Interview for FI Magazine • Saturday, November 1, 1997

Paul McCartney Goes Classical

Interview of Paul McCartney
Published by:
FI Magazine
Interview by:
Andrew Stewart
Timeline More from year 1997

Album This interview has been made to promote the Standing Stone Official album.

Master release

Songs mentioned in this interview

Eleanor Rigby

Officially appears on Revolver (UK Mono)

For No One

Officially appears on Revolver (UK Mono)


Officially appears on Working Classical


Officially appears on Help! (Mono)

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Classical music purists would no doubt struggle to accept the mention of Lennon and McCartney in the same breath as Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart.

And yet a recent publicity brochure from Cambridge University Press does just that, heralding the future publication of titles in its prestigious “Music Handbooks” series. Alongside analyses and accounts of the great classics stands the name of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, its sequence of thirteen songs subject to the same close scholarly scrutiny as that given elsewhere in the series to such as the Mass in B Minor, the “Jupiter” Symphony, or the Missa Solemnis. Doctoral dissertations, learned articles and serious-minded monographs have now been devoted to the artistic achievements of the Beatles, while Sgt. Pepper has progressed to the biggest-selling record by a British band and one of the most influential of all pop albums, clocking up 4.25 million sales since its release in 1967 and reaching a huge worldwide audience.

In the years since leaving the Beatles, Paul McCartney’s career has been marked by a determination not to stagnate. A string of hits with the band Wings and as a solo artist ensured his survival as a pop star long after most of his contemporaries had traded in their Fender guitars and accepted “proper” jobs. Meanwhile, the mature rock ‘n’ roller has developed his aspirations to compose for the concert hall. Standing Stone, the most ambitious of McCartney’s compositions outside the realm of rock, received its premiere on October 14 at London’s Royal Albert Hall performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of Lawrence Foster. The four-movement symphonic poem, richly scored and episodic in structure, spans over seventy-five minutes of music, its inspiration derived partly from McCartney’s desire to explore his Celtic roots. While echoes of everything from Brahms to Ives may be heard in the score, original McCartney prevails: classical influences are there by coincidence, not design.

Those expecting little more than a potpourri of Beatles-style tunes will be disappointed by Standing Stone, although the work is not short of winning melodies, or of elements derived from rock, pop, or jazz. A work as grand as Standing Stone seems far removed from McCartney’s early hits; indeed, cultural historians will doubtless argue that te more recent work reflects the fifty-five-year-old musician’s desire to join the ranks of serious modern composers. The skeptic’s verdict is likely to be influenced on discovery that the creation of Standing Stone was supported by advice from a team of trained musicians, composers David Matthews and Richard Rodney Bennett and the saxophonist and composer John Harle among them.

McCartney has little time for those who prefer to belittle his work as a “pop” artist and condescend to his attempts at writing for the concert hall. “I think there is a lot of pomposity in the classical world,” he says. “Four Beatles songs were programmed at this year’s Henry Wood Proms in London. Now I didn’t ask them to do it, and there was absolutely no reason for those pieces being there other than that people like the music. Throughout the Beatles career, musicians of all types made cover versions of our melodies. There are arrangements for Dutch steam organ, brass bands, string quartet — you name it. That happened without us even wanting it to, which really was a great compliment. Long before I ever thought about writing for orchestra, the Duke of Edinburgh asked me why I didn’t do these big orchestral versions of my tunes: I said I left that to others. Things have moved on since then.”

Although he concedes that his knowledge of the classical canon is sketchy, McCartney is swift to point out that during the 1960s he listened to the widest range of contemporary music possible. Stockhausen’s Gesang der Junglinge appeared in the musician’s record collection; he heard Luciano Berio in recital with his wife Cathy Berberian in London, investigated the aleatoric compositions of Cornelius Cardew, and sampled the works of Peter Maxwell Davies and other prominent members of the British avant-garde.

There are aspects of my character that the public know almost nothing about,” he says. “They’ll see a photo of me going through an airport or on the front cover of a Beatles album and think, yeah, that’s him. People who know me better realize that there’s more to it than that. I became an instant fan of the courtly dances from Benjamin Britten’s opera ‘Gloriana,’ for example, and I got the idea for the piccolo trumpet part in Penny Lane after hearing Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto on television one night. While I’m not a serious classical freak, it’s a bit pompous of people to assume that I have no other interests than loud guitars.

