For Children's Voices and Orchestra
How did it all begin? And what happened next?
I found myself pondering these questions in an art gallery in Bremen, in a James Turrell installation that carved through three storeys of the gallery. Looking down from the top floor through great circles of colour-changing light to the distant sparkling points in a dark ellipse on the ground floor, I felt that I was looking back in time to the origins of the universe – and I started to hear children’s voices in my mind’s ear, accompanied by twinkling metal percussion.
It occurred to me that the beginning of our world was a good story to be sung by children, especially the unique Hallé Children’s Choir, and accompanied by the magnificent Hallé Orchestra.
Haydn’s Creation immediately comes to mind as a precedent, but that is a setting and elaboration of the Book of Genesis. I thought we should tell the modern version of our story, and be as scientifically accurate as possible.
That’s easier said than done! For a start, it’s hard to find a modern account of creation that is anything like as compact as the one in Genesis. I talked about it with my regular collaborator, Alasdair Middleton. Neither of us could remember being taught anything about the Big Bang or Evolution at school, although I had certainly spent many happy hours making papier-mâché dinosaurs. So the first thing we had to do was a lot of research – reading books for grown-ups, books for children, looking at charts and diagrams and watching films. There was a wonderful moment, reading Adam Rutherford’s The Origin of Life, when I had the glorious feeling I understood everything – but that quickly evaporated as soon as I put the book down.
Scientific ideas seem to date very quickly, so this account of the beginning of our world is necessarily provisional. It’s also a bit arbitrary, with enormous gaps in the story: we decided just to include some bits we thought it would be fun to sing about.
We begin nearly fourteen billion years ago, with the events that lead to the formation of the first Stars and galaxies. Then, perhaps nine billion years later, Earth is formed, covered by a vast ocean of magma. Earth develops an atmosphere, including Rain. After only a few hundred million years, the very first, minutest form of life begins somewhere in the Ocean, and reproduces and develops and evolves over the next few billion years – while supercontinents assemble, break apart and reassemble – eventually producing creatures with eyes, brains, skeletons, until the appearance of the Shark some four hundred and fifty million years ago. (This familiar and fascinating animal was actually on earth before the dinosaurs.)
Around this time, life begins to crawl Out of the Ocean and onto the land. Somewhere, a creature takes the first breath of air. Plants spread, and Trees reach up into the sky. Dinosaurs start to appear, and rule the earth for over a hundred and fifty million years, until being wiped out, possibly by an asteroid. The Birds remain as their descendants.
An astonishing array of animals evolve, and some, having learned to walk and breathe on land, go back to live in the water, like the hippopotamus. Whales Return to the Sea. Twenty-five million years later, the first true Elephants emerge. By then, Monkeys already exist, although they have yet to evolve into the great apes. Finally, somewhere in Africa, Man begins his long walk out into the world.
Text by Alasdair Middleton
Commissioned by the Hallé Concerts Society for the Hallé Children's Choir
First performance: 19th June 2016, The Hallé Orchestra and the Hallé Children's Choir, conducted by Mark Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.
Children's Chorus - 3(II&III/Picc).2(III/Ca).3(III/Bcl).2_Cbsn - 18.104.22.168 - Timp - 3Perc - Hp - Str