted tones over the ‘falling’ motif in the strings which is pared away to reveal high solo pianissimo violins.

Cecilia McDowall © 2012

Performances 
3.2.12 Symphony Hall, Birmingham: Robert Murray (tenor) / City of London Sinfonia / Stephen Layton
4.2.12 Cambridge Corn Exchange: Robert Murray (tenor) / City of London Sinfonia / Stephen Layton
7.2.12 St David's Hall, Cardiff: Robert Murray (tenor) / City of London Sinfonia / Stephen Layton
8.2.12 Cheltenham Town Hall: Robert Murray (tenor) / City of London Sinfonia / Stephen Layton
3.3.12 Cadogan Hall, London: Robert Murray (tenor) / City of London Sinfonia / Stephen Layton
2
Flute
2nd piccolo
2
Oboe
2
Clarinet
2
Bassoon
2
Horn
2
Trumpet
1
Percussion
bass drum, suspended cymbal, vibraphone, triangle, glockenspiel
(Esc)