McCartney recognizes that the rigid barriers once erected between popular and classical music and perpetuated by many of its players have been undermined in recent years, with jazz and rock now a respected part of the cirriculum at many of the world’s leading conservatories, crossover records appearing in more than one chart, and arch-modernists converting to become accessible melodists. “I do get a bit snobby about things like the Three Tenors. People expect me to call for lasers and white jackets in something like Standing Stone, but I prefer many of the traditional aspects of classical music-making. I don’t necessarily want to amplify the symphony orchestra before trying it “straight,” as it were. Also, it’s not quite that simple for a composer to write a good tune,” he observes. “People assume that if you’ve studied music then you’ll be able to come up with a great melody. But that’s just not the case.

The recent success of McCartney’s Flaming Pie album, which made its debut at number two in the Billboard chart, suggests that he still has an abundant reserve of melodic ideas, several of its tracks echoing musical and textural strands evolved during his Beatles days. Above all, the musician remains convinced that even the most sophisticated of listeners will respond to a powerful, well-conceived melody. “Everything else will come and go, but if you ask me to hum some Beethoven, I’ll immediately pick on a fantastic tune. I always had a secret ambition that if I ever made it beyond the Beatles and was still looking for something to do, then I would want to extend what I’d done in Eleanor Rigby. In Standing Stone there are some huge distances between anything I’d ever composed before, not least where I play with atonality in the work’s third movement. But even there, I can’t help introducing a melody from Flaming Pie.

McCartney’s early musical education was conditioned by the family record collection, Paul Whiteman’s “Stairway to Paradise” and “Lullaby of the Leaves” among the old shellac discs played at his Liverpool home. His paternal grandfather weilded the mighty E flat bass in a local brass band, while his father was a proficient self-taught pianist and trumpeter. Songs by Frankie Lane and other typical hits from the 1950s tickled young Paul’s ear, although it was rock ‘n’ roll that first fueled his passion for music. “That was the first thing to make me want to get involved. It came at the right time for us guys. We were ready for something, and rock ‘n’ roll was the spark that lit the fire.” While his high-school friends aspired to be dentists or accountants, McCartney recognized music as the route towards a more exciting way of life, a view reinforced when he met the slightly older and more rebellious John Lennon.

You must remember that John and I weren’t stupid, which is what most people thought of rock ‘n’ rollers. We’d looked around to see who our rivals were in the Sixties, who were the leading modern composers. Richard Rodney Bennett, who advised me on the orchestration of Standing Stone, was placed near the top by almost everyone we asked then. I checked out his work along with that of people like Maxwell Davies and Cardew to see what our contemporaries were doing.” As a chart-topping musician, idolized by millions of young fans worldwide, why should he bother about composers whose works were heard by only a small audience and who almost invariably seemed out of step with popular taste? “I’ve always been very proud to be a composer,” McCartney explains. “In the scene in Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus, where Salieri is describing one of Mozart’s works in such a passionate way, I related totally to that and with pride. I don’t care that I’m not a Mozart, but I’m still a composer. Hearing other people’s music mattered to me.

“When people think of the Beatles and of rock ‘n’ roll, they assume we just threw pieces together without any thought. Even in an average rock session, there was one hell of a lot of work that went into what we did. The ideal is that no one should be able to hear that and it should all sound ‘easy.’ At the time, we didn’t realize just how skilled we were. Although neither John nor myself had an extended education, I was doing English literature in the sixth form and he was studying at art college, so we were on an academic route before the group happened. W didn’t just leave that all behind: John read widely, I read widely and still do. Our sources, even before we wrote our first song, went from Chaucer to Steinbeck, John read Winston Churchill’s complete autobiography, all forty volumes of it — his middle name was Winston, you see. When we came to write the lyrics, the early stuff was on the ‘Thank you girl/From me to you’ level. But the moment we gained a little in confidence, then there was some depth to what we were doing.”

Paul McCartney

Although the Art Rock epithet coined to describe mature works from the Beatles sounded pretentious, it neatly expressed certain qualities that set their best songs apart from the average outpourings of their contemporaries. “You have to remember that George [Harrison] went to the same school as me, the Liverpool Institute, so we both studied Latin and all that stuff. Even though it went in one ear and out the other, you still learnt as part of that system and it stayed with you. Ringo didn’t have that background, but then he wasn’t a writer.

McCartney agrees that the Liverpool education of the group’s songsmiths contributed to their way with words, even though classical grammar figured low on the priorities of teenage record-buyers and stream-of-consciousness lyrics hardly guaranteed chart success. It was, he suggests, a happy coincidence. “Because of this background, we did feel a little different from other groups, even though we always got on well with them. We were backstage in Hamburg and I had a copy of poems by Yevegeny Yevtushenko, which a girlfriend of mine in Liverpool had sent out. I was looking through it, which was a nice change from Der Spiegel. One day a sax player came into the dressing room and found us all apparently deep in thought, with me solemnly reciting bits of Yevtushenko. He put his instrument down and said, ‘Sorry to disturb you lads.’ We fell about when he left the room. I’m not as surprised as others that I have now written a piece for the London Symphony Orchestra, or that George moved into Indian music, or that John was writing serious poetry.

