Wonder: a scientific oratorio

Composed by Alan Edward Williams

Libretto by Philip Goulding

First performed Friday 27th November 2009 at Maxwell Hall, Salford.

Tecwyn Evans conductor

Stephen Jeffes tenor

Siân Menna mezzo-soprano

BBC Philharmonic / BBC Singers / Salford Choral Society

Guest Leader Midori Sugiyama


THEA GILBERT - Contralto



Wonder: a scientific oratorio is structured around eight large choruses which depict stages in the chronology of the formation of the universe, until the development of life itself. In between these are orchestral interludes which work as a cosmological set, and also solos and semi-choruses for two characters, Thea – an astronomer, and Marcus – her student, who give the “human story” of the oratorio.

Orchestral Introduction - The Big Bang. The universe expands from nothing

Chorus - In the beginning. The choir explain what the orchestra has just depicted.

In the beginning was uncertainty.


A point.

A particle.

A seed.

A dot.

A speck.

A pea.

A split second.

Breakneck speed.



A marble.

Or a grapefruit.

Or a bracelet strung with beads.


A big bang.

An afterglow.

A fireball.



A million million million million million times. (i) 

From nothing.

To everything...

Marcus - You taught me. 
Marcus is introduced: he is haunted by the fear of Thea’s death.

You taught me to be careful with words.

A love song or poem,

Forged in the heat of passion –

Looks towards forever.

Captured by the blossom

We are eager to be fooled.


You taught me to be certain –

Or, perhaps, precise.


I’m sorry...but on days like these

Certainties crumble and dissolve...


You taught me well

My place in your universe –

Those years of words,

Long nights staring at the sky;

Me, in the periphery of your vision,

Believing in you –

And that you would always be here.


Just after sunset, driving home,

It hit me, this new certainty:

That I shall someday face our universe alone.

Thea - The look-back time. 
Our astronomer Thea is introduced. She is passionately occupied by science.

The look-back time (ii)

from the first time I heard the phrase

I’ve loved the sound of that.

When we name,

When we describe,

When we analogise –

We strive to make clear

The complicated.


Due to the finite speed of light

We are always out of date –

No matter how we try

To keep up with the times.


The look-back time –

Even at this latest stage –

I love the sound of that.


I have spent my life looking back.

The universe has not always been transparent.

Chorus - The universe is small. 
The choir explain how expansion and cooling go together.

And in the beginning the universe is small,

The universe is hot,

The universe is dense,

The fundamental forces unified.


And the universe cools,

The universe expands.

Gravitation separates

From the other forces.

Time begins to flow

And space expands.


The strong force deserts the weak

And seeds of structure form.


Nuclear fusion begins

With hydrogen, helium –

But ceases as the temperature falls –

As the universe cools...

Thea - Thirteen billion years. 
Thea ponders the cosmic microwave background, the earliest (and hence furthest) things that we can see.

Looking back through thirteen billion years,

With electrons bound to atoms,

Our universe became transparent –

The fog lifted.

There was light. (iii) 


Those photons released through recombination

Are a picture of the distant past observable today.


A background hiss,

An afterglow.


Red-shifted radiation –

Microwave messages

Streaming through space.


And so - looking back –

We find ourselves.


Moving on:

Within this background hiss

We see anisotropies:

Tiny variations,


Deviations –

These are the seeds

From which galaxies will grow.


Light shifts into the infrared and –

While she waits for the birth of her first stars –

The universe goes dark. (iv)

Orchestral Interlude - Distant Airs 1 – Dark Ages to First Stars. The dark ages - when the early universe went dark after it had cooled sufficiently to stop glowing. The first stars form.

Chorus - Atoms start to fuse. The choir sing of the development of the first stars.

Atoms attracted by gravity

Start to fuse releasing energy –

Across the universe millions of protostars

Ignite for the first time.

These stars, nothing like our sun –

These young, unstable stars

Of hydrogen and helium –

Are the foundries

Where fusion will be fed.

