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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

And finally this evening, the debut of a new musical work about the personal and scientific life of Renaissance astronomer Galileo Galilee. The piece, called Starry Messenger, by Glenn McClure has its first performance tonight in upstate New York. Brenda Trombley of member station WXXI reports the piece was born of what one could call an improbable alignment of the stars.

BRENDA TROMBLEY reporting:

About three years ago composer Glenn McClure was sitting in an airport waiting for a flight to New York. He regularly gives workshops about music in high schools around the country. And on this day he was on his way to a Long Island school. Since he was bored, he got up, wandered into a bookstore, and bought a book. Galileo's Daughter, a historical memoir by Dava Sobel.

Mr. GLENN MCCLURE (Composer): And I started reading this story of a scientist who changed the way we look at the universe who was also a musician. And I was very intrigued by this person whose science and mathematics and scholarship was informed and driven in some cases by his artistic life.

TROMBLEY: As he read on, McClure was surprised to learn that the astronomer had two daughters, one of whom wrote affectionate letters to her father. He read about Galileo's troubles with the Catholic Church for spreading the theory that the Earth spins around the sun. That theory contradicted the Church's Doctrine of the time that the Earth was the center of the universe. When McClure arrived at the Long Island high school he tucked the book into his bag and went in to teach his workshop. That's when things got interesting.

Mr. MCCLURE: In the midst of one of the classes there was a tenth grade boy named Isaac who raised his hand and asked some questions that were just stunning questions, just profound questions. When the class was done I asked the classroom teacher, who is this boy named Isaac that asks such great questions? And his teacher said, well, Isaac has an interesting mom. She's an author and she writes these personal histories of famous scientists. Her most recent one did pretty well, it's called Galileo's Daughter.

TROMBLEY: McClure pulled the book out of his bag and he were a superstitious person he might have thought the stars were sending him a message.

Mr. MCCLURE: The soundtrack for the book started ringing in my ears.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DAVA SOBEL (Author): They could, this very musical family would now have their words sung to new music. It was so unexpected, so wonderful.

TROMBLEY: Dava Sobel, the author of the book, says she was delighted when McClure told her that her memoir had inspired his piece of music called The Starry Messenger.

Ms. SOBEL: I think when you hear the passages sung, you pay more attention to the lyric quality of the words. And there's more of a suggestion of mood. You might or might not pick it up from the text but the music makes it very clear what's intended.

(Soundbite of music)

TROMBLEY: To capture the mood of the book, McClure used musical instruments that Galileo would have known, such as the lute, recorder and violin. As he wrote the piece, he talked to students about the book and used some of their suggestions for ways to express musically the love between the scientist and his daughter.

(Soundbite of music)

TROMBLEY: In a section called Il Devoto or The Devotion, McClure set the words of Galileo's daughter into a melody that repeats over and over again. Her love, expressed in that melody, remained constant while Galileo's scientific views created political and religious upheaval. With shimmering cymbals and harmonic changes, the composer represents the sun replacing the Earth as the center of the universe in people's minds.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHN PITCHER (Rochester Democrat and Chronicle Music Critic): What I found very interesting about the piece is just the different kind of characterization you can see in or hear in the music.

TROMBLEY: Critic John Pitcher of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle says McClure has done a good job of using the flavor of pre-Baroque music to tell Galileo's story.

Mr. PITCHER: He comes up with the score that to me is just very celestial sounding, especially in the singing. And that I found to be very, very appealing.

TROMBLEY: Galileo went down in history for his scientific discoveries and his willingness to tell Church authorities that the Earth was not the center of the universe. But composer Glenn McClure says he was stuck by another aspect of Galileo's character that he learned about in Sobel's book. It's a character trait he wants to express in his music.

Mr. MCCLURE: While this man was changing everyone's view of the universe, he was also changing the diapers of his grandson, whom they called Galileeno(ph), little Galileo. He was, he was taking care of his daughters, who lived in the monastery. He was a family man, he was a community man. I think he's a great example of a person who did both things profoundly.

TROMBLEY: A Western New York audience will get the chance to consider Galileo's example tonight when they hear the first performance of the Starry Messenger, the new oratorio by Glenn McClure. After the premier from chamber choir Madrigalia, astronomers will point their telescopes to the sky outside the hall so audience members can peer into the universe as Galileo did 400 years ago. For NPR news, I'm Brenda Trombley in Rochester, New York.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: You can read the words that inspired the music, Galileo's correspondence with his daughter, by going to our website, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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