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Is Paul McCartney’s Ecce Cor Meum the oddest break-up album ever? An oratorio composed for choir and orchestra, it was commissioned by an Oxford college that wanted, in the words of its then president, who clearly inhabited a particularly lofty ivory tower – “a choral piece which could be sung by young people the world over, in the same way that Handel’s Messiah is”.
It may be a rum idea but McCartney isn’t a totally outlandish choice of composer. He has made several previous forays into classical music, though none so ambitious as Ecce Cor Meum, whose title is Latin for “Behold My Heart”, and which took him almost a decade to compose. During its making his first wife Linda died and he embarked on his disastrous second marriage to Heather Mills, the fall-out from which hangs like a toxic tabloid shroud over the piece’s world premiere in London.
Pointedly dedicated to Linda, the recorded version is a bracing listen for those of us whose appreciation of string arrangements lies more along the lines of “Eleanor Rigby” than Handel. Gone are the generous harmonies and whimsy of McCartney’s pop songs, replaced by sonorous instrumentation and stately devotional singing. It’s a very straight, deferential take on classical music, which left this pop fan grasping gratefully at stray familiar references – a perky brass passage recalling Brian Wilson, say, or the mad-scientist organ solo that erupts quirkily in the final movement – while ruing the absence of McCartney’s musical signature elsewhere.
I found the emotional tone of the piece easier to discern. Opening with a choir singing lines such as “Spirit of holiness, show us how to love”, it fuses themes of divine and romantic love in a manner so grandly orchestral that it seems to elevate McCartney far above the undignified media circus surrounding his current divorce.
Although he began writing Ecce while married to Linda, and turned it into a requiem for her after her death, he stopped working on it after marrying Heather Mills in 2002. That he should return to it after the marriage broke up suggests the oratorio represents a sort of refuge to him: “Here in my music I show you my heart,” as one of its choruses runs.
The underlying message is the healing power of love – “Love is all, love is our true nature,” the choirboys sing, sounding like falsetto hippies – even as the events of McCartney’s personal life prove the opposite. “But still we are able to pull through/Even though we may have nothing else,” the oratorio concludes, with the optimism characteristic of Mc-Cartney. It’s just a shame he couldn’t translate more of himself musically into Ecce.
A new album called Aluminium represents a very different crossover between pop and classical music, and one I can recommend warmly. It’s a collection of songs by The White Stripes rearranged as orchestral pieces, which sounds like some inner circle of gimmicky Muzak hell but turns out to be a genuinely inventive exercise in musical transformation. Several of the songs are to feature in a new piece choreographed by Wayne McGregor for the Royal Ballet this month.
The album describes itself as “avant garde” but is nothing of the sort. Avant-garde composers long ago gave up on melody; these reworked songs in contrast stay true to the brutally, brilliantly simple riffs and hooks that run through The White Stripes’ music. Inventively scored orchestral arrangements add flesh, replacing Jack and Meg White’s minimal guitar-and-drums set-up with a multitude of instruments. The resulting classical pop hybrid resembles prime Leonard Bernstein: a stabbing, dramatic type of music that suggests The White Stripes owe as much to Broadway as to Led Zeppelin and Robert Johnson.
‘Ecce Cor Meum’ is premiered at Royal Albert Hall, London, on Friday. Tel 20 7589 8212. ‘Aluminium’ is out on November 6 on