Charles Darwin, a best-selling brother, and a musical conversation for Massachusetts composer

“To have this piece in conversation with a much broader audience — it’s humbling,” said composer Gregory W. Brown of his work “Missa Charles Darwin.”
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
“To have this piece in conversation with a much broader audience — it’s humbling,” said composer Gregory W. Brown of his work “Missa Charles Darwin.”

For most of his life, Gregory W. Brown has felt the competing forces of science and art pulling at him. He grew up in Exeter, N.H., the son of a math teacher and a church organist. As a kid he played the piano (as well as violin and trumpet), but he often found himself underneath the instrument, fascinated by its inner workings. As an undergraduate at Amherst College, he initially majored in geology, but decided to pursue music instead, opting to become a composer and conductor.

No piece by Brown shows these Janus-faced influences more clearly than “Missa Charles Darwin.” Written for four unaccompanied male voices, the work has the structure and the stark, plaintive sound of a mass composed during the Renaissance. But the familiar religious texts have almost completely disappeared; in their place are excerpts from Darwin’s writings on natural selection, the promise of science, and the near-limitless glory of nature.

“Missa Charles Darwin,” written in 2010 and 2011, is now having a moment. A new recording by New York Polyphony, for whom it was written, was just released on Navona Records. And the piece is featured in a new book written by Brown’s brother.


Except Brown’s brother isn’t just any author. He is Dan Brown, the mega-successful thriller writer whose novels, including “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons,” have collectively sold more than 200 million copies.

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“Missa Charles Darwin” appears in “Origin,” the newest in a series of Dan Brown novels to feature symbologist-cum-adventurer Robert Langdon, which came out on Tuesday.

This is the first time the brothers’ artistic pursuits have intersected, Gregory Brown said during a recent interview at the Globe’s offices, and the resulting attention is a new thing for the unassuming 42-year-old composer.

“I’m a pretty quiet, private person,” said Brown, who lives near Northampton. “I’m happiest when I’m by myself at my piano, or in my garden, or out walking with my dogs. So it’s an adjustment for me.”

Not that Brown, whose works have been performed in cities from New York to London and Amsterdam, was unknown before this happened. Thomas Stumpf, a pianist and conductor on the Tufts University faculty, got to know Brown’s music by conducting a movement of the Darwin mass with a local chorus. He’s also recorded one of Brown’s piano works on a recent CD and will premiere a new piece by Brown, for piano and narrator, at Amherst College on Oct. 20.


Stumpf said he’s consistently impressed by the idiosyncracy of Brown’s compositional voice, which eludes easy categorization.

“It’s unconventional and quirky,” Stumpf wrote via e-mail. “But I like unconventional and quirky.”

The idea for “Missa Charles Darwin” — replacing the traditional words of the mass with Darwin’s — came from Craig Phillips, a singer in New York Polyphony, who compiled the texts. The idea appealed to Brown, for whom the idea of composing a mass setting was “something you have to do at some point. It’s a mountain to be climbed.” Because Brown is himself not religious, the idea of setting the traditional Mass felt somewhat “dishonest,” he said.

“So when Craig came to me with this idea of using Darwin’s words in the mass format as a way of creating a conversation between these things, I thought, this is a way for me to write a mass and yet remain true to this impulse of looking for meeting points,” he explained.

Indeed, Brown said he thought deeply about how to make the piece a “conversation” between the often-opposed world views of science and religion. One of the few places in which he retained the traditional mass text is the opening “Kyrie,” whose words are “Kyrie eleison” (“Lord have mercy”) and “Christe eleison” (“Christ have mercy”).


These ancient words about mercy are juxtaposed with a famous line from “On the Origin of Species”: “One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.” That’s the core idea of natural selection, which, as Brown points out, is about as unmerciful an idea as one can imagine. “Putting those things in conversation right off the bat was a way of drawing some contrasts and thinking about how we are in the world,” he explained.

‘To have this piece in conversation with a much broader audience — it’s humbling, certainly.’

It’s no surprise that this constellation of ideas appealed to his older brother, whose Robert Langdon novels often revolve around the tangled relations between science and religion. Dan, Gregory Brown said, had seen a TEDx talk the composer gave about the piece, and “my guess is it inspired him to think about Darwin and thoughts about where we came from. I think it put a kernel in his head.”

Indeed, “ ‘Missa Charles Darwin’ got me thinking about evolutionary processes, spiritual views, and the origins of our species and our belief systems,” said Dan Brown in a statement issued by the recording label.

Asked just how “Missa Charles Darwin” makes its appearance in “Origin,” Gregory Brown was reluctant to give away details that might be spoilers. Choosing his words with care, he said cryptically that the piece is “something that Langdon knows about. It’s something that’s played for him as part of a conversation.”

And now Brown welcomes the chance for his work to be part of a bigger conversation.

“Composers, we really hope that our pieces get performed once, maybe twice, for a few people. . . . To have this piece in conversation with a much broader audience — it’s humbling, certainly. And it’s the sort of thing you hope for. You hope, when you create things, that they’re going to come into conversation with people. And that seems to be what’s happening.”

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes
. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.