As the universe continues to expand

Gaseous galaxies collect and coalesce –

Like beads on the threads

Of a cosmic web.

Marcus - Nights on Mauna Kea. 
Marcus recalls a night spent observing the death of a star (a supernova) from a telescope in Hawaii. Thea reminds him that it’s supernovae that created the elements from which we’re all made.

Nights on Mauna Kea

Spent observing

The death-throes of a star.

Fame and reputation follow publication;

Who knew there was such gold

In soot and dust?

Yet though we celebrate

The universe remains indifferent. (v)



From the ashes of dying stars

New generations grow.

Chorus - From Disorder and Destruction. 
The choir list the first 26 elements of the periodic table, all formed in supernovae (heavier elements were made in other processes). The cycle of birth and death of stars is compared to the life cycles of plants in a garden.

From disorder and destruction –

The glory of the garden.

Matter collects and concentrates

And structure starts to form –

Clouds, condensing into stars –

Stars, combining into galaxies.

Massive stars burn briefly

Then in a final blaze of glory

As supernovae

They are gone...

But in their dying

New elements are born.

Lithium, Beryllium, Boron,

Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen,

Fluorine, Neon, Sodium,

Magnesium, Aluminium, Silicon,

Phosphorous, Sulphur, Chlorine,

Argon, Potassium, Calcium,

Scandium, Titanium, Vanadium,

Chromium, Manganese, Iron.

(over the above) 


Quintessence of dust. (vi)

We are cosmic individuals

Born from the ashes of stars.



Smaller stars, like our Sun,

Live longer lives

And in death

Are taken on the wind,

Seeding space

With the dust

Of their passing;

The further to enrich

The cosmic garden.

Orchestral Interlude - Distant Airs 2 – Galaxies as Gardens of Stars. 
The orchestra depict the life cycle of a galaxy with stars going supernovae in tiny pinpoint flashes, enriching the interstellar medium with chemical elements. Meanwhile Marcus challenges Thea’s sanguine approach to her own death, but Thea tells him that it’s a wonder we’re here at all.

MARCUS: (under the above) 


You told me once

How pain and death

Are in the scheme of things.

But is your tumour

As marvellous as stars?

Can science sustain us like a faith?

Will even love sustain us

On winter nights like these?



The cold heavens,

My cancer,

Those songs we love...

How unlikely, how mysterious

And how beautiful

That these things –

That all things - came to be.

That we may stand and contemplate,

On this temperate,

This fecund place,

That we may stand on this rare earth,

Stand and wonder at the fact

That we have the chance to wonder…

Chorus - A mass of gas and dust. 
The choir sings of the gathering of gas, dust and ice into a planet – Earth.

A mass of gas and dust accumulates.

From this rich stew of debris –

A star is born.

The remainder of this debris forms a disc –

A swirling ring of gas and dust

Orbiting the star.

Pulled together by gravity –

The gas and dust and ice

Within this ring collide and cohere –

Soot to sand and dust to rock –

Till they are stable;

a planetary system

In unobstructed orbit

‘Round the sun.

Born of an accumulation

Of interstellar grains and ice –

Planet Earth.

Orchestral Interlude - Distant Airs 3
– The Dance of Life. The orchestra depicts a revolving rocky ball gathering mass and energy, then the first oceans, then first life.

Chorus - In Comets and in Meteorites. The choir explain what the orchestra has just depicted.

In comets and in meteorites

We find the building blocks of life.

Four billion years ago

Dust and ice rain down

On the young, erupting earth,

Releasing gas and water

On the surface.

In the new atmosphere,

Generated by these upheavals and invasions,

The planet cools and oceans form.

Violent tides, created by the moon,

Slow the earth’s spin and push the moon away.

As the moon retreats the tides subside –

The earth is stabilized.

In calm, shallow waters life takes hold.

Bacteria evolve –

Single-celled organisms

Pumping oxygen into the environment –

Setting the scene for complex life....

