Composer Naturally Selects an Evolutionary Style to Commemorate Charles Darwin

By Markey, Fiona | Musical Opinion, January/February 2009 | Go to article overview

Composer Naturally Selects an Evolutionary Style to Commemorate Charles Darwin


Markey, Fiona, Musical Opinion


Fiona Markey tells all . . .

British composer Michael Stimpson has created a major new work in four parts, Age of Wonders, in celebration of the Charles Darwin anniversaries of 2009: 200 years since Darwin's birth and 150 since the publication of On the Origin of Species. Stimpson's work is evolutionary in its form, progressing from an opening piece for violin and piano through string quartet and string orchestra to complete as a work for full orchestra. Each section is able to stand alone in concert, but also works as part of the evolving whole, with resonances and developments to engage the careful ear.

For subject matter Stimpson draws on Darwin's biography - from childhood, his extraordinary voyage on the Beagle, and his later life and work at Down House. By the end of the final section, a more modern reflection on the Darwin legacy ensures the contemporaniety of the work.

The composer writes "I have begun with the simplest of forms, middle C and the interval of an octave. A three-note scale figure is then established and I have quoted Beethoven's Sonata No 24, first performed in the year of Darwin's birth. Darwin's childhood and studies at Edinburgh and Cambridge form the basis of this one-movement work.

"The first of The Beagle's two movements (outward and return journeys) opens with a more involved figure in C. The quartet progresses from the 19 th century feel oí Henslow, acknowledging Darwin's time in the southern hemisphere. Important in the Galapagos section are eight figures taken from original recordings of Darwin's finches.

"An Entangled Bank is a three-movement work, subtitled Down House, Origins, and Publication. After his voyage, Darwin married and settled in Kent and now the threenote scale figure is spread across the strings to give a celebratory feel. Origins begins a more serious re-working of the material of Henslow and the quartet, and certainly the most anxious movement is the last, reflecting the controversy of Darwin's publication. The overall title, Age of Wonders, is taken from a poem by Samuel Wilber force, Bishop of Oxford and one of Darwin's fiercest opponents in the famous 1851 Oxford debate.

"Transmutations, for the Darwin Symphony Orchestra in Australia, allows me to draw the work to a conclusion with full orchestration. It reflects the scientific developments post-Darwin, the establishment of genetics and a greater understanding of evolution. It completes with a re-working of the opening material of Henslow; now the octaves are spread across the orchestra to give a climactic ending. …

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Composer Naturally Selects an Evolutionary Style to Commemorate Charles Darwin
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