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Back Tracks: Paul McCartney, Working Classical – From “Liverpool Oratorio” to “Ocean’s Kingdom”

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Tucked between album opener “Taxman” and “I’m Only Sleeping” on Side One of The Beatles’ 1966 LP Revolver, “Eleanor Rigby” heralded an explicit attempt by the pop giants at pushing the musical envelope, both with its despairing lyrics and classical-inspired arrangement for a string octet.  Primarily the composition of Paul McCartney, “Eleanor Rigby” defied the odds to hit the top spot on the British charts (a double A-side single with “Yellow Submarine”) and hit the No. 11 spot in the United States.  Beatles producer George Martin was inspired by the work of cinema legend Bernard Herrmann in crafting his arrangement, while McCartney’s choice of a string backing may have been influenced by the work of Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), the composer perhaps best known for the violin concertos The Four Seasons.  McCartney had, of course, previously employed strings for “Yesterday,” the 1965 Beatles song often recognized as the most recorded popular song of all time.

By the time 1991 rolled around, there were few heights that Paul McCartney hadn’t scaled, both as a Beatle and as a solo artist.  Although he had flirted with the orchestral medium via the score to the 1967 film The Family Way, his central theme composition was developed by George Martin.  It was perhaps inevitable that one of the world’s most renowned melodists would turn his attention to the classical realm and dive headfirst into it.  Beginning with that year’s Liverpool Oratorio, composed with Carl Davis, McCartney has released a steady stream of classical works.  The most recent of these projects, Ocean’s Kingdom, arrives in stores today!  Setting to music the tale of a clash between the worlds of sea and land, Ocean’s Kingdom provides the soundtrack to a ballet commissioned by the New York City Ballet. 

Longtime readers might recall our first Back Tracks column devoted to The Cute Beatle.  Today’s installment begins with our look at Ocean’s Kingdom before we revisit the complete full-length works of renaissance man Sir Paul McCartney, working classical!

Paul McCartney’s Ocean’s Kingdom (Hear Music/Concord/Universal/Telarc/Decca, 2011)

Many pundits can’t help but notice that Ocean’s Kingdom marks the first time a Beatle has headlined on the Decca label.  Decca, of course, famously rejected the Fab Four when the band auditioned for the venerable company in 1962.  Well, it’s at least fitting that McCartney’s proper Decca debut is of a landmark recording, his first ever ballet score.

Writing for a ballet presents its own set of challenges, as the composer must reflect both the onstage plot and the characters’ emotional states without resorting to dialogue or sung lyrics.  McCartney’s cinematic score largely succeeds on these counts.  Ocean’s Kingdom consists of four movements detailing love story between royalty above and below water.   Princess Honorata hails from the Ocean Kingdom and Prince Stone from the Earth Kingdom.  Unsurprisingly, the earthmen are the nominal heavies in McCartney’s oceanic fantasy which takes in a grand ball, love at first sight, an abduction and eventually a marriage.

The opening movement “Ocean’s Kingdom” is stately and majestic.  Strings wash over the listener in this movement, which is alternately atmospheric and indicative of action.  (McCartney arranged the ballet himself in collaboration with London Classical Orchestra conductor John Wilson; their work has been orchestrated by Andrew Cottee.)  McCartney brings the central string-based motif in the first movement to a grand, swelling conclusion.

Movement 2, “Hall of Dance,” begins jovially, with brass passages both humorously slinky and woozy.  There’s some lovely writing for woodwinds even as the movements becomes more frantic and fast-paced.  Despite its title, Movement 3, “Imprisonment,” doesn’t get too dark.  McCartney’s score is vivid in telegraphing the emotional through line.  Melancholy atmospherics pervade the score here, and some of the darker, ominous musical phrases recall the sweeping film music of film’s Golden Age.  McCartney, Wilson and Cottee supply enchanting orchestral colors, with flutes and celli making an impression. 

The climactic Movement 4, “Moonrise,” offers big, bold fanfares with a strong air of the fantastic.  It’s particularly in this movement that McCartney’s love of Disney animation and fairy tales shines through.  It’s surprising that McCartney still hasn’t scored a feature-length animated film, a medium to which he would be ideally suited. 

Ocean’s Kingdom is succinct, with a running time of less than one hour.  If it’s not easy to discern the action onstage in an audio recording, the mood is certainly conveyed.  The album is marked by McCartney’s typical playful touches and an abundance of melody, even if the format doesn’t allow one theme to take off and soar the way a compact song or even a stand-alone film music cue does.  But it’s not surprising that the self-admitted ballet novice, well, took to it like a fish to water.  If you’re a fan of McCartney when he evokes a pre-Beatles musical landscape, you’ll likely find Ocean’s Kingdom to be an enchanted kingdom.

Hit the jump to meet us in Liverpool, circa 1942, by way of 1991’s Liverpool Oratorio!

Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio (EMI Classics, 1991)

Sir Paul’s first excursion into the classical realm was this 1991 oratorio, written for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s 150th anniversary.  The composer didn’t test the classical waters with a small effort.  Rather, Liverpool Oratorio called on some of opera’s biggest names (Kiri Te Kanawa, Jerry Hadley, Willard White, Sally Burgess) in the soprano, tenor, bass and mezzo parts, respectively.  Carl Davis, known as both a conductor and a composer of film scores, wrote the oratorio with McCartney.  Though the melodies here are more “For No One” and “Eleanor Rigby” than “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Helter Skelter,” McCartney and Davis seem to have consciously avoided traditional “song” form and lyric structure in this operatic work.  Kiri Te Kanawa’s aria “The World You’re Coming Into” and Jerry Hadley’s “Kept in Confusion” present the most attractive themes.  Over eight movements, Liverpool Oratorio tells the simple story of Shanty, born in 1942, and his working-class family.  It’s not coincidental that 1942 is also the year of McCartney’s birth.  Hadley portrays Shanty, the McCartney analogue, and Te Kanawa is his wife-to-be Mary Dee. The movements have broad titles such as War, School, Crypt, Father, Wedding, Work, Crises and Peace. 

Though McCartney looked to his roots for the inspiration behind the libretto and characters of Liverpool Oratorio, the music doesn’t pastiche the styles associated with the war era.  The score draws on much older British oratorio traditions, in addition to sacred music and folk balladry, with the occasional dissonance.  Critics at the time were mixed, but some compared McCartney’s premiere classical effort to Benjamin Britten, Gustav Mahler and even musical theatre legend Richard Rodgers.  Surely this is fine company for anyone to keep.  McCartney made it clear that he didn’t attempt for the album to appeal to the “crossover” market by including pop/rock flourishes.

The 97 minute Liverpool Oratorio was recorded live in performance on June 28 and 29, 1991, and released on two discs from EMI Classics.  It was also available in single-CD highlights form. Initial pressings of the Japanese edition of the album came with a bonus 3″ CD featuring a six-minute interview with McCartney.  Two singles were released from the oratorio. “The World You’re Coming In To”/”Tres Conejos” was issued in the U.K. in September 1991 and was followed in November by “Save The Child”/”The Drinking Song,” which was also issued in the U.S. that month.  Finally, the BBC documentary Ghosts of the Past, and directed by Geoff Wonfor and Andy Matthews, detailed the writing process of McCartney and Davis as well as the rehearsal period of the stage production.  It was released on video and laserdisc, and accompanied the concert itself on the EMI DVD.

Paul McCartney’s Standing Stone (EMI Classics, 1997)

McCartney’s second classical work, Standing Stone, was the result of another commission, this time from EMI in celebration of its centennial.  The choir-and-orchestra work was this time purely musical, not telling a story via lyric and sung dialogue as in the oratorio.  Instead, the “symphonic poem” was inspired by an actual poem of McCartney’s which it musically accompanies.  The poem is reprinted in the CD booklet, and “describe[s] the way Celtic man might have wondered about the origins of life and the mystery of existence.”

Standing Stone, its cover adorned by a striking Linda McCartney photograph, premiered at London’s Royal Albert Hall on October 14, 1997 and the recording appeared shortly after McCartney’s “return to form” album of originals, Flaming Pie.  The four-movement piece took in both classical and jazz forms, and although the sole credited composer, McCartney called on recognized names in both fields to collaborate.  Steve Lodder initially transcribed McCartney’s instrumental piano demos, and then McCartney called on John Harle, David Matthews and Richard Rodney Bennett, a composer equally at home in the jazz and classical fields as well as a noted film score composer.  (Saxophonist Harle shared a collaborator with McCartney.  Harle’s 1997 album Terror and Magnificence was recorded with McCartney’s one-time lyrical partner Elvis Costello.)

The work is built as four movements: “After heavy light years,” “He awoke startled,” “Subtle colors merged soft contours” and “Strings pluck, horns blow, drums beat.”  John Fraser returned from Liverpool Oratorio to produce the recording which hit No. 1 on the U.S. classical charts and even cracked the Top 200 album chart!  It’s more accessible than Liverpool Oratorio, with each piece standing on its own melodic merits, and the varying styles make for a varied, interesting listen.  Standing Stone was also released on DVD, with both the 81-minute concert and a 52-minute documentary on the disc.

Working Classical (EMI Classics, 1999)

Although his first two projects both met with great commercial success, Working Classical represented McCartney’s biggest stab yet at a wide audience for his classical work.  Julian Haylock’s liner notes draw a straight line between the fourteen pieces contained on the album to “Yesterday,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “She’s Leaving Home,” “For No One” and “Penny Lane.”  Although the composer avoided reprising any Beatles songs on Working Classical, McCartney revisited solo classics like “Junk,” “My Love,” “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “The Lovely Linda” in tribute to his beloved wife, who had recently passed away from cancer.  Other familiar titles reclaimed from the artist’s pop catalogue include “She’s My Baby,” “Calico Skies,” “Warm and Beautiful,” “Somedays” and “Golden Earth Girl.”  In addition to these songs, McCartney contributed three new orchestral compositions “A Leaf,” “Tuesday” and “Spiral,” and two new pieces for string quartet, “Haymakers” and “Midwife.”   The London Symphony Orchestra plays all of the album’s orchestral works, while The Loma Mar Quartet performs the remainder.