Marcus - Listening for her footfall. 
Marcus finds only desolation after the death of Thea, but Thea’s memory consoles him with the thought that it’s “spectacular good fortune” that she once passed this way.

Listening for her footfall in the quiet house.

Remembering how - wherever she was –

Curious, engaged and engaging –

A bright light illuminated mine

And many lives.

But in the deep, dark


No consolation.









Magnificent: that we are,

That we can be.

That I once passed this way

Is the result of some

Spectacular good fortune:

Chorus - The Goldilocks Effect. 
The choir sing of how everything needed to be “just right” for a universe to produce life.

That the relative strengths

Of the fundamental forces

Are just right for the stars

To create the elements needed to make life.

That our sun resides

In such a favourable neighbourhood

Of the milky way –

Safe from close encounters

Of a catastrophic kind.

That our good earth’s orbit

Does not wander too close

Towards the sun; nor too far away.

That the moon ensures

Our planet’s spin is stable...



That we are.

That we can be.

Duet - Though it might make no sense to you. 
Marcus and Thea sing of what happens to our ideas after we die.



Though it might make no sense to you –

Now you’re gone I wonder where you are.



My love, my words are on the wing,

Blown by the wind, like the seeds

Of a dandelion clock.

Chorus - In the Traces and the Echoes. 
The choir celebrates the human urge to wonder and to investigate.



In the traces and the echoes.

In the tracks and in the shadows.

On mountain tops, in canyons.

In tunnels, tubes and caves.

Through the word and the equation.

In the miniscule or massive.

To the limits of the cosmos.

And from deep beneath the waves.

At Boulby, Bonn and Ooty,

Onsala and Taejon,

Tuscon, Pune and Dwingeloo,

Cern and Siding Spring.

At Jodrell Bank, Mauna Kea,

Plateau de Bure, Cerro La Silla,

At Arecibo, Atacama,

La Palma, Nobeyama,

At Sudbury and La Serena,

Cascina and Nanjing.

Roll on, ye Stars!

Exult in youthful prime,

Mark with bright curves

The printless steps of Time. (vii)



i. ...the inflation that seems to have occurred in the early universe: an increase in size by a factor of at least a million million million million million times, in a tiny fraction of a second. (Stephen Hawking – The Origin of the Universe)

ii. The time in the past at which the light we now receive from a distant object was emitted is called the look-back time. When astronomers discuss events in distant objects, they take for granted that the actual event occurred earlier because of light travel time. The seemingly simple question - what is happening right now on the Sun? - cannot be answered by an observer on Earth, because it takes light 8 minutes to reach Earth from the Sun. For distant galaxies, the light travel times are even longer, so our information about the galaxy NGC 6240, which is 400 million light years away, is 400 million years out of date.

iii. By the end of the so-called Recombination Era, the universe consists of about 75% hydrogen and 25% helium. With the electrons now bound to atoms, the universe finally becomes transparent to light - making this the earliest epoch observable today. (Robert Matthews – Aston University)

iv. The expanding Universe took hundreds of thousands of years to cool to the temperature of the Sun's surface. At that stage, the electrons and ions combined into neutral atoms that no longer scattered the radiation. The Universe became transparent, lifting the 'fog'. The primeval light then shifted into the infrared part of the spectrum, and the Universe literally became dark, until the first stars formed, lighting it again. (Martin Rees – Astronomer Royal of Great Britain)

v. “...gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe." (from L’Etranger by Albert Camus, translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert)

vi. What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? (from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet)

vii. Contemporary literature dates the cosmological theories of the Big Bang and the Big Crunch to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - however, Erasmus Darwin speculated on these sorts of events in the work from which the lines “Roll on, ye Stars! exult in youthful prime, Mark with bright curves the printless steps of Time” are taken: The Botanic Garden, A Poem in Two Parts: Part 1, The Economy of Vegetation, 1791: 

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