Paul McCartney's first symphonic work, Standing Stone, received its premiere last night at the Royal Albert Hall, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Our critic Rob Cowan asked whether Beatle music had entered a great classical tradition.
Legend and landscape sit at the heart of Sir Paul McCartney's symphonic poem "Standing Stone". It's a return to Celtic roots, charted among large choral and orchestral forces, a dream of redemption, of victory and love. The tunes and ideas are McCartney's own, the architecture and the brightest clothes in his orchestral wardrobe have come care of his collaborators John Harle, Richard Rodney Bennett, David Matthews and jazz musician Steve Lodder.
McCartney's narrative had already found verbal fulfilment in a lengthy poem where primal chaos, flood and fire father a man who awakens, boards a crystal ship, survives a storm, helps natives ward off invaders and ultimately finds love. It's the archetypal folk tale and suggests, at least to this listener, music in the raw - ruddy-faced tunes, angry rhythms, lonely soliloquies and tender dialogues. Some of them find their way into "Standing Stone".
The introduction gets back to basics on a rhythmic flurry of unstopped strings; the sparely scored first minute or so of the Safe Haven that opens the third movement smells of heather, and the questioning Lament that symbolises primitive man's drug-induced recourse to the supernatural has genuine pathos. Much of what is best in "Standing Stone" is simple, direct and selectively orchestrated - songful music that sits happily among a handful of players.
But most of the bigger guns misfire. When, for example, a messenger brings news of potential attack from foreign hordes, McCartney throws out a string of "foreign-sounding" tunes that skip aimlessly between instruments, and the effect is vaguely comical. What should have been a disorientating Lost At Sea sounds like Benjamin Britten floundering at the edge of some atonal whirlpool. A wordless chorus suggests ethereal vistas a la Disney, while the finale's Eclipse conjures up oiled gladiators and blood-stained swords.
And yet, follow the same movement for another minute or so and the music suddenly becomes what one half suspects it always wanted to be, contemplative and unself-conscious - and with especially sensitive use of solo strings.
Elsewhere, McCartney's gift for fancy is stifled by ill-fitting formality: what might have been a tousled, wind-blown Rustic Dance sounds like Malcolm Arnold on autopilot and the well-meant, conciliatory ending seems more like a flashback to earlier days at the Royal Albert Hall, when massed choirs sang cosy anthems of the day. The "too many cooks" who helped fashion "Standing Stone's" voice and structure have ultimately depersonalised it.
"Standing Stone" seems more a "stepping stone" which I am
convinced would have led further had McCartney followed his
native musical instincts. He needs, in a sense, to
go full circle, not to go square.
So here is how the piece began. In the beginning was a fireball hurtling through space towards its place in the universe. "So we've this void and this ball of fire, and we know nothing - we don't even know what fire is. I needed to find a sound for that. Something primitive. I needed to rob the players of all their expensive tuition. So for the first 3 minutes or so, we only hear open notes. No fingering. So we've got these open strings in divided cellos and basses kind of rubbing up against each other creating this really earthy rythmic friction. And then comes the rain - pizzicato- and the fire is out. Everything stops and we've this chemical soup. Life begins here. A moment of catharsis. So the players can fingure now - a big sweet chord. A lake of sound." Back in the studio we hear it, this prima lsoup turning to fine rain turning to arpegiated melody - a natural opening for the trumpet solo. An insidious waltz then emerges in the solo fiddle, an extended solo growing freer and wilder. Big modulation (a swathe of harp) and the wordless chorus - human kind- arrives. There is a grand Anglican moment where the chorus - acappella - suddenly acquire the power of speech and the love song finds words. McCartney is thrilled with this moment. Playback the final five minutes of Standing Stone. A solo flute surveys the moors. Its a love song and its McCartney through and through. And it builds and builds to this grand to be alive climax.