Saturday, October 07, 2006

Paul McCartney – Ecce Cor Meum (Behold My Heart)

I’ve tried really hard to concern myself with art rather than personalities despite our society’s obsession with who’s going out with who and all of the garbage that passes for news. To say that Heather Mills McCartney has been treated poorly by the press (especially in England) is an understatement. Did she ask for some of it? Maybe. She did seem eager to share in Paul’s spotlight once they were ‘an item’ and it could be argued that what has gone on is the inevitable backlash of that. But, the simple fact is, I don’t know what went on and I like Paul’s music so I’m predisposed to like him more than Heather in this pending divorce thing. I’m sure Paul feels better now that he knows I’m on his side.

All of this is preamble to saying that, while I try not to notice such things, they inevitably have some influence on a person’s art and so knowing the back-story can be helpful in interpreting what they create. I’ve mentioned before how it seems that Chaos and Creation was actually a huge hint that all was not well in Paul-land and that Driving Rain showed more grieving over Linda than I first thought. Nonetheless, I’ve always felt that Paul never really let his art speak of his grief after Linda died. His first album after her death was Run Devil Run, an album of mostly covers of old obscure rock songs. Paul said that she always pushed him to do more rock so this was a tribute to her. OK, I can buy that – but for a guy who writes as much stuff as Paul does, you’d think there would be more than that. What I didn’t realize was that there was. Ironically, Paul used the opposite medium, a classical composition, to work out his grief in music. The piece, Ecce Cor Meum has been something like eight years in the making. Paul was commissioned to write this choral piece by Magdelen College, Oxford so, evn before Linda’s death, Paul started working on some of the melodic ideas, not knowing what he was going to do about the text. After Linda died he was in a church and saw a statue of a crucifix with the inscription “ecce cor meum” which means, behold my heart. This phrase struck Paul as an expression of what he was feeling over the death of Linda and gave him the impetus for the text for this hour-long choral piece.

Paul’s previous textual writing for choir has been spotty at best. He may well be responsible for one of the worst pieces of text that a choral group has ever sung with the finale to A Liverpool Oratorio – “God is good without an ‘O’, the devil is evil with a ‘D’.” I’m not making this up. So when Paul decides to get serious and use Latin to do it that might well be an indication to go for cover.

The piece, four choral movements with a short wordless interlude between the second and third, opens with “Spiritus.” The opening phrases set the stage – “spiritus, spiritus, lead us to love / spirit of holiness, teach us to love / spirit, show us how to live in pure love.” It goes on more or less like that for fifteen minutes. In three more movements Paul refers to his heart, love, a sense of loss and the importance of music in expressing that. Depending on your attitude going in to it, it comes off as either pretentious or a pretty good attempt to try to express the grief that losing a partner brings. It is never maudlin but comes off as heartfelt and sincere. Unfortunately, Paul’s theology is wishy-washy at best. Trying hard not to offend anyone, he sees God with a mix of Hinduism, Deism and gooey nice feelings.

The music itself is quite nicely done, feeling a lot more like an actual classical piece than merely a rock star trying to be serious. McCartney’s sense of melody is obvious throughout and, while the choral writing is not stunning, it does the job. The emotional heart of the piece is the wordless interlude (Lament) in which the solo oboe captures the spirit of what Paul has been trying to say much better than his words do. The dynamic range of this recording makes it challenging to listen to in the car – my primary listening spot – but this is true of many classical pieces. I’ve especially enjoyed listening to it through headphones, where I can really concentrate on it.

One wonders if Paul would have been this forthright in telling of the genesis of Ecce Co Meum had he not recently split with Heather. He tends to keep such things close to his vest, actually – surprising for someone who can seem to be an attention junkie. He has made no mention of Heather or of recent difficulties in any of the press relating to this album but one has to wonder. Perhaps it was the rocky state of his second marriage over the past few years that caused him to dive back into this piece as a salve. He has referred to music as therapy and I can see that that he may well have used this piece as one way in which he worked through his loss. In many ways this is the album I was looking for when Driving Rain came out. I remember being disappointed that Paul seemed to go straight into being happy about Heather without letting his fans see him reflecting on the loss of Linda. Not that I had any right to see those feelings but after listening to his music for over 40 years I felt like I wanted to at least share a little bit of his loss with him. Now I feel like I can.

This album is not for casual pop fans who are interested in what McCartney is up to these days. But for those who want additional insight into this artist and want to hear him take some melodic and harmonic ideas and stretch them out over an extended piece, I find this an enjoyable listening experience.

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