Arts & Culture

Performance rings old bones with sounds of ‘selection’

3 min read

HMNH marks Darwin anniversary with original music performance

The Harvard Museum of Natural History’s galleries rang with music Tuesday evening (April 28) as the facility’s fossils made room for musicians performing seven original classical pieces written in honor of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.”

The event marked the world premiere of “The Origin Cycle,” the brainchild of Professor of Philosophy Peter Godfrey-Smith and soprano Jane Sheldon, and performed by the Firebird Ensemble. It marked a second “first” as well, as museum Executive Director Elisabeth Werby said that officials there had been looking to bring music to the museum’s halls for years.

“We’ve never before hosted a major musical performance. It’s something we’ve always wanted to do,” Werby said.

Godfrey-Smith and Sheldon came up with the idea when pondering the advent of Darwin Year, marking the world-shaking book’s 150th anniversary and Darwin’s 200th birthday. After poring over Darwin’s “The Origin of Species,” they found several passages in the book that were both substantively significant and lyrical in a way that might inspire composers.

“We realized there are lots of little fragments of the book that had this sort of poetic turn,” Godfrey-Smith said.

Godfrey-Smith said the idea to do a classical music cycle based on “The Origin of Species” was a bit unusual, and most initial responses to the idea were puzzlement. He credited Dean of Arts and Humanities Diana Sorensen with being the first to see the potential of the idea and encourage the effort forward.

The performance was written by seven different composers, each working from a different passage from “The Origin of Species,” Godfrey-Smith said. The pieces were performed in the order that the passages appear in the book.

“They were asked to respond to a particular element of Darwin’s thought,” Godfrey-Smith said.

Godfrey-Smith said the resulting music takes many forms and the pattern of their presentation is “unplanned and spontaneous.”

The premiere was held in the museum’s Romer Hall of Vertebrate Paleontology before an audience of about 80. The ensemble performed against the gigantic backdrop of the museum’s 42-foot Kronosaurus, an extinct marine reptile from the Cretaceous period, with a huge triceratops skull looking on.

The museum’s Romer Hall was an apt location for the performance. It is named for Alfred Sherwood Romer, who served as the director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology from 1946 to 1961 and who was recognized for his work on the structure and evolution of vertebrates.

The musical pieces themselves had names drawn from Darwin’s book: “The Face of Nature,” “Hourly Scrutinizing,” “Tree of Life,” “Economy of Wax,” “A History Imperfectly Kept,” “Entangled Bank,” and “Floreana.” The sounds sometimes represented the clash of nature envisioned in natural selection, and, at other times, the evolutionary order that emerges from those clashes.

Richard Lewontin, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology Emeritus, provided a brief introduction about Darwin to the audience. Many of the underlying ideas that Darwin elucidates in “The Origin of Species” were previously known, he said. Darwin’s genius, Lewontin said, lie in assembling them all in language that was accessible to the public at the time.

“Tonight we’re going to benefit from his language,” Lewontin said.

The “Origin Cycle” will next be performed in Nova Scotia in the fall and, after that, at Stanford University and in Australia, Godfrey-Smith said.