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Since the premiere of his “Liverpool Oratorio” in 1991, Sir Paul McCartney has been repeatedly impelled to compose concert music. In 1997 his second large-scale work, the choral-symphonic poem “Standing Stone,” had its premiere; it not only hit the top spot on both the British and American classical charts but earned him National Public Radio’s New Horizon Award, in recognition of his work broadening the appeal of classical music.
Speaking by telephone from his studio in England, Sir Paul says that his primary aim with his classical works is that they be “accessible, so that people in Cleveland can perform them, or people in Helsinki or Tokyo. I’ll meet someone in a grocery store in Orange County wearing a Liverpool Oratorio T-shirt. So I’ll say, ‘Excuse me, how come you’ve got that?’ And they’ll say, ‘Got it when I sang in it.’ Then we have a chat about it. And that is very much what it’s all about for me.“
Next Tuesday, EMI Classics is releasing the CD of the four-movement oratorio “Ecce cor meum,” with the London Voices, the combined boys choirs of Magdalen College, Oxford, and Kings College, Cambridge, and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under conductor Gavin Greenaway. This is Sir Paul’s third large-scale choral work and took him nearly eight years to complete. That long gestation has yielded a richly melodic score (no surprise from one of the most felicitous lyrical inventors of our time). The influences are apparent — Sir John Tavener’s serenity, the timeless quality of Gregorian chant, the comforting warmth of Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), a clarion touch of Giovanni Gabrielli (1558-1613). But the score’s stylistic homogeneity shows an advance over the greater eclecticism of his previous concert works, and the engaging quality — the voice — is pure McCartney.
Sir Paul mentions that the whole project started with an invitation from Magdalen College, Oxford, to compose a new work to commemorate the 550th anniversary of the college’s founding, which was to be celebrated in 1998.
While deliberating about the text, he was invited by Sir John Tavener to be the narrator in a Tavener work that was being performed at New York’s St. Ignatius Loyola Church. “I was a little reluctant,” says Sir Paul, “because I thought that my voice was, perhaps, a bit regional for a narrator. But John assured me that the Greek poet of his text, a bloke called Cavafy [Constantine Cavafy, 1863-1933], had been brought up in Alexandria, so he himself would have had the equivalent of a regional accent.” In the church, Sir Paul’s eye was caught by a representation of the Crucifixion, beneath which was the phrase “Ecce cor meum” (the first word of which he pronounces with a hard c, as he was taught in school). “I worked out the translation, ‘Behold my heart,’ which to me meant ‘let me show you what’s in my heart, the things that are important to me.’“
From that idea he evolved “a kind of prose poem in English.” Then, he asked the Latin tutor at Magdalen to translate his text into Latin. “I wanted to see if there was anything exciting there. And there were a few words and phrases that I liked and eventually used. One of the words I didn’t use was the Latin for song, ‘carminibus,’ which sounded to me like a sort of hybrid automobile.“
That choirs feature in all three of his full-length works prompts me to ask if Sir Paul himself sang in school choirs. He responds that he did sing for a short while in the choir of Liverpool’s St. Barnabus church, in Penny Lane. “I used to turn up at this old church, go in the back door, put on my surplice, fall in with the choir, and try to look suitably holy. But though I quite enjoyed the experience of dressing up, I can’t remember any of the music we sang.“
Subsequently, he says, he did try out for the choir at Liverpool Cathedral. The prize included free school books. “That appealed to my parents, who weren’t very well off. And the chance to sing in a grand cathedral appealed to the theatrical in me.” Although he made it to the last few rounds, he didn’t make the final cut. Nevertheless, he says with a chuckle, “I got my revenge with the Liverpool Oratorio, which was performed in the cathedral, so I returned there in great splendor.“
Because he had no formal musical training, Sir Paul says that when composing, “I’ll have some happy accidents, if I’m lucky, and I’ll find my way in via the knowledge I gained through the Beatles and Wings and through my pop music career — I hate that term — you know, my other career. I’d explore things I’d learned there, like harmony and melodies.“
Those harmonies and melodies actually preceded the text of “Ecce cor meum,” he says. “Then I had to fit all my words to the music I had already written. Sort of customize it all.“
I ask if he feels his composing technique has progressed since the previous work. “With the ‘Liverpool Oratorio’ and ‘Standing Stone,’ I’ve been learning what goes into the making of big pieces,” he says. He is also quick to credit several musical associates, among them EMI recording producer John Fraser. Nevertheless, because he composed “Ecce cor meum” entirely at a synthesizer, which not only allowed him to produce melody and harmony but choral and orchestral textures at the same keyboard, he did find “things I was doing that I needed to correct. For instance, when I played the work for some choirmasters, they informed me that I was murdering the choir by giving them too much to do. At the same time, I hadn’t been writing enough for the orchestra to do. So I started adjusting, taking a bit of music that overtaxed the choir and giving it to the orchestra. Eventually we got it right: The trebles of the boys choir don’t get too exhausted, the main chorus of voices don’t get too exhausted, the orchestra has plenty of nice passages to shine while the voices are resting.“
Composition took longer than he thought it would — in fact, the first version of the work wasn’t ready until 2001. Personal matters, as well as musical ones, both caused the delay and inspired the beautiful Fauré-tinged interlude for solo oboe and wordless choral accompaniment between the second and third movements. “I started composing the score while Linda was alive,” he explains, “and I was getting on quite well. Then she died [of cancer in April 1998]. And I couldn’t work. But that interlude was one of the things that got me working again, because it was really a lament for her. And I vividly recall sitting…at the computer, writing that piece and just weeping.”
During the work’s gestation, he would play this episode for people without telling them anything about the music. Each time, they were emotionally moved. “And,” he observes with almost childlike wonder, “every time this happens, it strikes me as fantastic that just some chord structures and a melody can touch your heartstrings this way.”
Last updated on March 9, 2019