Thanks to the influence of record producer George Martin, an oboist and composer by training, McCartney was introduced to musicians from a wide variety of backgrounds, from former dance band players to leading classical exponents. The young songwriter welcomed the chance to try out new sounds, including the signficant parts for horn in “For No One,” and piccolo trumpet in “Penny Lane,” and encouraging Martin to book players from leading London orchestras to record them. He also understood the value of Martin’s scorings for hits such as “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yesterday.” “It was always a thrill to work with people in a non-stuffy way who weren’t from our world,” McCartney recalls. “Throughout my musical ‘career,’ it’s been fascinating to move from one stepping stone to another, rather than staying in one place. With the Beatles we would use the instruments laying around the studio and explore different instrumental colors. As the group developed, we began to use orchestras and choirs and tried to make that fit with our world. Those sessions were always exciting for us, since these musicians could play on demand and didn’t need to wait for the mood to be right. This was a great ongoing education for me.

Clearly, McCartney felt an empathy for the classical musicians enlisted for Beatles’ sessions by George Martin. But did he ever consider at the time the idea of writing a work for them? “No, it never crossed my mind. I was learning my trade of songwriting, and to write anything longer than a three-minute piece would have seemed a very distant idea. I remember asking George Martin why he hadn’t written a symphony. He said he lacked the intellectual power to do something like that, but I couldn’t understand what it was that he thought was so difficult. I assumed if you could read and write music, then you must be able to compose a symphony!

Martin’s response intrigued McCartney, whose creative powers had never been dependent on the ability to notate ideas on music manuscript paper. The symphony, so it now seemed, was off limits. “So there’s something mre to it then, I thought. Writing Standing Stone made me realize just how difficult it is to hold the listener’s attention for that length of time and how different the set of skills required to write a large-scale work is. Even so, the piece is really a logical extension of what I’ve been doing for years. It’s not like I’m a stranger to using so-called classical instruments. Standing Stone felt like a development of that process, but no one gets away easy when they attempt something new. In a way, I almost hope the work gets criticized: I don’t want to be the one whose works the salon agrees to be great.

The musician’s previous venture into symphonic territory was neither spared critical scrutiny nor proclaimed as a masterpiece. The Liverpool Oratorio highlighted the demands of invention and technique required to produce a coherent work, and relied on close collaboration with composer Carl Davis. Its commission offered McCartney a chance to build a concert work in partnership with a man experienced in writing everything from sparkling ballet scores to television theme tunes. “It was a good introduction for me. I was invited to do the piece to mark the 150th anniversary season of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 1991, but had no idea of the process. Carl took care of that for me, which probably meant the piece was more guided by him than I might have wished. But I simply didn’t know what was involved. Even though I supplied most of the melodies and ideas, he was there in the background to shape a large-scale piece. It surprised me that some people who know me quite well asked if I had written the words and Carl the music. I had to explain that I could compose music but was unable to notate it. That was the barrier for me to get into writing orchestral stuff. It certainly helped me to see how he approached the work. But I thought if I ever had another chance to write a big work, I’d do it differently.

That chance was made manifest in 1993 by Richard Lyttelton, president of EMI Classics, who called on McCartney to compose a piece to mark the record company’s centenary year. Several ideas were proposed and rejected, including that for a decade-by-decade “musical history tour” of the century. Finally, he decided to devote his industry to the composition of a work for symphony orchestra without the immediate intervention of other musicians. The improvisational freedom and melodic freshness of Standing Stone owe much to McCartney’s use of an electronic keyboard, computer interface, and music-writing software during the compositional process, technology that enabled him to build orchestral textures, develop contrapuntal strands, and translate his ideas into a notated form.

Were there ever moments when he felt that his ambitions were frustrated by his inexperience of writing for orchestra or that he had outreached his technical ability? “There are always times in the middle of any big project when you realize what you’ve taken on. But that doesn’t apply just to Standing Stone; it also happens when I’m working on a big tour or a new album. After the Liverpool Oratorio, I wanted the freedom to do another big piece alone. I didn’t want to get locked into another two-way collaboration, and I found that the excitement of working on Standing Stone carried me through any of the difficulties. Even though the job was daunting, I do love composing. Things like painting, writing, and composing are not chores to me and I think I’d do them even if nobody paid me. I find it so liberating to write music.

