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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.

(full orchestra)

The Philharmonia Orchestra

Commissioned by the Darwin Symphony Orchestra, this one movement work, in four sections, takes more modern scientific developments as its basis, and forms the concluding interpretation of the musical evolution. It acknowledges the bells of a new sculpture in Darwin, Australia, and received its first performance there in July 2009 following performances of the previous sections.


I  Inheritance   II  Olivacea   III  Fragmentation   IV  Decomposition


The thematic material of the three preceding stages of Age of Wonders evolves finally to this work for full orchestra. By the time of Transmutations, certain ideas, motifs, and points of interest have emerged and established themselves, not within some grand design but more through a process of natural selection. In other words, they proved to have the strength to be maintained and developed while other musical moments proved not to have the necessary components for progress. Interestingly, this was not necessarily through any weakness of their own - after all, they arose from the same structures - rather that the overall demands of this orchestral piece resulted in certain fragments suiting the purpose better.


Although the overall form is one continuous movement there are four sections to Transmutations, thus continuing the evolution of form throughout Age of Wonders. All sections show similarity and variation, development and modernisation to reflect this post-Darwin period, the close of the first section being just one example where the ‘drifting’ in the Beagle quartet is given a 1940’s sound via the brass. The second section takes up one of the ‘finch motifs’ which emerged in the quartet and provided contrast in the second movement of An Entangled Bank. Tubular bells (and the briefest of quotes from Shostakovitch’s Symphony No. 15) announce the third  section and serve not only to recall the bells of Downe village (first heard in An Entangled Bank) but also to mark a new sculpture in Darwin, Australia, where Transmutations was premiered. The slow, march-like character of earlier episodes form the bulk of the fourth section, rising to a more climactic orchestration similar to the close of An Entangled Bank. From here on the work begins to deconstruct/decompose, completing with a reminder of The Man Who Walked With Henslow. Thus, Transmutations returns ‘from whence it came’, a solo violin and the interval of an octave, the opening of the whole of Age of Wonders.


Michael Stimpson

Listen Transmutations
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)

string quartet
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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