Age of Wonders
The Man Who Walked With Henslow

This work takes as its basis the early life of Charles Darwin and the main events within his childhood and teenage years. These include the death of his mother, his studies in Edinburgh and Cambridge, his association with Professor Henslow, and his readiness for the voyage on the Beagle. This one-movement piece sets up and establishes the structural motifs which form the basis of the whole work, and to some extent has a character contemporary to the time. One important quotation is used, from Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 24, published in 1809, the year of Darwin's birth. The first performance was at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday January 21st 2009 in a programme which included works by Mendelssohn and Chausson.

Introduction

This work takes as its basis the early life of Charles Darwin and the main events within his childhood and teenage years. These include the period 1809-15, the death of his mother, his studies in Shrewsbury, Edinburgh, and Cambridge, his association with Professor Henslow, and his readiness for the voyage on The Beagle.

 

Alongside each pictoral image of Darwin is a process for the development of the musical structures. This one-movement piece, to some extent in a style contemporary to the time, sets up and establishes the motifs which form the basis of the whole work. Thus, the introductory section to this work for violin and piano also serves as the musical foundation of all four stages of Age of Wonders - in one sense the introduction is a life in its simplest, amoebic form. It begins with the purest of beginnings, middle C, and the interval of an octave (the first within the harmonic series). The closing two notes of the first phrase, and the first of the second, form the next most simple of structures, a three-note scale figure (which has proved to form the fundamental component of the whole work). The remaining feature of this introduction is the second interval in the harmonic series, the 5th. But musically, there is a sense of space, anticipation, and if such simplistic structures allow, ‘wonder’.

 

The piece breaks into the image of a child, energetic, scatty, uneven in attention (and phrase length). The addition of the next interval of the harmonic series and a quotation from one of a remarkable series of works written in the year of Darwin’s birth, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 24, are points within this section, which follows the most simple of sonata forms with essentially one subject only.

 

These musical elements provide the essence of the whole work; the intervals continue to be introduced and the three-note scale figure reworked. The sections that follow acknowledge the death of his mother when he was eight years old and his studies at school and as a medical student (including his distaste for autopsy). Darwin himself went on to study (and enjoy life) in Cambridge, and one of his friends’ favourite pastimes was to confuse and test Darwin’s recognition of well-known melodies played in a different way – naturally I have put one in this section.

 

One of the major influences in Darwin’s life at this point was Professor Henslow, and they could often be seen walking and discussing Darwin’s increasing interest in science. I have referred to an incident which disturbed them both, the near lynching of two prisoners by a mob (by now Darwin is a young man with a social conscience, conventional but beginning to think beyond established boundaries). The circumstances which surround Darwin’s acceptance by Fitzroy as ship’s scientist on The Beagle are well-documented, and after reference to this the piece closes with a revision of the introductory material.

 

 

Violin: Maya Iwabuchi

Piano: Tom Poster

 

Recorded at the Henry Wood Hall, February 2014

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. 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 for release on CD. The CD is currently in production, with release scheduled for the end of 2016.

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© 2018 Michael Stimpson