Although he forged the score’s raw material, McCartney’s compositional efforts were guided by several musical advisers. Jazz musician Steve Lodder helped shape and order the composer’s initial piano sketches, while the saxophonist and composer John Harle was engaged to act as a consultant on the work’s form. “Steve is a very fine pianist, so he was able to help me keep the flow of ideas by playing back what I’d written. When I finally had everything in shape, I began to talk with John who gave me some advice on the overall structure. He would suggest that I might extend particular sections and helped me balance the shape of the piece. If he said anything I didn’t agree with, though, I would say so.” The working relationship functioned smoothly enough, with Harle offering his opinions and McCartney using the versatile musician to test the strength of his ideas. “John would say what he felt about a section and I’d go away for two weeks and work on it, which was a bit like having to do school homework. It was good to have another view on what worked and what didn’t.

At an early stage in the compositional process, McCartney decided to give his work focus by writing a related poem. The narrative introduces imagery from a variety of sources, loosely inspired by Celtic myths and echoes from its author’s Irish ancestry. Books, “some cranky, more scholarly,” further fired McCartney’s imagination, especially texts about prehistoric societies and megalithic structures, such as the burial chamber at Newgrange in Ireland or the standing stones at Carnac in France. His researches also prompted the composer to consider his family’s Irish origins and, by extension, their Celtic roots.

The nearest I’d come to that,” he recalls, “was when I once persuaded a journalist from the Daily Mirror to commission a genealogical study of the Beatles. My family went back to a John McCartney, a farmer on the west coast of Ireland, who signed with an X — he was the literate one, since before him they couldn’t even manage to make their mark! When I came to write Standing Stone, something jogged my memory and I began to ask more about my background. If my ancestors were Irish and my parents Liverpool-Irish, then I wanted to know where the Irish came from.”

Besides dealing with the tribulations of First Person Singular, a prehistoric “Everyman” figure whose life journey leads to the discovery of love, McCartney’s Standing Stone poem outlines the earth’s creation and the subsequent evolution of life. “I wanted something to sustain the audience’s interest and mine, since, unlike Beethoven, I was not able to take a theme and develop it in a symphonic way. Whereas other people have been studying classical music for thirty or forty years, I’ve only seen this in passing. I’ve heard a French Horn, liked its sound, and used it in a Beatles song like ‘For No One.” But that was incidental to my work.” With Standing Stone, he adds, the formal use of orchestral instruments could not be avoided, neither could he sustain a prolonged symphonic work without some kind of unifying structure. “I began to put things together in a way I’d never done before, and the poem helped focus my ideas.”

The composition’s literary substructure received the approval of McCartney’s poet friend [the late] Allen Ginsberg, who encouraged him to move away from song lyrics to develop a prolonged verse narrative. “Allen, my wife Linda, and me had fun making up seventeen-syllable Hakes, a game we played for a few months. When it came to Standing Stone, inspired by my contact with Allen, I decided to write an epic poem as its background. I would draw on images in the poem to conjure up some of the work’s musical themes. When I mentioned Standing Stone to Allen, he snapped his fingers and said, ‘Great title.’

In discussing Standing Stone, it becomes clear that McCartney closely associates passages in the poem with sections of the score. Even so, he feels that the work’s extra-musical dimenson is not intented to dictate the imaginative response of listeners; likewise, his use of a computer program should be regarded as a compositional aid, invaluable to McCartney but of little importance to his audience. The technology employed, however, did affect the outcome of certain sections of Standing Stone, notably so at one point in the second movement dubbed by the composer “Lost at Sea.” The accuracy of his notational software relied on themes being added strictly in time with a regular click-track, a restriction that he found irritating to the point where he ignored it altogether. “I left it waltzing away in three-time, while I’d moved into four-time. The print-out was hardly an accurate picture of what I wanted.” David Matthews, a leading British composer and erstwhile Beatles fan, revised the computer’s unconventional handling of music notation and advised on matters of orchestral balance and phrasing, unfamiliar considerations for McCartney. “Lost at Sea,” strikingly atonal and densely complex in its polyphony, was transcribed note-for-note from the computer by John Harle.

McCartney independently quizzed Harle and EMI record producer John Fraser on who would be the best person to review and polish the Standing Stone score; both men suggested Richard Rodney Bennett without hesitation. The New-York-based Bennett’s credentials could hardly be bettered for the task. He’s a former pupil of Pierre Boulez, composer of everything from grand opera to award-winning film scores, a cultured jazz and concert pianist, and one of the best orchestrators in the business. Did McCartney feel that his work would be hijacked by the views of such strong-minded musicians as Bennett, Harle, and Matthews, three characters who might easily have engaged in competition with each other and try to mold his work after their own? “I sensed that could be a problem from my experience of producing records. The first thing I said to all of them was that I wanted Standing Stone to be my piece and that I was worried their involvement might change that. They understood exactly what I meant, so they kept out of the way while guiding and helping whenever necessary.

