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For former Beatle Paul McCartney, it’s the music that matters, as his fourth foray into classical composition eloquently shows.
“My school music lessons were non-existent. Our class teacher would put on a record of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky then go out to the common room for a coffee and a smoke. We’d post a guard on the door and get the cards out. Then the cry would go up that he was coming back, so we’d put the cards away and move the stylus to the end of the record. He’d come in and ask, ‘So what did you think of that, boys?’ ‘Loved it,’ we’d say. That was how every music lesson went!”
Paul McCartney has been chatting to me for 30 minutes and, apart from when I ask him if Ecce Cor Meum, his oratorio, is dedicated to anyone – “It isn’t. I’d liked to have dedicated it to Linda but I was married to someone else and that presents a big problem. Now I’m divorced, I think it’s best it remains as it is” – he makes no mention of his well-publicised marriage problems, his error in saying “I’m divorced” simply betraying his understandable desire to put the whole business behind him. Instead, the 64-year-old former Beatle puts away the problems of his personal life and concentrates on talking about his life’s work and greatest passion: music.
“I used to hear all sorts on the radio as a kid. Some pieces really fascinated me and I only learned later that they were classical. One stands out – Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk. And another: Peter And The Wolf.”
He proceeds to whistle Prokofiev’s famous tune note-perfect, emphasising its distinctive augmented fifth interval.
“Now that’s a very odd note to go to. Prokofiev could have done this [he whistles the more predictable major fifth] but that would have been boring. Discoveries like this were really exciting to me, and I think it was the same for millions of other kids who were hearing classical music for the first time. Radio was very helpful in that respect.”
McCartney says this subconscious exposure to classical music gave him a highly developed appreciation of melody and harmony that influenced his writing style in later years.
“It was all forming in my mind, educating my musical tastes, so when I started writing stuff like Yesterday for the Beatles I would know I wanted certain chord structures. When I got together with George Martin [the legendary Beatles producer] and heard his string quartet arrangement of the piece I thought, ‘Ooh, this is great. This is an interesting new direction. I love the rock and roll, love what we do as a band but this is interesting.’ So we started to apply a more classical sound to songs like Eleanor Rigby.”
But it wasn’t only classical music that informed the young McCartney; the songs of the 1930s made an impression, too.
“John [Lennon] and I loved the old songs. They were part of our heritage. I loved that bit, ‘How strange the change from major to minor’, in Cole Porter’s Every Time We Say Goodbye. The first time I heard the chord change I thought, ‘What happened?’ It excited and intrigued me.”
Interestingly, McCartney’s fascination with shifting major and minor tonalities may have contributed to the Beatles losing one record deal and winning the next. “I love the old Mexican song Bésame Mucho precisely because it starts in the minor and then goes to the major [he sings the changeover]. But again, I didn’t know until later that it was the tonal shift that was doing it for me.”
Perhaps the A&R man at record label Decca, to whom the Beatles played Bésame Mucho as part of their audition set as an unsigned band, was less impressed by shifting tonalities because he famously sent the band into the arms of his opposite at EMI, where McCartney has remained.
On this evidence of his unfamiliarity with music theory and harmony, one can only marvel at McCartney’s ability to spin a great tune. Time and again during our conversation he returns to the topic, never once expressing regret about not learning to read music, never mind understanding harmony. Perhaps he fears that if he had, he might have lost his heaven-sent gifts in an instant. But where did McCartney’s reluctance to learn music originate?
“It all happened when I was a kid going to piano lessons with the old lady down the road. I did the usual five-finger exercises. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this isn’t what I think music is.’ It seemed like homework to me, so I stopped. I tried again when I was 16 but by then I was writing songs. I’d written the melody to When I’m 64; it was all in my head.”
“But when I say ‘I can’t write music’, I can; I just can’t notate it. I remember one occasion when John and I were writing and we both said, ‘Oh God, we can’t notate’. Someone said, ‘But the great Pharaohs never wrote. They had a scribe to write everything down.’ Me and John thought, ‘That’ll do us!’ So we never tried to learn; instead, George did it for us. We just went with the Pharaoh theory.”
It’s a theory that has served McCartney well, not least with his latest work Ecce Cor Meum. The four-movement oratorio, plus instrumental interlude, is scored for large choir and full orchestra. How did he manage to marshall these forces and get it all down on paper?
“I worked on a computer. Sounds simple but you have to do it accurately. The computer had to be told everything. For example, I didn’t realise some parts had to be in treble or bass clef, so you had these ladders of notes [ledger lines that extend the music stave] going lower and lower until someone pointed out a bass clef was required. They’d hit the keyboard and ‘chink’ they all printed properly!”
“So I had musical associates working with me on Ecce, but a rule I made was that all the notes had to be mine. They might say, ‘That’s too high for the horns’, so I’d listen to them and suggest the clarinets or oboes take the notes. They helped me arrange and notate, but the piece is totally mine.”
McCartney’s reliance on “musical associates” is a departure from his previous choral work, the Liverpool Oratorio. Then he was working hand-in-glove with the composer Carl Davis. A DVD of the work, released in 2004, shows McCartney singing snatches of melody while Davis scribbles furiously, suggesting appropriate instruments and voices.
