The biggest problem that Paul McCartney faces as a classical composer is the fact that he’s Paul McCartney. He needn’t ever release another album — he’s Paul McCartney, and he can live off of that alone. That little British band he was in sometime ago just happened to redefine pop music. Yet no one can fault any of the members for lack of ambition (except maybe Ringo). Of course McCartney would want to dip his hands into classical music for a bit. He gave it his first shot in 1991 with Liverpool Oratorio, a collaboration with composer Carl Davis that was 90 minutes in length. Sir Paul tried again in 1997 with the “classical poem” that was Standing Stone and again in 1999 with Working Classical, a collection of shorter chamber music pieces.
Yet during all of this (and in-between releasing his pop albums), the main criticism still remains a stinging one: he’s Paul McCartney — King of the Pop Song, not the Orchestra Pit. Blur guitarist Graham Coxon said it best when I interviewed him and asked him about possibly “doing a McCartney” and trying his hands at classical. He simply noted how the comparisons are too great, as with pop songs you’ll be stacked up against current chart stars and a few of your “influences”, but “when it comes to classical music you’re up against people like Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff and Chopin”. True story.
So, this brings us to Ecce Cor Meum, which translated means Behold My Heart. With the help of multiple choirs, McCartney — entirely by himself — tries to compose a work that, in the words of the man who initially commissioned it (former Magdalen College president Anthony Smith) would be “sung by young people the world over — something equivalent to Handel’s Messiah“. Unfortunately, such lofty ambitions — despite well-phrased and quite-glowing liner notes by Peter Quantrill — fall short in the long run. Though McCartney is very much not a classical composer, this may be the closest he gets to sounding like one. Opening number “Spiritus”, in its lengthy 12 minutes, somehow manages to imitate just about every style in classical music, right down to a creeping oboe that sounds like it wandered away from Peter & the Wolf. When it comes to the far-better realized “Musica”, not only are we treated to the lovely voice of soprano Kate Royal, but we get a section that actually ties together melodically. Unfortunately, there are multiple moments where McCartney sounds less like he’s composing a classical work as he is a film score (and one to some lightweight romantic-drama, at that).
The three minute interlude (subtitled “Lament”), with is mournful oboe, manages to actually generate more emotional resonance than the rest of the album. Though certain accolades must be given to the eponymous closing work of the album (triumphant and well-executed climax and all), Ecce Cor Meum’s largest fault is staggeringly large: a sheer lack of focus. Messiah and Mozart’s Requiem are staples to this day largely because of the focus — very direct tellings of the story of Jesus, or sheer cathartic mourning. Ambitious in scale and scope McCartney is not. He was never a truly astounding lyricist, and here delivers movement after movement of generic “We Are the World”-styled sentiments. “Music is the servant of the Queen and King/ Who are happy if we smile but are delighted if we sing” is such a phrase in “Musica”. Phrases in praise of joy, love, and music ring throughout, though without any through-line or structure, which can be attributed to the been-there feel of a lot of the work in question.
Ecce Cor Meum remains an enjoyable experience, regardless. It shows McCartney maturing as a composer, but still not crossing that line from “good” to “great” (or universally accepted like Messiah, for that matter). Hope remains, however. Only a year prior did Sir Paul release Chaos & Creation in the Backyard, his finest solo pop effort in years. If he sticks at it, McCartney can still make a true impact as a master of the classical. Until then, he can do what he wants. Why? Because he’s Paul McCartney.