Composer Paul Frith celebrates the age of exploration How a chance encounter inspired a symphony dedicated to one of the greatest ever open-top boat journeys

I am staring, slack-jawed, at a boat sitting neatly in the cloisters of an old public school, my body anchored to the spot while a tide of revellers flow past me to the wedding that I have long forgotten. Berthed there, the boat is very much out of place and only a stuffed emperor penguin standing sentinel at her bow gives any clue as to the adventure it has experienced.

The description nearby informs me that she, the James Caird, is the boat that carried Sir Ernest Shackleton on his heroic 1,300-kilometre voyage through icy seas and hurricane-force winds to obtain a rescue for the stranded crew of the Endurance – a journey that seems somewhat at odds with the hors d’oeuvres, champagne and lofty surroundings of Dulwich College. I vaguely recall having heard this story before, but it is not until this moment, standing in front of the small canvas-topped boat, that I can begin to comprehend the horrifying wonder of it, and it demands a response.

I begin to feel my way towards an answer – I need to pay homage to this incredible tale, I need to celebrate it and connect others with this inexpressible feeling I am having. So standing in the middle of a wedding in south-east London, I pronounce my decision to write a symphony to commemorate Shackleton and his men’s extraordinary tale of courage, fortitude and survival. I have never written a symphony before. Shit.

Channelling Shackleton’s age of heroic exploration, what follows my grand declaration is a lot of mental backtracking to the reality of how I could actually put a symphony together. I am painfully aware that while I have had many jaunts and day trips in music, this is my first fully edged sonic adventure, complete with endless hazards, pitfalls and the very real chance of failure. The challenges are manifold – compositionally, my mastery of the orchestra is not fully tested and indeed there are some instruments

I have never scored for before. Inspirationally, I am not convinced I have enough life experience to deign to tell the stories of such iconic men; practically, I have no orchestra or financial backer.

Following a crossing of the Bay of Biscay with my father-in-law to get a glimpse of Shackleton’s experience (though we did not have to face 18-metre waves or chip ice off the side of the boat to keep it from keeling over), I set about filling in the gaps in my musical knowledge. I meet with Ruth Holden, harpist in Phantom of the Opera, an encounter that makes me acutely aware of my deficiencies with this instrument. Meanwhile the Wellcome Trust commission me to write a piece of music on Apsley Cherry-Garrard. While concerned that I might be becoming typecast as a composer for famous Antarctic explorers, I decide that the piece must include bassoon so I can gain some experience with this sonorous beast.

Finally, I set to writing. I want the music to take the listener on a journey from civilisation to the unexplored and back again. The first movement, ‘Proceed’, will cover sailing to Antarctica against a backdrop of the Great War; the second, ‘Endurance’, will see the men lose their ship to the crushing ice and survive months on the ice floes; the third, ‘The Voyage of the James Caird’, is the centrepiece of the symphony and the fourth, ‘The Whaling Station’, follows the final push over the unmapped island of South Georgia – a feat not attempted again until nearly 50 years later.

The first two movements are written surprisingly quickly before, one movement too late for true irony, I am stuck in a figurative musical ice field. However, it is during this hiatus that things really begin to progress in other respects. I meet The Hon. Alexandra Shackleton – the indomitable granddaughter of the great man himself who, it turns out, lives around the corner from me. I am introduced to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, who take a real interest in the project. I find myself at a party with Winston Marshall of Mumford & Sons, who agrees to play the banjo in the second movement. Finally, Stop & Fix Publishing ask to release the symphony as a commemorative edition complete with photographic book to accompany the score. With all this impetus the icy wasteland of my imagination starts to thaw and I get to writing again.

And so almost 100 years to the day after Shackleton reached the whaling station on South Georgia to raise the cry for help, and nearly three years on from when I first stood in front of the James Caird, once again I find myself standing open mouthed, this time with the granddaughter of Sir Ernest Shackleton by my side, as I listen to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra record my symphony.

Paul Frith is a musician and composer based in London.

Words: Paul Frith

Illustration: Robert G. Fresson

email hidden; JavaScript is required