Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A new Creation oratorio -- Part one

Two centuries have elapsed since Joseph Haydn composed his magnificent "The Creation" oratorio. In all that time, no other musician has given us a better evocation of how the universe began.

The famous C-major fortissimo chord of Haydn's oratorio -- the glorious sunburst of sound that comes in response to the whispered words, "And there was light" -- is an apt evocation of the modern astronomer's Big Bang.

Still, we have learned a lot since Herschel's time about the universe's beginning and probable end. Maybe it's time for a musical update.

For example, Haydn's triumphant C-major chord comes five minutes into the oratorio, after a prelude of shadowy notes representing the unformed flux out of which God created the world. We are nudged by whispered voices to the edge of our seats. Then, and only then, a universe blazes into existence. Troppo! Perfection!

But modern cosmologists don't have a clue what went before the Big Bang. Their equations start at time t=0. Words like "darkness," "chaos," or "unformed flux" have no meaning. The fortissimo chord in any new composition will have to come right at the beginning.

Not a terribly satisfying way to begin -- musically, dramatically, or even scientifically. The question will always be "What went before?" But, for the time being, we must resign ourselves to ignorance. We sit down in the concert hall, open our programs, and BOOM, we are knocked out of our seats.

At the first instant, the universe is infinitely hot, infinitely bright. The Big Bang doesn't happen somewhere, like a firecracker in a dark room, but everywhere. Not like an alarm going off on a clock that's been ticking all night; the clock starts running as the universe begins. Space and time swell from nothing. The first matter -- hydrogen and helium, with traces of lithium -- condenses from pure energy. The universe expands and cools. The music, which began in thunder, begins a slow decline toward silence, diminuendo.

We ease back into our chairs. After about a half-million years, the temperature of the expanding universe falls below 3,000 degrees Kelvin, and the blaze of creation has weakened and shifted into the infrared, invisible to a human eye. The young, gassy universe becomes completely dark.

But the music doesn't lapse into total silence, for the universe is not empty, nor has time stopped. In the darkness, gravity gathers the cooling gases into clumps and streamers. The music suggests this thickening of matter. Legato becomes staccato, although barely audible. And in the darkness, on those lingering notes, we wait.

(Intermission.)