“There’s this exploration of the edges of things,” Gregory Brown said in an interview in Boston. “Whether that edge is science and music, or religious and scientific, or sacred and secular.”
In a telephone interview, Dan Brown said that he’s “always looking for big themes,” and when he first heard the mass performed in 2011 at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., “it got me thinking about creationism and this sort of battle between science and religion.”
He followed the idea until it became “Origin,” a thriller — starring his signature protagonist, the Harvard “symbologist” Robert Langdon — about a brazen scientist whose discovery about the source of life on Earth and the future of humanity threatens to upend the world’s religious order.
“Missa Charles Darwin” appears late in the book, after a wild night for Langdon that begins with a clandestine encounter inside a Richard Serra sculpture and ends at a computing center that holds the key to life’s origins. He enters the center and hears Gregory’s “Christian-style mass,” in which devout voices take their place alongside a celebration of natural selection.
“This piece of art that fuses science and religion and makes them beautiful — I thought at that point in the novel, it was just this moment when you needed to rest and see that these two can intertwine,” Dan Brown said.
Spirituality and science often did overlap as the Brown brothers grew up. Their father, a math teacher, was an Escher obsessive who told them folk stories about clever mathematicians, and they turned pages for their mother, a church organist who provided Gregory’s first exposure to sacred music. He, in turn, began college as an aspiring scientist, and traveled to the Galápagos Islands, where he was awe-struck by a vermilion flycatcher and Lonesome George, the last known tortoise of his species.
“You get the sense that it hasn’t changed much since Darwin was there,” he said.
Studying geology also gave him a sense of the planet’s long, slow timeline. He ended up with “this feeling about time and our place on Earth that I’d never had before,” he said, which works its way into the “Credo” movement of “Missa Charles Darwin.”
Halfway through college, he had a change of heart and pursued music. He later sang at Westminster Choir College and wrote vocal works that put him in contact with the Grammy-nominated quartet New York Polyphony, which gave the mass’s first performance in 2011.
Craig Phillips, the group’s bass, first had the idea for “Missa Charles Darwin” and said he was inspired by “just how beautiful, lyrical and poetic” the prose is in “On the Origin of Species.”
Mr. Phillips culled the text from Darwin’s writings. “It’s almost built for a musical setting,” he said. “It’s so lofty and majestic.”
Dan Brown didn’t tell his brother that the mass had made its way into “Origin” until he finished writing the chapter. He said that when he asked Gregory to give it a read — they are often sounding boards for each other — “he came back sort of wide-eyed.”
Gregory gave his blessing, with a slight correction to how the music was described. Then he realized what kind of exposure this appearance in the novel could provide.
“Within 24 hours wheels started turning for what this might do,” Dan Brown said. In the end, any money his brother makes from New York Polyphony’s recently reissued recording of “Missa Charles Darwin” will be donated to music education programs.
“Origin” was released on Tuesday, and Gregory Brown said he is bracing for whatever happens.
“When you’re a composer, you write a piece and hope it gets one performance,” he said. “When it gets two, you’re lucky. But who knows what will come of this?”
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