Surprising gifts to classical music fans from rock artists

The Thinker by Rodin

Paul McCartney is not a name one associates with classical music. In fact, simply hearing the pop star’s name associated with such a genre is likely to cause the classical music purist to recoil. “Tut tut, move along”, they are likely to tell us. “Nothing to hear there!” On the other hand, they might complain that Paul McCartney’s “classical” music amounts to a dumbing down the genre. Instead of being serious music, it is pop classical music, and thus should be avoided.

Having finished my second listen of Paul McCartney’s latest foray into classical music, Ecce Cor Meum (Behold My Heart) this classical music aficionado feels more closely aligned to Duke Ellington who once said, “If it sounds good, it is good.” Ecce Cor Meum, Sir Paul’s nine-year musical quest to pay requisite homage to his late wife and the love of his life Linda McCartney, is good. It is meticulously orchestrated and is filled with choral music that delights my middle-aged ears.

It is not only good, in my book it is classical music. To say it is not suggests that any classical music written since Vivaldi is not classical either. Classical music, like any genre of music, is bound to morph over time. If I am to dismiss Paul McCartney’s classical music, I should also dismiss Aaron Copland for brazenly inserting pedestrian Shaker hymns into his music, or diss George Gershwin for Rhapsody in Blue because of its heavy jazz influence. Heck, I should throw out my Gilbert & Sullivan collection, because of its simplicity, pervasive humor and continued popularity. It seems to some classical music purists that it cannot really be classical music unless it would make your typical pimply faced teenager immediately recoil.

One characteristic of classical music is the complexity in the variations on musical themes that unfold as one listens to it. To me this is one of the principle joys of classical music and is what truly distinguishes it from other forms of music. When I am in the classical music zone, it is much like being on a boat at sea. Each wave is a subtle but different restatement of the one you heard before, and waves of different kinds may be coming at you from different directions. Yet somehow, they interlock, like puzzle pieces. When I am in the classical music zone, even if the piece is unfamiliar, I can anticipate the next few cords, but never get it quite right. Like a detective novel, the best pieces of classical music wrap up neatly in the finale. All the tensions and variations are resolved and there is little else to do at the end other than sharply inhale and, after a live performance, applaud.

In that sense, Ecce Cor Meum may disappoint. These are subtleties of the genre that McCartney either has not fully grasped or has chosen to avoid. Nonetheless, this 57-minute work of music, broken into four parts with an interlude often surprises and delights. It suggests to me that McCartney is simply putting his stamp on classical music. It may be a bit different, but it should not be objectionable. My favorite part of Ecce Cor Meum is the second movement (Gratia) wherein Sir Paul expresses musically just how grateful he is to be the recipient of Linda’s love.

Ecce Cor Meum is both moving and profound. Linda McCartney’s death of breast cancer may have been untimely, but it had the side effect of bringing out something resembling genius from Paul McCartney. Few of us can adequately express the love we feel for our spouse, but Paul found a way through music to express his overflowing sense of love, appreciation and deep gratitude for the joy and meaning that Linda brought into his life. Essentially the work is a musical love poem for Linda. By writing it, Linda has become immortal. Moreover, the work is of sufficient quality that long after Paul has departed it will live on, to humble and delight lovers and music fans everywhere.

Ecce Cor Meum is not Sir Paul’s first work of classical music. His first foray into the genre was in 1991 when he wrote Liverpool Oratio. I became familiar with this side of Sir Paul shortly after he released Standing Stone in 1997. Standing Stone is an impressive piece of classical music too. While it is perhaps a bit more chaotic than Ecce Cor Meum it is overall an amazing work of music and well worth your time and attention. Both works suggest that Sir Paul has a fundamentally optimistic and joyful perspective on life. Both works at their core are sweet and tender. You do not often find this in music coming from my gender, thus it is noteworthy when it occurs.

Unlike George Gershwin, Paul McCartney had no training in classical music. In fact, Paul has never learned to write music! This makes all of his music, but particularly his classical music, all the more remarkable, since he has to work closely with a transcriber. It also explains why his classical music upsets more than a few in the genre. However, free of the constraints that come with classical music training, Sir Paul is able to do things with classical music that would otherwise be taboo. In that sense, he is liberating classical music, and perhaps sowing the seeds for a future revival of classical music.

Paul McCartney is not the only pop star who has made the foray into classical music. More than one rock star has borrowed, in some cases quite heavily, from classical music or have written their own classical music. Others more learned than I can point to numerous examples. Two that I am aware of include Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson. Keith Emerson wrote an impressive work of classical music thirty years ago when Emerson, Lake & Palmer were nearing their break up. In Works, Volume 1, Emerson records a remarkable piano concerto, Piano Concerto No. 1. So that it does not get lost, I have included this link (17 MB, WMA) for your listening enjoyment. I hope that it inspires you to pick up the CD. As far as I am concerned, the rest of the CD is largely worthless, since I am neither a Greg Lake nor a Carl Palmer fan. I have looked for other classical works by Keith Emerson, but this seems to be a one-time wonder.

If you have examples of others known for rock or pop music that have turned out classical music, please leave a comment. I along with others would probably appreciate the opportunity to sample some of these odd delicacies.