Paul McCartney – Ecce Cor Meum
(Q) How did Ecce Cor Meum come about?
(PM) I was originally asked by Anthony Smith, the President of Magdalen College, Oxford. He basically wanted to inaugurate a new building and wanted this piece ready for that. But as time went on, I said, ‘I’m not sure that I’ll be ready for that’ – it took longer than I thought.
I was very excited by the idea. Linda and I went up there and stayed at the college. We went to the chapel, we heard the choir sing – the work that the choir were doing was very interesting, and a lot of it I had never heard before. Harmonically, it was all very interesting – I thought ‘Wow!’ It showed me the palette of where you could go and that was how it all started.
(Q) How long did it take to complete?
(PM) I’m not entirely sure…probably between about eight to ten years, but I haven’t actually counted. Writing a choral piece was a huge learning curve for me because my experience is basically doing harmonies with The Beatles. The idea of formally structuring something like this and making it work was a huge undertaking that was always going to take a little while. I was going at it completely raw so logistically sorting out how to go about it was a big task. But my theory was that Magdalen wouldn’t have asked me to do it if they didn’t think I could. Also, I thought about why they had asked me instead of all the other perfectly good choral composers around, and I figured that it was because they must have wanted something different. So I just got on and started writing it and went on from there.
I got off to a good start and was getting quite a bit of speed on. Then about a year or so into it, Linda passed away which immediately held things up and it went right on the backburner. Consequently, I lost all momentum that I had gained in that first year and had to slowly start putting it back together. One of the ways that I did this was to just sort of write my sadness out; there is a lament in the middle called Interlude (Lament) which was very specifically grieving over Linda. I remember playing it to someone and they started welling up, which was great because I hadn’t told them that it was anything to do with Linda, but something in the chords communicated itself to this person, who was listening to it for the very first time. My colleague and I remember actually just sitting at the keyboard, just weeping whilst doing this piece, so it does it to me every time. It was a very emotional, very sad time for me.
So those were the reasons really; this sudden loss of momentum fairly early on, coupled with the fact that I was just learning as I went along.
(Q) Bearing this in mind, that you were learning as you went along, did you come across any particular difficulties or anything that particularly troubled you?
(PM) The whole thing was a huge learning curve for me, so there were a couple of things. Firstly, being a complete innocent in the field, I found out fairly late on that most people start by finding a text and setting it to music – this would have been very convenient to know at the beginning, but I didn’t! So I started writing the music and then putting my own text to it. It was a funny moment when I realised – I was at a reception where there were a lot of choral writers and somebody came up to me with a glass of white wine and we were standing there talking and he said, ‘Tell me, what text have you used?’ and I had to say that I was making it up myself. I suddenly thought, ‘Oh god, I get it now!’ They take texts like an old French poem and they set it. I thought, ‘God, I wish I’d known that!’ Doing it my way, which is probably considered the wrong way round, was a task, but it was one that I enjoyed.
I get so excited about being offered a project that I don’t think ‘Do I know how to do this?’ which most people would think – you know, ‘Can I fly a plane?’ before they agree to fly one! I just got so excited that I immediately went and started thinking of melodies and tunes and harmonies and I was doing this on a computer programme. It was a learning curve and I learnt a lot. If I now set out to do another choral piece, there would be a lot of mistakes that I wouldn’t make again.
The good thing was that I had a preview at the Sheldonian in Oxford where we just banged up pretty much where I was up to at that point, and I realised that, for instance, I was overworking the boys. A really experienced choral writer would realise that little kids, for instance, young boy trebles, can’t be given huge sustained passages because they just haven’t got the energy and stamina to handle that. These kind of things I was just finding out as I went along, because of course I had written the piece on a computer and the computer can sing forever without ever running out of breath. The boys however did run out of breath! So we had to go back and look at things again – re-organise and re-structure things. These are the sorts of things that choral writers must be taught – don’t kill your choir! I’m sure that these are very basic rules, but I had no idea, I was just learning as I went along.
(Q) What was your inspiration behind the piece?
(PM) It started off with just a combination of thoughts – things that interest me, things I wanted to say. It was most definitely thoughts rather than a full story from start to finish.
