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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.

String Quartet No.2
(The Beagle)

Violin: Maya Iwabuchi

Violin: Fiona Cornell

Viola: Nicholas Bootiman

Cello: Karen Stephenson

This two-movement work (outward journey and return) reflects the main components of Darwin's voyage: Departure, Brazil, Sargasso Sea, Tierra del Fuego, Chile, Galapagos Islands, and Home. Included in the musical development from The Man Who Walked With Henslow are resonances of eight of Darwin's Finches, taken from original recordings of their songs. It was premièred by the Maggini Quartet on February 28th 2009 in a programme which included. Schubert, Piazzola and Mendelssohn.


In 1830 Charles Darwin began his epic voyage on The Beagle. After some false starts due to bad weather they sailed across the Atlantic, along the South American coast, around Cape Horn, back up along the coast of Chile before cutting across to the Galapagos Islands. From here they went on to the Pacific Islands, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and home.


This two-movement work evolves in a number of ways from the material of The Man Who Walked With Henslow. The opening, in the same key, is a much more involved working of the original introductory material, and throughout the piece the three-note scale figure which rose to prominence in Henslow, continues to be redesigned. Sometimes this is within the harmony, and perhaps not surprisingly, the scale figure begins to grow.


I have taken several distinctive points from the voyage to provide the basis of the quartet. Departure, Brazil, the Sargasso Sea, and Tierra del Fuego form the main components of the first movement, but these are interspersed with moments of drifting, cold, and homesickness. To open the second movement I imagined a sailor’s dance on The Beagle before the piece moves into a passage which acknowledges the many extraordinary trips on horseback which Darwin made. For the Galapagos section I have used some motifs taken from recordings of Darwin’s finches. Eight are incorporated, although in the most modern-sounding section I have built these finch motifs one note at a time, sometimes as a retrograde, up to thirteen notes (there are thirteen finches in all). From here the piece returns to writing more akin to the 19th century before a closing rush to home and the joy of arrival announced by a re-statement of the opening of the quartet.


Michael Stimpson

Listen Beagle
Age of Wonders

The stages of the work are as follows -


I The Man Who Walked With Henslow (violin and piano)
II String Quartet No.2 (The Beagle)
III An Entangled Bank (string orchestra)
IV Transmutations (full orchestra)



First performances - Elizabeth Burley (piano), Philippe Graffin (violin), Maggini Quartet, London Sinfonietta, Darwin Symphony Orchestra, Wigmore Hall (January 2009), Peninsula Arts Festival (February 2009), Darwin, Australia (July 2009).

The entire piece was recorded on 10th and 11th February 2013 by the Philharmonia Orchestra.

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