The Composer as Pole Seeker: Reading Vaughan Williams's Sinfonia antartica

Beckerman, Michael

It is a commonplace of history that we do not encounter events from the past, but rather descriptions of these events. To be more contemporary, and perhaps more accurate, we encounter "spins" on the events. While a kind of precise objectivity based on careful duplication of experiments may be prized by the "hard" sciences, most historians today do not believe that such things as "the past" or "culture" will yield to such treatment. The more we seek to "pin down" an event, to argue for a document's "authentic" privileging, the more any kind of objective truth may recede, to be replaced by yet another false front. It is, of course, not necessarily the facts which are in doubt in a particular case, but how they are assembled, organized and presented. The reality of the past, if it appears to us at all, does so through what some have called the "convergence of evidence," and always requires a leap of faith on the part of any investigator or beholder. If this is true of history in general, it must also be true for the written history of polar exploration, something which, surprisingly, has captured the imagination of the reading public. Some stories tell better than others, and there has always been a tension between the desire to write history and the storytelling urge, where the requirements of crafting a good yarn do battle with the desire to "get it right." We shall argue here that the same is true when we attempt to understand music and musical meaning. As we take this journey, our guide will be a work "set," as it were, in the cold deserts of Antarctica, a piece that has had something of a mixed reception from audiences and critics-a possibly ambivalent symphony about an ambiguous hero.



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Columbia University
Published Here
April 24, 2015