From the President – Summer 2010 #1

Dear Colleagues,

Yes, that is correct! Paul McCartney of Beatles fame and his Oratorio is the subject of my first of eight summer music series introductions. I do not know how many of you know this work, but I have been quite fond of it since I discovered a recording a few years ago (as far as I can figure, it was premiered in 2006?). At any rate, as with any great work of art, repeated hearings and study have helped me realize that this extended work has a lot to offer us, both musically and spiritually.

The idea of using this selection to present at this time is twofold. I am hoping that maybe I might be introducing some of us to literature that you might not be familiar with. The second is a general feeling I have about choral music performance in our area; and maybe even our state? We have such a wealth and diversity of choral music performance happening each year, and I for one cannot even begin to attend all the available performances that I might like to. Yet, for all that activity, I find that the performances are of literature known to us, or the usual offerings of diverse groupings of shorter choral selections. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that; indeed, no one would argue the worth of a Mozart “Requiem,” a Verdi “Requiem,” a Poulenc “Gloria” or a Vivaldi “Gloria.” These are just a very miniscule scratch on the wealth of incredible choral scores that are available to us. But where the paucity lies is the introduction of new choral literature being performed for the choral listening public. I so wish there was a choral group around whose mission it was to bring this music to light. Maybe there is a choral group that is doing so, and if that is the case I stand corrected. However, be that as it may……….

This Oratorio of Paul McCartney’s is worth some study. I have never got around to ordering the score, so all of my thoughts emmanate from my listening. As with all works, it has a story which would be impossible to relate here in depth. But you might enjoy a few thoughts from the liner notes that accompany the recording. Paul McCartney himself suggests that he was an unlikely person to contact to compose this hour long event for the dedication of a new concert hall at Magdelen College, Oxford. He readily admits that “apart from some piano lessons when I was a child, I’ve never had a lesson in composition or notation–and if you haven’t had the lessons you have to figure everything out for yourself. But then, if you haven’t been taught anything and have a happy accident you’re more likely to recognize it.”

I was never a Beatles “fan,” although I always admired their ability at writing beautiful, well crafted melodies. But this piece of writing presents Paul McCartney in a very different light, and there are moments of very sublime beauty, moments of craftsmenship that compare well with the masters, and some moments that bring tears to your eyes and a well of emotion from the heart. So what if the “rules” of traditional composition are not faithfully followed, or at times there are some weak moments where it does not seem to hold together as it might (and don’t all composers have those moments from time to time? In particular I think of some of the fugal writing in the Schubert masses, which are generally considered awkward and weak, are they not?) This work stands solidly on its own two feet as a testament to a genius and a crafter of beautiful melodies. You might remember that Paul McCartney was deeply in love with his second wife Linda, and that in 1998 she died of cancer; and this was as he had already started the composition of Ecce Cor Meum. And there is no doubt that her memory and love is everywhere present in this piece, most poignantly in the “Interlude,” an absolutely extraordinary pastoral elegy for oboe, strings and wordless chorus. It was composed in the midst of McCartney’s grief at his loss for Linda.

The text, as far as I can figure out, is of McCartney’s composition, with a few exceptions of Latin usage. At this point, enough said. I will give you a brief synopsis of each movement and let you decide if you wish to pursue this oratorio. You will NOT be disappointed!

In general I have a few comments so that I will not be making this too long for you readers. There are many beautiful melodic ideas in this piece, and they are used in ingenious ways and also used as unifying musical ideas throughout the work. There is lots of great writing for the orchestra, with many beautiful and well crafted ideas for individual instruments; I especially like his use of the piccolo trumpet in several different places. I might also add that although this is not a specifically “religious” piece, there is a depth and seriousness of intent that makes it deeply personal, satisfying and spiritual in nature. Call it what you may, but this is music of significance.

The first movement (Spiritus) opens with a plainchant-like melody, with the sopranos shortly stating a central theme that connects the entire work together. The text gives you an idea of the character of this movement, and indeed the entire work:

Spiritus, spiritus, lead us to love
Spirit of holiness, teach us to love
Spirit, show us how to live in pure love
Help us now to live in pure love, etc.

The unfolding of the musical material in this movement is organic……moving and very satisfying. Its’ ending is a plea (to humanity?) with the text “teach us to love.”

The second movement (Gratia) is quite extraordinary for its’ beauty, grace and some contrapuntal writing of significance. The soprano solo is very much in McCartney’s hand, but there is an elegance about it that transcends his earlier writing. I have included a clip of this from YouTube….listen to the music and don’t pay attention to the sultry pictures of the soloist!!

We may find a trace
Of a state of grace
In the saddest face
Something is there.

How therivers flow
We may never know
But it goes to show
Something is there.

This guiding light
Will burn so bright
So much wonder around us
All the love in the air
Let the good that surrounds us
Help us to always care………..

The Interlude that follows almost defies description; it will force you to think beyond yourself and to contemplate mysteries unspoken. McCartney was most proud of this short movement. In the following clip from YouTube (really a promotional DVD for the performance a few years ago) you will find some of the opening bars of Spiritus, some of the second movement solo and a short clip of the Interlude. In this clip Paul McCartney has a few things to say about the process of composing this oratorio and some interesting remarks in general.

The next movement (Musica), in the words of the program notes “moves from sorrow to light, gradually increasing in confidence. Basses bring a new theme (Here in the light of your sweet song). This is the heart of the works own song, and indeed, another, more sturdy, hymn-like melody now asserts itself (Behold, this heart of mine). There is a lot of great choral writing here, and it appears not all the easy to negotiate. It is a wonderful movement.

The last movement (Ecce Cor Meum) is the most problematic for me, and yet somehow it works. It is difficult. The chorus picks up a swinging meter, with some “funky string writing that brings a touch of country music to an English oratorio.” There is some minimalist activity, and some really innovative writing for the organ, but than some terrific “stuff” happens that brings it all together and to a satisfying conclusion. The final text is:

Although life sometimes is hard we still pull through
Without truth false shades nothing else remains
But still we are able to pull through
Even though we may have nothing else
Nothing ever remains
And then our positive feelings are threatened
Unless we can pull through
To the opposite side
Nothing else remains.

My recording is on the EMI Classics Label: Ecce Cor Meum by Paul McCartney. Kate Royal, Soprano, Academy of St. Martins in the Fields, Gavin Greenaway, conductor. London Voices, Terry Edwards, conductor. Ben Parry is the Choirmaster. Boys of Magdalen College Choir, Oxford. Boys of King’s College Choir, Cambridge. Colin Carey, Organ, Mark Law, piccolo trumpet, Recorded at (where else??!!) Abbey Road Studios, London!

If you get around to this writing this summer, let us all know your thoughts?


Frank Whitcomb

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