“Carl was extremely helpful,” says McCartney. “He helped me avoid mistakes. He’d say, ‘Well, you just killed the soloist’. In Ecce Cor Meum, I never went there.”
The work was commissioned by Magdalen College, Oxford. Its president Anthony Smith invited McCartney to compose a piece that would set the seal on the college’s new concert hall. His vision was for “a choral piece that could be sung by young people the world over”. He can’t have imagined it would take McCartney eight years to write…
“It was always going to take a little while. I had to work out, logistically, how to do it and I knew that Magdalen could have asked all the perfectly good choral composers around, so they must have wanted something different.”
“Another reason was Linda passing. I’d been working on Ecce for a year and was well into it when she passed away. So it went right on the back burner. I lost all the momentum I’d gained in the first year and had to start putting it back together. I did that by writing the ‘Interlude (Lament)’. I like that piece. It was very specifically grieving over Linda. It’s very emotional for me to listen to but in a great way, a nice way. I played it to someone and they started welling up without knowing the background. I didn’t tell them. ‘That is good,’ I thought. I’m very happy about that.”
There was also the small matter of not quite understanding what he was doing. For example, in his enthusiasm, McCartney tore straight into the music without once considering the text – so he had to fit words to the music he’d written. “That took a long time,” he admits.
I’d assumed McCartney had taken his text from the Bible. Not the genius lyricist of Yesterday; McCartney wrote the text himself. The work’s title was inspired by an inscription McCartney saw in the Church of St Ignatius Loyola in New York, while waiting to perform in a concert of music by his friend, the composer John Tavener.
“I saw a crucifix and under it the words ‘ecce cor meum’ (behold my heart). I had this affection for the word ‘ecce’. I had remembered it from Latin lessons at school and once, on holiday, when I talked to a woman on a beach – she was stuck on a crossword puzzle and it was this word ‘ecce’, and I was able to translate it for her. I felt really proud, so it stuck in my mind.
“So I thought ‘behold my heart’; this could really be ‘behold my philosophy’ – this is what I think, these are my thoughts on life so far. So I started to think, what are they? Love would be very important, and spirit. No matter what religion you are, we’ve all got a God and we’ve all got this spirit of holiness. And I didn’t want to exclude anyone. So I started with ‘Spirit lead us to love’, ‘Holiness lead us to love’ – show us how to live in love. And then words and thoughts started to develop.”
So now McCartney was battling to write for soloists, chorus and orchestra. He’d assumed that because the new piece was a choral work, the chorus would be singing all the time. This was fine while he was writing on the computer, but in the real world, with real voices, a major problem began to emerge.
“A computer can sing anything; it never gets tired. But of course real people do. I took the music to people who sing in choirs and they said, ‘It’s a really hard sing, Paul. You’re gonna kill people.’ So I had to reconsider the whole thing.”
But he claims the experience only benefited the work: “Every time I revisited it I’d say ‘I like that, I don’t like that…’. So I’d be giving some work to the soloist, some to the orchestra; now giving the boy trebles something to do, now the orchestra while the boys rest; now the full choir and then the sopranos; let them have a rest and let the tenors and the basses work. It was like organising a massive tour and making sure everyone’s fed and rested, and, importantly, along the way the piece gets colour and texture.”
One thing he was sure about was that his leading soprano should not have, in his words, “too fruity a sound”.
“I’m not keen on a warbly soprano; it sounds old-fashioned. I like plainsong, which doesn’t have vibrato, so we worked, Kate [Kate Royal, the soprano on the new recording] and I, on a way to get it right. I’d ask her to give me a pure, non-vibrato sound on Spiritus, Spiritus, Lead Us To Love, and at the end she’d give just a little vibrato, a little feeling.”
Later, following my interview with McCartney, I ask Royal about working with McCartney on Ecce: “Paul heard my recent disc of Purcell’s music for Queen Mary and liked the reserved, clean sound I had. It’s what made him approach me for Ecce. He wanted a natural sound; not an operatic warble. He was open to changing vocal lines where they didn’t work, for example where the music stressed the wrong syllable.”
It all sounds a far cry – and a lot more work – from writing for a four-piece pop band. Not that McCartney’s a stranger to writing classical music; this is his fourth classical piece following the Liverpool Oratorio, the orchestral work Standing Stone and his collection of classical arrangements of Beatles songs and new material, Working Classical. He compares the two genres – pop and classical – to a short story and a novel.
“I’m usually writing a three-minute song, maybe seven minutes if it’s like Hey Jude. They’re short stories. But a classical piece is like a novel: long and complex.”
And with classical music he gets to work with much larger forces and, occasionally, choirs… “I love working with choirs because you realise the people who sing in them come from all walks of life. You can have a plumber next to a gynaecologist! You get this rich human mixture.”
A plumber next to a gynaecologist? Despite his much-publicised problems, McCartney’s Liverpool humour repeatedly bobs to the surface during our conversation. It was there in those legendary Beatles performances and it’s here, over 40 years later, amid the stress of divorce. But make no mistake, McCartney still takes his music seriously.
“Composing classical music is a fascinating process. If you get it right at the end, it can be very emotional.”
Listen to the Interlude (Lament) in his new oratorio, and you’ll hear just how emotional.