Arctic Symphony

ENS.2013.3 | 15′
4 Flutes, 2 Tubas, 4 Cellos


I. Andrée

II. Franklin

III. Aurora

As a child I was haunted by a photograph I’d seen in a book of a great balloon lying on its side in a vast empty landscape of ice. Later I learned the story behind this eerie image, which led to a long interest in the sad, questionably noble history of Arctic exploration, and eventually to this Arctic Symphony.

The fifth in my series of “pocket symphonies” (‘symphonies’ in the Stravinskian sense of ‘instruments sounding together,’ ‘pocket’ in the sense the Graf Spee was a ‘pocket battleship’), my Arctic Symphony is scored for the unusual ensemble of four flutes (two doubling piccolos), two tubas, and four cellos. This instrumentation, with its lush but firm combination of highs and lows, white and warm textures, seemed suggestive of the varied human experience of the unforgiving Arctic.

Though this piece follows an abstract musical narrative, each movement also depicts (without slavishly recounting) three Arctic episodes—two historical, one natural. The first movement, Andrée, marked ‘floating,’ is about the doomed 1897 attempt by S.A. Andrée and two compatriots to reach the North Pole in a balloon. Thirty years after the aeronauts’ disappearence, their bodies were discovered along with numerous photographs taken after their forced landing, and it is these photographs I remembered (one can be seen on the cover of this edition). The music portrays their balloon journey, a slowly-changing panorama of ice and stone and sky.

The second movement, Franklin, refers to Sir John Franklin’s famous expedition of 1845, in which his entire crew of 128 men on two ships was lost in an impossible search for the long-sought Northwest Passage (a voyage which has, ironically, become possible in the past several years due to global warming). The music in this movement, marked ‘trudging,’ sketches the final stages of the expedition, when the surviving sailors abandoned their boats in the ice and began the slow march toward a civilization they never reached.

The final movement, Aurora, is more hopeful. The Northern Lights appear as the music gradually moves from dark to light, illuminated by two brilliant piccolos and corcuscating natural harmonics in the cellos at its conclusion.