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The Music of Antarctica: Interview with Cellist Jörg Berning

by Oceanwide Expeditions Blog

We interviewed German cellist Jörg Berning about performing Ralph Vaughan Williams's Sinfonia Antarctica with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.

Regions: Antarctica, Arctic

Interview with Bergen Philharmonic cellist Jörg Berning

Jörg Berning is no stranger to expedition travel. A German cellist who has lived in Norway since 1987, he has explored Spitsbergen from the historic decks of the Noorderlicht, sailed on the three-masted Bark Europa across the Atlantic, and even sea kayaked in the region where kayaks originated – the North American Arctic, specifically Greenland. 

During a dog-sledding trip near East Greenland’s Scoresby Sund fjord system in 2016, Jörg met one of our veteran polar experts, Ko de Korte, and the two adventurers bonded over their mutual love of expedition life, the polar regions, and just as importantly, music.

A year later, Jörg performed in the Bergen Philharmonic’s recording of perhaps the world’s most famous polar-themed composition: Sinfonia Antarctica by Ralph Vaughan Williams. This piece started as a movie score that Vaughan Williams wrote for the 1948 film, Scott of the Antarctic, but the composer later expanded it into a full-scale symphony celebrating not only Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 – 1913 British Antarctic Expedition (also known as the Terra Nova Expedition) but also the awesome majesty of the polar environment itself.

We had the chance to talk to Jörg about this fascinating musical event, how it developed, and what he feels Sinfonia Antarctica communicates about the wild polar world.

How did you get started with the Bergen Philharmonic?

I started playing the cello when I was 11 years old, and by the age of 16, I was part of my music school’s youth symphony orchestra. We toured in Austria, Belgium, Poland, England, and a few other places, and that’s when I really started to enjoy the music community.

But I still thought of the cello as a hobby back then. I planned on studying meteorology or oceanography when I got to university. When I got there, though, I found these subjects quite hard, and around the same time, I auditioned and got into the Robert Schumann Hochschule music conservatory in Düsseldorf. So during my studies, I did a lot of freelancing and orchestra music on the side.

Then I auditioned and got the job in the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in the late 80s. This was supposed to be a one-year substitute contract, but it became a bit longer – 33 years longer, in fact. My wife, who is from California, is also with the orchestra.

What made the orchestra decide to perform Sinfonia Antarctica?

The conductor for this project, Sir Andrew Davis, is a member of the Vaughan Williams Society in England, so we’ve performed a lot of the composer’s work. If you look up the recordings of the Bergen Philharmonic, you’ll notice quite a few that Davis made of Vaughan Williams’s music. So it was inevitable that we would eventually play Sinfonia Antarctica.

Were you involved in promoting the performance or recording?

After our orchestra made the CD with the recording company, Chandos, Ko de Korte and I tried to organize a release party for it that was supposed to take place on one of Oceanwide’s ships. Some people in the orchestra’s administration knew that I had been to Greenland and other places in the Arctic, so I presented sketches and memos from my expeditions. I also talked to Chandos, with Ko as my link to Oceanwide.

The idea of this symphony as a kind of reconciliation between Norway and Britain seemed very appealing to us. For the British, Scott was the real hero, trying hard but failing tragically to reach his goal. Amundsen, on the other hand, was seen in the UK as a mere “dog musher” who used dirty tricks to succeed. Very unfair. Hence, there was a certain controversy between Britain and Norway regarding the conquest of the South Pole.

Vaughan Williams’s symphony, as far as I know, falls in with the celebration of Scott’s struggle. So in my view, a Norwegian orchestra performing Sinfonia Antarctica under a British conductor would be paying homage to Scott and reconciling the rift.

For the release party, we thought of inviting explorers, government representatives, press, and other people from both Norway and England to hold lectures and play a part in the unveiling of the CD aboard the ship. We all put in a fair amount of work to make it happen – Ko and I, the orchestra’s administration, and Chandos – but in the end, we just couldn’t get the resources needed to make it work.

Sinfonia Antarctica would probably appeal to a lot of music lovers, but is it particularly attractive to someone with your background of polar travel?

I would say so, yes. I think this symphony would speak to most anyone who cherishes the natural world, remote places, and particularly the polar regions. When I listen to Sinfonia Antarctica, I hear wind over the polar tundra. I feel a sense of openness, of being exposed, grand and majestic landscapes, even the possibility of danger. Vaughan Williams had a great talent for using instruments to create a sense of infinite space.  

Even though the symphony refers to Antarctica and events that took place there, it still makes me recall my experiences in the Arctic, especially Greenland – the wind and snow, the ice and the cold. The only thing missing in the music is the howling of sled dogs.

My experiences in Svalbard have been similar, but there you can occasionally see historic stations or settlements, whereas in Greenland there’s nothing around for miles. The openness of the terrain in these places is astounding, as are the northern lights.

My 2016 sledding trip in Greenland was so memorable that I actually wrote a blog about it. One night, the dome of the northern lights was all around me. I felt like I was on another planet. I was so amazed, I didn’t even think to take pictures, which is probably a good thing. I would have taken too many and lost the moment. These are memories that will never leave me, and music like Sinfonia Antarctica has the power to bring them into sharp focus.

Was Vaughan Williams rare in making a polar location his theme?

Yes, there are not many composers who have done that, either for the Arctic or Antarctica. There are compositions depicting winter, ice, snow, cold, and that kind of thing, of course, but not many that depict the polar regions themselves.

When you think of these places, you also think of an entirely different cast of wildlife – polar bears, musk oxen, penguins, whales, seabirds. The experience of seeing these animals in their natural habitat is nothing like seeing them in a zoo.

And to you, Sinfonia Antarctica evokes these experiences?

That and the sense of adventure, yes. A lot of us are fascinated by people who expose themselves to extreme conditions in order to go places no one else had gone and do things no one else has done. The great explorers, I believe, represent this to us – the draw toward the outer limits of what human beings are capable of achieving.  

When we listen to music that celebrates the polar regions, and especially when we go there ourselves, we’re experiencing a part of this adventure. You can get an incredibly real sense of a place through music. It’s a different experience than watching a movie or reading a book, but then experiencing the polar regions in any medium whatsoever is great.

To me, it’s the next best thing to being there.

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