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Age of Wonders

This four-stage piece was written to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. It begins as a piece for violin and piano, and evolves through string quartet and string orchestra to a work for full orchestra. Although designed as an evolving collection, each piece stands alone as a concert item.

An Entangled Bank (string orchestra)
An Entangled Bank - 1st movement openingMichael Stimpson
00:00 / 00:55

"It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us..." Charles Darwin


I  Down House        II  Origins     III  Publication 

After Darwin's return from his round-the-world voyage in 1836, he married and settled in Down House, Kent. His routine of family and work culminated in his famous publications, notably On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. While the first movement of this work reflects the character of the house, family life and the bells of Downe village, the second explores further the material of The Man Who Walked With Henslow and the string quartet. The third movement takes as its basis the panic of Darwin when Wallace introduced a similar idea of evolution, the controversy of publication ("…a sorry contribution to knowledge", The Times), and the subsequent attacks on Darwin's writing. The most famous occasion was undoubtedly the 1860 debate at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, where the main opponent to Darwin's theory was Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford. However, years after Wilberforce's death, a poem was found (written by Wilberforce) which indicated that his views were perhaps not so rigidly antagonistic to Darwin. The overall title, Age of Wonders, is taken from this poem.

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Age of Wonders

The four stages are as follows -


I) The Man Who Walked With Henslow 

violin and piano
II) String Quartet No.2 (The Beagle)

string quartet
III) An Entangled Bank 

string orchestra
IV) Transmutations 

full orchestra


The Man Who Walked With Henslow

first performed by

Philippe Graffin


Elizabeth Burley


Wigmore Hall

(January 2009)


String Quartet No.2 (The Beagle)

first performed by

Maggini Quartet,

Peninsula Arts Festival

(February 2009)


An Entangled Bank

first performed by

London Sinfonietta

Wigmore Hall

(January 2009)



first performed by

Darwin Symphony Orchestra

Darwin, Australia

(July 2009)



Additional Information on An Entangled Bank


The first movement, taking Down House as its background, develops the 3-note figure of The Man Who Walked With Henslow, this time spreading it across the strings to give a celebratory feel to the opening of the work. The lines interweave in a way reminiscent of Darwin’s quotation (above) gradually stretching the scale to be longer and more chromatic, and filling in the octave, the first interval used in Henslow. The mood is interrupted with a memory from the Beagle quartet before a re-working of the first main section from Henslow -  Down House was full of children (the Darwins had ten in all) and so the material from Darwin’s own childhood is the main component. Occasionally, the ‘English’ quality of the movement marks the music of Darwin’s great nephew, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).


As the title suggests, 'Origins' is a bringing together of the contributory material of Henslow and the quartet.  It opens with a memory of the Galapagos, becoming intertwined with some material from the death of Darwin’s mother and a feel of the hard walking/trekking that he made during his voyage. The mood is broken by a reworking of one of the ‘Darwin finch’ figures; eight were used in the quartet, taken from original recordings of these famous birds. This section completes via the three notes of the bells of the church in Downe village* and the completion of the scale as eight notes, set across the strings with some intervals inverted. The movement is closed by a re-emergence of a finch motif, this time slightly altered (as a species would be) and underpinned with a counter-melody of different character.


The publication of On The Origin of Species was hurried due to the closeness of others to developing a theory of evolution. Thus, after a fragment of Henslow opens the movement in a declamatory way, it has a darker feel, reminiscent of the difficulty which Darwin had of bringing his studies to conclusion. A more agitated section follows in which the notes of the scale increasingly form the harmony, alongside patches of rhythmic development both within an instrumental part and across the strings. After the rigours of publication and the intense attacks on his thinking by the Church and Press, Darwin’s life gradually settled to one of recognition and acknowledgement. The piece therefore closes with a return to a more settled character.

* the village is indeed Downe, despite Darwin's house being called Down House. 


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