- The Washington Times - Monday, September 25, 2006

Paul McCartney

Ecce Cor Meum (Behold My Heart)

EMI Classics

Paul McCartney is one half of one of the greatest songwriting duos of the 20th century, though aside from a few piano lessons as a child, he never had any formal music training.

So when he turned his considerable talents to the classical sphere, starting with 1991’s “Liverpool Oratorio,” the critics were more than ready to pounce.

Now with “Ecce Cor Meum (Behold My Heart),” Sir Paul’s fourth classical album, the knives can go back in their drawers. This four-part oratorio is a full-scale, fully connected piece of concert music — in contrast to his last two classical albums, which featured mostly shorter works.

He has taken greater pains with this composition, it seems, than he usually does. The commission for the piece came from Anthony Smith, president of Magdalen College, Oxford, who wanted a new work to inaugurate the college’s new concert hall. That was more than eight years ago; Magdalen’s concert hall has long been built and opened, and Mr. Smith is no longer the college’s president.

Mr. Smith wanted a choral piece which could be sung by young people the world over, something equivalent to Handel’s “Messiah.” Those are rather large shoes to fill. Though Mr. McCartney hasn’t written something as memorable as that oratorio, he has composed what may be his first truly mature work in the classical music genre.

“Spiritus,” the first movement of “Ecce Cor Meum,” opens with a spare chant. The vocals — performed by the Boys of Magdalen College Choir, a chorus from Oxford, and the Boys of King’s College Choir, Cambridge — sing “Spiritus, spiritus, lead us to love. Spirit of holiness, teach us to love. Spirit, show us how to live in pure love.” The sentiment will be familiar to anyone who knows the Beatles’ oeuvre, and the voices (which soon welcome the orchestra) are beautiful, traveling half steps up and down. Drums then enter the piece, adding movement and an almost military flavor.

“Spiritus” turns out to be the work’s most developed movement. Mr. McCartney imbues this music with a grand dignity, and it fits effortlessly into the English tradition — from Sir Edward Elgar, another self-taught composer, to contemporary works by John Tavener.

However, the work’s libretto, mostly in English with some Latin, isn’t always sophisticated. In the second movement, “Gratia,” for instance, we get, “How the rivers flow / We may never know / But it goes to show /Something is there.” Yet when soprano Kate Royal sings these simple words, she lifts them out of the banal. Her strong, high voice seems perfectly suited to the English work, so this movement — with its lyrical melodies provided by strings and flutes — is a joyful pastoral.

While he was at work on “Ecce,” Mr. McCartney’s beloved first wife, Linda, died of breast cancer in 1998. Her spirit is “very much in this,” he has said — perhaps nowhere more so than in the “Interlude (Lament)” that follows the second movement. The four-minute interlude, featuring voices but not lyrics, is not as sad as its title might suggest. Its lyricism, particularly David Theodore’s oboe, seems more optimistic than despondent.

“Musica,” the third movement, begins with more chanting voices. It also has some of the most creative words of the piece, such as this couplet: “Music is the servant of the Queen and King / Who are happy if we smile but are delighted if we sing.”

The lyrics aren’t as good, though, in the final movement, “Ecce Cor Meum”: “And then our positive feelings are threatened/Unless we can pull through / To the opposite side / Nothing else remains” doesn’t make for a strong, emotional ending. Still, Mr. McCartney ends with a musically energetic note. The organ, recorded at the Tower of London, doesn’t have its best moment in a solo here; the music seems a bit sloppily written. When it’s relegated to the background, however, it serves as a strong foundation for the rest of the orchestra to follow.

You can hear traces of Mr. McCartney’s pop sound throughout the hourlong work. Mark Law’s piccolo trumpet is reminiscent of “Penny Lane.” (Mr. McCartney, in fact, may have gotten his first taste for the trombone on the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” album.) Even the words sometimes echo those of the Fab Four: “Life aboard this fast revolver still remains a magic mystery.”

“Ecce Cor Meum” was recorded at Abbey Road, with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by Gavin Greenaway. The London Voices add a deeper note to the boys’ choirs, and all the musicians more than ably execute Mr. McCartney’s sometimes complex arrangements and harmonies.

“Ecce Cor Meum” is a hopeful work, both in its music and libretto. So Mr. McCartney, the man who can write a melody better than anyone, finally has found a new outlet for his talent. This might be the album that marks him as a classical composer for a new century.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide