• Cantata for tenor soloist and chamber orchestra
  • Duration: 20′
  • 1: We Measure  |  2: The Ice Tree  |  3: To My Widow
  • Text: Sean Street and Robert Falcon Scott
  • Commissioned by the Scott Polar Research Institute and the City of London Sinfonia
  • First performance 3 February 2012  |  Robert Murray (tenor) City of London Sinfonia, Stephen Layton, conductor  |  The Symphony Hall, Birmingham


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 20thcentury 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


Seventy degrees below zero                                              

Words by Robert Falcon Scott and Seán Street


 1. We measure

Friday, December the twenty second, 1911. Camp 44, about seven thousand one hundred feet.

Temperature, minus one. Barometer, twenty two point three.

This, the third stage of our journey, is opening with good promise.

Observations: Latitude, eighty five degrees, thirteen and a half minutes.

Longitude, one hundred and sixty one degrees, fifty five minutes.

Variation, one hundred and seventy five degrees, forty six minutes east.

The weather has been beautifully fine all day, as it was last night. Night Temperature, minus nine. [1]


Sublime inhumanity watches. We measure.

The instruments that make our music, their song of precision,

anemometer, magnetometer, barometer, the language of calibration.

Hypsometer, thermometer, their rhymes and reason

the evaluation of life, elemental accountability,

an actinometer to appraise sun,

a spirometer to graduate mortality

pressed by katabatic winds.

Thermograph, internal; thermograph, external.

Measurement concentrates purpose,

civilizes the unpeopled indifference of ice.


The thin strands of sound begin to fall away, falling.

Wednesday, January the seventeenth, 1912.

The Pole. [1] Nothing to measure now but Time,

these minutes, no pure dial, emphatic needle,

no numbers but five men moving into whiteness,

no instrument to measure pain.

Science demands a mind spurred by ambition [1]

but the precision of fact, the elegance of calibration,

human thoughts’ beauty cannot reconcile infinity,

the inner silence of white, when the last strands fall away.


[1] Robert Falcon Scott (Journals: Captain Scott’s Last Expedition) © 2006;     Seán Street © 2011


 2. The Ice Tree

The trek paper makes from tree,

up through rings of the ice tree,

through past air, held layers of years,

wisps of words caught in circles of time

fading to transparency under winds’ press,

where the process of thought formed.


The tree’s paper freezes its findings,

the last words held, recorded, preserved,

 poem placed with pencilled articulation of discovery,

mortality’s pages spun by vortex into the ice tree’s fibre.


And Earth dissolves, the wilderness shrinks,

breaks in acid seas, leaves fall.


Men move away through pain, hurt

across snowscape, dark marks on faint paper.


Glass ghosts blur in blinding light,

far, growing farther, wisps vanishing,

fading to transparency.

© 2011, Seán Street


 3. To my widow

Dearest Darling, we are in a very tight corner and I have doubts of pulling through. In our short lunch hours I take advantage of a very small measure of warmth to write letters preparatory to a possible end. The first is to you on whom my thought (sic) mostly dwell waking or sleeping. If anything happens to me I shall like you to know how much you have meant to me. I should like you to take what comfort you can – I shall not have suffered any pain. You must not imagine a great tragedy.

I must write a little letter for the boy, if time can be found, to be read when he grows up. Oh my dear, my dear, what dreams I have had of his future and yet, oh my girl, I know you will face it stoically – your portrait and the boy’s will be found in my breast.

Dear, it is not easy to write because of the cold – 70 degrees below zero. You know I have loved you and, oh dear me, you must know that quite the worst aspect of this is the thought that I shall not see you again. The inevitable must be faced. God bless you my own darling.

© Robert Falcon Scott (Scott Estate) 


Seventy Degrees Below Zero – Glossary of terms used in the text


Anemometer. An instrument used on weather stations for measuring wind speed.

Magnetometer. A device for measuring the strength and direction of a magnetic field. Magnetometers are used at all latitudes, but are particularly valuable near the poles, where the Earth’s magnetic fields are grounded. Results today can be used to predict – among other things – space weather patterns.

Hypsometer. This is used for measuring height or altitude by observing atmospheric pressure shown in the change in the boiling point of a liquid, such as water. Liquids boil at progressively lower temperatures as atmospheric pressure decreases; because such pressure decreases with altitude, the boiling point enables the calculation of an altitude at a given location.

Actinometer. A generic term for a family of instruments used to calculate the intensity of incident radiation; in particular it is applied to a device by which the intensity of radiation can be measured by the speed of a photochemical reaction.

Thermograph. A type of thermometer used to produce a continual record of a fluctuating temperature. This can have a valuable application in medicine, but Scott’s expedition would have used a version of the instrument to measure environmental temperature variations on a graph as a function of time.

Spirometer. An apparatus used to measure the volume of air inspired and expired by the lungs. Thus spirometry is a common form of testing procedure to calculate the efficiency of breathing.

Katabatic. From the Greek, katabatikos, meaning ‘going down hill’. Katabasis is the term given to air cooled as it flows down over a glacier, or from high plateaux. This air movement is known as a katabatic wind. In Antarctica such winds can blow with ferocious force for days on end and can occur at any time of year.                                                                                                                                    Seán Street