Cecilia McDowall

The Scott Polar Research Institute is proud to have provided the inspiration for a major new composition by leading British composer, Cecilia McDowall.

Every time I read through Scott’s ‘final’ letter it moves me deeply - those words are so alive, so ‘present’, so heartbreaking.

Cecilia McDowall

Here, in a revealing interview, McDowall explains how the tragic, but deeply personal human story found in Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s last letter to his wife Kathleen became the starting point for a major new commission.

  • What made you want to take on this commission?

 CM: About two years ago Heather Lane, Librarian and Keeper of Collections at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, invited me to visit the Institute and Museum. At the time the Museum was undergoing an extensive renovation programme. It really was a fascinating and atmospheric time to visit it because there was so much building work going on – bare wires coming out of the walls, a patina of dust everywhere and the outline of where the display cases would eventually be; intriguing stuff. And in the basement I saw artefacts which were being stored there out of the dust, just waiting to be brought back into the light once all was finished.

I remember one dark shadowy room especially, where I saw scientific equipment, snow shoes, goggles, bulky clothing, cameras in leather cases, huge wooden sledges  – but what struck me then, seeing so much, was how Scott and his team hauled such substantial, heavy equipment across those vast icy distances in the Antarctic.  I found the scale of their human endeavour quite breathtaking. 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. This acutely personal but stoical document lies at the heart of Seventy degrees below zero; it is a deeply moving testament.

  • How did the Scott material inspire the music and poetry? Was there a particular letter or diary entry that proved particularly inspirational?

CM: Well, as a starting point, the title comes directly from Scott’s last letter in which he writes so affectionately to his wife,  ‘Dear, it is not easy to write because of the cold – 70 degrees below zero.’ Just thinking of what that means in terms of what we experience in our winters today seems, to me, unimaginable. The scientific entries and the descriptions of the encounters on the expedition in the Journals gave me a way into this beautiful but ferociously dangerous polar world. While I was writing the work it felt as though I was living in that icy place. (Perhaps it helped that my central heating wasn’t working properly at the time.) Every time I read through Scott’s ‘final’ letter it moves me deeply - those words are so alive, so ‘present’, so heartbreaking.

  • Can you tell us about the process of composing a new piece?

CM: I had read and already worked with some of Seán Street’s poetry and knew of his work as a leading broadcaster so I felt that he would know instinctively what it was I wanted to do, to bring something different to this Antarctic commission. It felt to me as though we were looking from our 2012 vantage point, through a telescope, back down a century to all the scientific work of those extraordinary men, Captain Scott and his expeditionary force, who kept meticulous records of scientific data, laying down the foundations for today’s research and exploration. And with that connection in mind I wanted to join Scott’s text (his letter to his wife and some of the entries from the Journals) with poetry of today, to fuse the past with the present. I asked Seán if he would write two poems; one which would be the centre of the whole work, something which could set the past in context (which he has done with his exquisite, delicate poem called The Ice Tree) and a second poem to incorporate something from Scott’s Journals, something which could bring a suggestion of scientific activity and a sense of the journey to the Pole, all of which he has done beautifully in a poem called We measure.

  • Was this way of composing unique for you or do you often use other sources of information for inspiration?

 CM: There are two ways, I suppose of working with text; to use existing words or to collaborate in finding something new. In the case of Seventy Degrees Below Zero I used both. Working on Seventy Degrees Below Zero with Seán Street offered an opportunity for a lively exchange of ideas, for discussion and a re-imagining of a small part of this polar world in another time. I love this kind of collaboration – I have worked in this way with other poets and librettists before, Christie Dickason, Simon Mundy and the Scottish poet, Alan Spence. It’s such a rewarding creative process in this solitary business.

  • What you would like audiences to take away from your work?

CM: What I found interesting when writing the work, and I hadn’t anticipated this, was how strongly I felt where it should appear in the programme of the concert. It’s not always easy to imagine how a new work will turn out but I realized, as I was writing the last movement, that I really wanted the listener to have as much space as possible in which to hear the tenor sing Scott’s final words. So no music to follow on immediately – just the interval. I hope these potent words will have impact and speak for themselves. They are so powerful in their unaffected simplicity and I didn’t want to get in the way. Happily the City of London Sinfonia had decided on this placing!”

Cecilia McDowall’s Cantata Seventy Degrees Below Zero for voices and orchestra receives its world premiere at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on Friday 3 February. The second half of the programme will include the iconic music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose film score for the 1947 film Scott of the Antarctic (later turned into his Symphony No. 7) depicts the vast wilderness and beauty of the Antarctic.  SPRI will provide a stunning selection of iconic images by the expedition photographer Herbert Ponting, now digitally restored in high definition, to be projected during the performance.


VAUGHAN WILLIAMS         Excerpts from Scott of the Antarctic film score (with readings from diaries and letters)

CECILIA McDOWALL          Cantata for orchestra and voices: Seventy Degrees Below Zero (world première)

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS         Symphony No 7 (Antarctica) projecting original photographs taken during the Expedition

Stephen Layton, conductor    • Hugh Bonneville, narrator    • The Holst Singers

The tour

CLS will tour 5 regional venues in the UK:

  • Symphony Hall, Birmingham             3 February 2012
  • Corn Exchange, Cambridge               4 February 2012
  • St David’s Hall, Cardiff                       7 February 2012
  • Town Hall, Cheltenham                      8 February 2012
  • Cadogan Hall, London                        3 March 2012

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