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A True Age of Wonders

As I sat in the sun outside my office last Friday I felt quite emotional with the CD launch today - it feels very much the end of an era; the end of a three-CD series, the end of the Darwin project that went from the Wigmore to Australia, and the end of all the negotiations, agreements and funding that put these things in place.

The 15th September 2017 saw the release on CD of Age of Wonders, recorded by the Philharmonia with Stuart Stratford, conductor, Maya Iwabuchi, violin, and Tom Poster, piano. Written to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the piece begins for violin and piano (based on Darwin’s early life), evolves to a string quartet, The Beagle, then a work for string orchestra An Entangled Bank, and completes as a piece for full orchestra, Transmutations.

Perhaps because my first degree, and childhood love, was in science (Botany and Zoology) I had always intended for my second string quartet to be under the name of ‘Darwin’, but this was just something that was lying dormant in the early part of my writing when there were other priorities on what instrumentation to write for - this was the search for more experience. But around 2007 an announcement was drawn to my attention by a Council project in Shrewsbury, asking for ideas to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (CD went to school there). Well, it seemed obvious to me that evolution had to be involved, and so a structure was conceived, one that developed the music through , form, motifs, rhythm, harmony, and most importantly, instrumentation.

Some were relatively easy to decide on; the form went from a one movement piece to two, three and four; the instrumentation, too, was fairly straightforward as with the quartet already in mind, the violin and piano on one side, and the string orchestra on the other seemed natural, as did the conclusion for full orchestra. Other little things - well starting with middle C seemed a good idea (an amoebic beginning), then the first interval of the harmonic series, and so on, but what surprised me as I moved further into the piece was that ideas that I thought would be more important did not always stand the test while others, seemingly less important, were able to be used more effectively. I enjoyed the parallels with evolution itself. Incorporated into these structures was the relationship with the main points of Darwin’s life, and by the outset of writing I had decided that I would have Darwin’s early life in mind f or the first section (violin/piano), the Beagle voyage for the quartet, his life after the voyage for the string orchestra piece, and a sort of post Darwin reflection, somewhat ethereal, for the final orchestral work.

As always, the writing is the enjoyable part. Endless dealings with the project began gradually to make it hard work to place, I recall in an email from the instigator of the call for projects in Shrewsbury writing to me more than a year later saying, ‘we cannot proceed with this as people in Shrewsbury don’t like classical music’. By that time much work had been done to put the performance parts in place and it was encouraging to have such players involved, not least violinist Philippe Graffin for the first section, the Maggini Quartet for the second, London Sinfonietta for the third, and finally, the Darwin Symphony Orchestra in Australia who commissioned the last section. And also by this time, Darwin 200 was being organized by the Natural History Museum in London and projects were spreading around the world

With Philippe’s enthusiasm we were able to begin the premieres at the Wigmore Hall and on that evening there was an involvement that was extra special for me. The late, renowned, tenor, Robert Tear had agreed to read extracts connected with Darwin, a privilege for us all as I think the next evening, or previous, was his retirement concert a the Royal Opera House. Waiting for us to go on, I was introducing him, I saw a poise which I imagine came not only from years of experience but his Buddhist beliefs that we chatted that evening. We have been allowed to include these readings on the second CD and I am immensely grateful that this has been possible.

The Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival hosted the quartet section in Plymouth, the departure point for HMS Beagle, the ship’s name being the subtitle of the quartet. At this point, an aside.. I presume everyone reading this will be aware of the effect of Darwin on religious thought. After the premiere of the Beagle quartet, someone said to my wife as a sort of compliment…’Michael didn’t write that, God did’. My reaction, ‘bugger, I thought I worked quite hard on it’.

The last section for orchestra was premiered in Australia, and preceded by the previous sections of Age of Wonders, so this was also the first performance of the whole thing. This opened my eyes to a new way of presenting new music as it was part of a Darwin 200 celebration, open air in the park in Darwin, with theatre, trapeze artists and other things happening. Some 1,500 or more people were there, all ages, all ethnicities, able to walk away if bored, and rather to my surprise, it worked and I congratulate the Darwin Symphony Orchestra for their innovative approach to new music. This was also the time when I heard the whole work played by the same players and recognised the advantage of having the same tone throughout - I think this is admirably -demonstrated by the Philharmonia where the leader and other section leaders came together for the chamber parts of the recording.

And so although this project will now fade away, I have been amazed at how the story and influence of Darwin lives on. Over time some will argue his importance, Wallace’s contribution, for example, is only partly acknowledged, and of course there is no acceptance of his theory of evolution in large parts of the world, notably the USA. But, nevertheless, there will always be the life of the man himself, and the challenging the of a way of thinking in an earlier world, only just setting out to destroy itself. An age of wonders indeed.

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