When Sir Paul’s tone poem Standing Stone was first premiered, and then released as a CD in 1997, it attracted a very mixed reception.
Sir Paul McCartney
In fact I rather like to see the musical purists get their underwear in a bit of a twist when they try to tell us how bad something is, how derivative, how shallow, how it sounds as if it has been written by a committee, and, how dare you step over the musical boundaries and try your hand at “serious” music. In other words elitism at its worst. And believe me if there was a decree from No 10 and the White House tomorrow that all music be left in the hands of the purists, then music, all music, would die very quickly, and good riddance because none of it would be worth listening to.
And McCartney’s Standing Stone is worth listening to, and more than once.
Sir Paul’s first recorded effort at ‘serious’ composing (as if composing hundreds of popular songs was not serious for goodness sake) was his 1991 Liverpool Oratorio which I remember as a tremendously moving piece of work that quite naturally showed the influence of Elgar (who made the oratorio his own in the early 20th century), but to my ears much more that of Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax, plus a good helping of John Tavener and Malcolm Arnold, who were, and are, masters of assimilation, as is McCartney — you only have to listen to Sgt Pepper, the early Wings recordings, and some recent solo McCartney, to understand what I’m getting at; and without assimilation art, any art, cannot move ahead, cannot be creative.
And it’s the same with Standing Stone, McCartney’s first real stab at a symphonic piece. It worked in October 1997 when it was premiered and released, and it worked last night when, with Hilary, I listened to it again.
This is what McCartney has to say about Standing Stone in the liner notes to the CD:
“I’ve spent much of the last four years composing what has now become my second large-scale classical work, the symphonic poem Standing Stone. Unlike the Liverpool Oratorio which features prominent roles for four solo singers, Standing Stone relies entirely on colours and effects drawn from the orchestral and choral forces. With no soloists to propel the “story” and to help keep me on track throughout the writing of about 75 minutes of music I wrote a poem in which I try to describe the way Celtic man might have wondered about the origins of life and the mystery of human existence.”
And it is there that we have the secret of this piece of wonderful music – that of man wondering what life is all about. It’s the same secret we discover when we look at Anthony Gormley’s 100 iron men looking out to sea from Crosby beach – their solitariness, their stillness and their fortitude. It is what we hear in this music, especially in Part 9, where McCartney introduces a melody of such simplicity and beauty that it almost breaks your heart (which has come from a good deal of contemplation and experience), and what we hear too in the music of Sir Malcolm Arnold who, like McCartney, was criticised by those damned purists for being popular. And the more I listen to Standing Stone the more I realise that Arnold has undoubtedly been a greater influence (consciously or subconsciously) than any other composer on McCartney’s symphonic music, but not in a negative sense. The underlying echoes of Arnold (Sir Paul might disagree) come through to me as a kind of homage to a man who shared many of Sir Paul’s ideals and beliefs, and, like Paul, wrote music from the heart.
Then it occurred to Hilary — who has recently started a campaign to save Gormley’s “Another Place” at Crosby — that McCartney’s Standing Stone is effectively the soundtrack to Gormley’s magnificent work on that haunted, industrial, almost derelict beach, and that McCartney’s wonderfully evocative, emotional music must, somehow, be performed there.
Standing Stone, recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, and conducted by Lawrence Foster, is available on EMI Classics.