At first, Matthews felt that Bennett’s skill at handling the sounds of a symphony orchestra would confuse the identity of the work as drafted on the computer. McCartney invited Bennett to orchestrate his brief piano piece, Spiral, to test if they could collaborate successfully. “I had to reassure David that my music wouldn’t get swamped beneath Richard’s scoring. There were ample precedents for working that way: I wrote “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yesterday” for just me and guitar, and then worked with George Martin to augment the songs. That’s all I wanted anyone involved with Standing Stone to do. If I could give a song to George Martin and not worry about what he would do to it, then I had no problem in doing the same with someone like Richard. I didn’t trust my judgement as far as orchestration was concerned, so I needed someone to oversee that side of things. I wanted that help, and was satisfied that Richard was the man.

With Spiral sensitively treated and Bennett’s sharp sense of humor proving equally appealing to McCartney, the senior composer was handed the first draft of Standing Stone. “There were a few moments that he didn’t like and, happily enough, I shared his opinion. We never had any big squabbles, although he once said that a section was little more than Scotch tape, just a quick fix. ‘You’re dead right,’ I said. ‘But be gentle, we’ve got egos here.’

McCartney asked Bennett to avoid using words like “feeble” in his frequent faxes. “I had enough problems not being able to notate what I was composing! ‘Just say it’s not up to par, Richard.’ There were parts that he reorchestrated, which is exactly what I wanted him to do. That was what set me free in Standing Stone. I wanted him to leave my notes unchanged, but improve my original orchestration wherever necessary. Good scholars of music will be able to detect the difference, but to anyone else the scoring is quite seamless. The understanding was that if I hated what he did, then it would go.

For the benefit of eager musicologists, there are four substantial sections of Standing Stone enhanced by either Bennett or Harle, most obviously so from the former composer in what McCartney describes as the score’s “scarf-waving” final pages and the “Lost at Sea” music. “John did me a huge favor in taking the music from the computer, laying it out for orchestra most beautifully, and still keeping it almost note for note what I’d written.

Harle was given greater creative freedom in the third movement’s “trance” sequence, while the addition of lyrics to the finale’s closing theme followed Richard Rodney Bennett’s advice. “Love is the oldest secret of the universe,” sings the choir at the end of the work, a sentiment thoroughly explored by the Beatles and still presented without apology by McCartney.

The natural, unaffected expression present in the Standing Stone love song sits comfortably enough beside the score’s grander, more mannered moments. How does McCartney answer the inevitable charge that he should stick to what he does best and leave the composition of symphonic works to others? “I think it’s vital to develop,” he replies, “even if it’s to avoid becoming jaded. That’s why I enjoy painting now, because it’s new to me. I figure I’ve got as much right as anyone to paint, or write poetry, or compose for orchestra. So long as I find it fascinating and some others find a degree of merit in it, then it’s worth doing. It’s a free country; it’s allowed.

Besides completing Standing Stone, McCartney has also fashioned a horn quartet, usefully contributing to the small repertoire of works for the medium, two piano miniatures, and a string quartet for the Brodsky quartet. “That was a real stretch for me. I could never have predicted that one day I’d write a ‘modern’ string quartet. I’ve got to the stage in my life when I don’t want to do things I dislike. If I don’t do what I really want now, then I’m being pretty stupid. It’s everyone’s dream to earn enough money to have the freedom to do what they want, but the habit of doing the other is ingrained so deep with most people that by the time they’re earning enough they can’t devote themselves to what matters. It excites me to do big pieces. I played Standing Stone to a young rock ‘n’ roll drummer friend the other day only expecting him to listen for a few minutes and found that he was blown away by the whole work. He could see what I was doing musically and wasn’t frightened off. I’m thrilled that I’ve been able to accomplish something like this, especially as there were a million things standing in its way.

More than thirty years after George Martin highlighted the demands of writing a symphony, still unable to read musical notation, and without the benefits of a conservatory education, Paul McCartney has composed an orchestral piece that will wrong-foot his critics and appeal to a wide audience. “I want people to come at this with an open mind.” It remains to be seen if Standing Stone is blessed with the staying power of Sgt. Pepper, but the new score has been given a chance of success thanks to careful preparation and a wealth of attractive tunes.

Last updated on March 4, 2019


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