Sir Richard Rodney Bennett returned to orchestrate “Tuesday” and “Spiral,” while the orchestrations for “A Leaf” were written by Broadway’s Jonathan Tunick.  Stephen Sondheim’s orchestrator of choice, Tunick received the first-ever Tony Award for Orchestration for his work on Maury Yeston’s Titanic, and had an early triumph with Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s Promises, Promises.

One recording of “A Leaf” predates Working Classical.  It was first performed by noted Russian pianist Anya Alexeyev, at a concert at St James’s Palace in London in 1995.  Alexeyev’s performance from the charity concert An Evening with Paul McCartney was released as a CD single in the U.K. in April 1995.  Working Classical remains the perfect entrée to McCartney’s classical oeuvre.  Christopher Swann’s 75-minute documentary of the same name was released on VHS but awaits a DVD edition.

Ecce Cor Meum (EMI Classics, 2006)

Between 1999 and 2006, Paul McCartney traversed the avant-garde with Liverpool Sound Collage (2000) and Twin Freaks (2005), organized The Concert for New York City in the wake of the devastating attacks on September 11, 2001, embarked on hugely successful concert tours, and released two pop/rock albums, Driving Rain (2001) and Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005).

Although McCartney had contributed the composition “Nova” to EMI’s 2000 Linda McCartney tribute album A Garland for Linda, Ecce Cor Meum marked his return to the full-length form.  He chose to write in the style of sacred English choral music, a tradition dating back roughly half a century.  He was inspired by a New York concert of the music of former Apple Records recording artist John Tavener.  While waiting to perform at the concert at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, McCartney recalled, “I was looking around the church and I saw a statue, and underneath it was written ‘Ecce Cor Meum’. I had done some Latin at school and I always had a fondness for it. So I worked it out. I believe it means ‘Behold My Heart’.”  Ecce Cor Meum was written with text in both Latin and English and actually premiered in 2001 at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, England, some five years before a recording of the oratorio was released.  McCartney used the opportunity of the live performance to hone the work for its eventual album.

Ecce Cor Meum was recorded in Studio One at Abbey Road Studios in March, 2006 by performers including Kate Royal (soprano), the boys of Magdalen College Choir, the boys of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields. The conductor was Gavin Greenaway.  The Magdalen College Choir had performed the four-movement work in its 2001 debut.  The 2006 EMI album, produced by usual suspect John Fraser, topped the U.K. classical charts and came in at No. 2 in the U.S.  The album was initially available in both a standard edition and a deluxe version with an embossed cover and 60-page booklet containing an essay and the complete libretto.  A companion DVD was also released.  In McCartney’s own words, the words and music of Ecce Cor Meum are intended to reflect his own personal philosophy of “faith in a benevolent spirit.”

Paul McCartney’s own spirit, not to mention his workload, has hardly waned in recent years.  In addition to Ocean’s Kingdom, 2011 has already seen his engagement to Nancy Shevell, and the premiere of Albert Maysles and Bradley Kaplan’s documentary The Love We Make, which chronicles his efforts in putting The Concert for New York City together.  Just days ago, he joined Ringo Starr, Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono for the London premiere of Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison documentary Living in the Material World and even took time to pose with Ono on the red carpet.  A new album mixing both standards and original songs in the spirit of the Great American Songbook is said to be in the offing.  Yes, Paul McCartney, who turns 70 in 2012, won’t be entering his seventh decade quietly.  Both rock fans and classical enthusiasts alike should have much to look forward to when the bard of “Yesterday” looks towards tomorrow.

Written by Joe Marchese

October 4, 2011 at 14:16

3 Responses

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  1. Not to nitpick (but then I wouldn’t be me, would I?) but the Family Way soundtrack was a Decca release, so that label only had to wait four years to rectify their mistake.

    While I’m at it, there’s a piece near the end of Liverpool Oratorio including the line “Do you know who you are?” In the making-of documentary there’s a scene where Paul explains to the singers that he used that because it was one of the last things John Lennon heard, from a police officer in the car he’d been piled into. The bug-eyed looks of horror on the singers are priceless.

    ward

    October 4, 2011 at 15:40

    • Indeed, feel free to nitpick away, Ward. That’s what we’re here for! Although Macca doesn’t perform on either disc, I consider the “Family Way” soundtrack to be performed, as credited, by the George Martin Orchestra, whereas Paul is the proper credited artist on “Ocean’s.” Still, point taken – and thanks for sharing the anecdote!

      Joe Marchese

      October 4, 2011 at 15:56

  2. This is nice and all, but is there any word about further Wings reissues? Where is Ram?!

    JC41

    October 5, 2011 at 18:02


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