I originally was asked to do a narration for John Tavener in New York and I agreed to do it because I had known John for a long time. But I did have some reservations about it all because, of course, I was going to have a regional accent. But John pointed out to me that the poet whose work I was using would have had a regional accent (he was a Greek living in Egypt so would have had a regional accent) so I agreed to do it.
So we went to New York and we were sitting in this very beautiful ornate church, waiting for my moment, listening to the rest of the programme. I was looking around and I saw a crucifixion. Underneath it said ‘Ecce Cor Meum’ and I worked out, by dredging my mind for the Latin that I had learnt at school, that it meant ‘Behold my heart’. I have always had a fondness for Latin, mainly because it is the basis of so many English words. I had this affection for the word ‘ecce’ – I had remembered it from school, but also from an incident on holiday one time. There was an older lady on the beach who I would meet every morning when I was going for a swim and she always used to do a crossword – she had it faxed in…the Telegraph crossword or something…a little hobby. I would come past when I went for a swim and say, ‘How are you doing?’ and she would say, ‘Oh great, thanks’ and I’d go for a swim. But this particular morning she said to me, ‘Oooo, I’m stuck – I don’t know any Latin. The clue is ’behold‘, four letters.’
I said, ‘I think you will find that’s ecce.’
‘Are you sure?’ she said, and I said yes. So of course the next morning when she got the new crossword with the answers from yesterday, I was the big hero – she said, ‘Fantastic!’ It really made me remember this word!
What I also liked about it was that by using Latin I wasn’t hanging it on any one particular religion. I was thinking about the Latin word for spirit, ‘spiritus’, and felt that this better described the spirit of holiness across all religions – all religions have a god, so I wasn’t excluding anyone. I’ve got a lot of friends who are Jewish for instance, and if I am just doing a Christian piece then they’ll come and listen to it but they may not be able to associate with it and relate to it quite as much.
So the idea of ‘behold my heart’ started the idea for the lyrics for me and I just started questioning what that meant to me. From this I began thinking about things I would like to talk about which were mainly general subjects like nature or relationships or things like that. I began writing a list of thoughts from there onwards and that’s really how it all started.
(Q) What was your original inspiration to take this different direction?
(PM) I can remember back in the 60’s when I had written ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and I was very excited by the idea that this wasn’t a band, it was actually just string players. I thought, ‘Wow, we can actually make a record with just strings. I might have been in my mid 20’s at this point, and I remember thinking, ’What am I gonna do when I am 30?‘ – 30 seemed like the end of the world! Now, it seems like a very young age! But I had this image of myself in a tweed jacket, with patches on the elbows and a pencil and some manuscript paper, and I thought, ’That’s what I will do – that’s what I will do when the Beatles runs out.‘ In fact I didn’t do it until much later – I continued from the Beatles with Wings and solo stuff, but I did do it in the end.
(Q) Do you have a favourite composer/composition?
(PM) There are lots of pieces that I like, but if I did have to choose something, I think it would be Chopin’s ’Nocturnes’ – I come back to them all the time.
(Q) What is the attraction of classical music for you?
(PM) It is something completely different – a completely different ball game. I normally write 3-minute songs, which is like writing a short story. But writing a classical piece is a novel – you have to look at structure because you can’t just tack together a little bunch of short stories that don’t relate. The whole idea of it being a completely different form is very interesting.
I love working with an orchestra because of the colours on the palette and the excitement of what you can get out of them by using combinations. I love working with choirs – all the big classical bits that I have done have had choirs. One of the reasons that I realised that I liked that was when I was doing the Liverpool Oratorio, I realised that they come from all different walks of life – you can have a plumber standing next to a gynaecologist in a choir and you would never know. It is just their love of music that brings them together – this rich human mixture. Choirs are a pretty democratic mob and I like that.
I also just like the noise a choir makes. I try not to make it too fruity because I don’t like it too fruity – for instance, one of the things I am not too keen on is a warbly, vibrato soprano because it sounds a little old-fashioned to me. When I was working with Kate on this piece I would sometimes get her to straighten out a note which was a fascinating process, because if you get that note exactly right in the end, it can be quite emotional. So in answer to your question it is just a fascinating process that I really love and it is completely different from my day job.