I have always admired the way that Charles Darwin keenly observed the natural world and began to piece together the great puzzle of our geological and biological history. Instead of accepting commonly held contemporary beliefs about the workings of our planet, Darwin forged a new path. He recognized our interconnectedness, ultimately arriving at a greater understanding of the scale and scope of geological time. Honoring Darwin through music was a natural way for me to express this admiration.
Missa is the Latin form of the word “Mass” and refers to the texts and music of the Roman Catholic liturgy. This liturgy has an established structure and (in general terms) is associated with a public celebration of faith. Missa Charles Darwin retains the structure of the Mass, but substitutes sacred texts with the words of Charles Darwin, compiled and edited by New York Polyphony bass Craig Phillips. The musical and liturgical form of the Mass is distinct and canonic, with intrinsic proportions, structure, and drama. Casting Darwin’s texts into that form is a way of drawing parallels and exploring contrasts between the two. In the first movement, for instance, the central message of the “Kyrie” is one of supplication and mercy, while Darwin’s natural selection inherently lacks mercy.
In order to bind the work together I devised an opening idea linked to Darwin, evolution, and genetics. I translated a section of the genetic sequence from Platyspiza crassirostris (a bird from the group commonly known as Darwin’s Finches) into musical tones which create a simple melody. This tune serves as a motto of sorts for the Mass showing up here and there as generative (musical) material. Other ideas taken from genetics appear in the “Credo,” where mutation, insertion, and deletion are applied to the motto melody (along with standard musical procedures of inversion and retrograde) to create an evolving musical texture. Other underlying ideas in the work include symmetry, which is common to both science and music. A notable example of symmetry occurs in the “Gloria,” where the four voices sing the passage “different, yet dependent upon each other” in phrases that are graphical point-reflections of one another. The symmetry here serves to underline the interdependence of the voices, at the same time creating something of intricate beauty. It also takes advantage of the double meaning of the word “reflect.” Similarly, the “Sanctus” climaxes with a canon created from one simple melodic idea (“As buds give rise by birth to fresh buds...”) rendered into four closely related melodies. These ideas merge together, intertwining to form an interlocking texture grown from a single idea.
The genetic sequence that has (in various guises) served as a motto for the piece returns in the final movement in a slightly altered, yet recognizable, form as a bookend for the piece. The final “Amen” includes a fleeting and oblique quotation of the Latin “Ite, Missa est” in the midst of a reprise of the “Alleluia” that closes the second movement.
Since the premiere of Missa Charles Darwin at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, in 2011, the piece has been performed numerous times throughout the United States and Europe, most notably in the dinosaur hall of Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde.
– Gregory W. Brown
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