Paul McCartney's 'Standing Stone'
Created | Updated Apr 11, 2023
I enjoy the fact that I can work both ways. I'm Gemini and we are supposed to like this and that, it's slightly schizophrenic. I like to ring the changes and I got involved in orchestral music because I wanted to stretch myself. But I don't want to lose my roots. I'm always working class, I'm always from Liverpool and my roots are always in rock & roll - but I like the odd cello.
- Paul McCartney
The first major classical work by the former Beatle Paul McCartney was his Liverpool Oratorio of 1991. McCartney was hugely attracted to the idea of what he saw as the freedom of large-scale composition compared to the few minutes' duration and small instrumental resources of a pop song. He loved the idea of having a full symphony orchestra at his disposal. He called it 'the ultimate synthesiser - there's so much you can do with it'.
The Liverpool Oratorio had been commissioned by the august Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society to celebrate its 150th anniversary. McCartney's performers included the opera singers Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Sally Burgess, Jerry Hadley and Willard White, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the choir of Liverpool Cathedral.
The Liverpool Oratorio has certain semi-autobiographical elements in the character of Shanty, the Liverpool war-baby growing into manhood (McCartney was born in war-torn Liverpool on 18 June, 1942), and has references to Everyman finding himself, and finding peace and family harmony.
Then in 1993 McCartney was commissioned by EMI Records to compose a major orchestral work to mark EMI's 100th anniversary in the autumn of 1997. Standing Stone premiered in October 1997 before a capacity audience in the Royal Albert Hall, London. It was performed by some 300 members of the London Symphony Orchestra and London Symphony Chorus, conducted by Lawrence Foster. It was also recorded by the same forces at the famous Abbey Road Studios in London. McCartney wrote at the time about his second large-scale classical work:
Unlike the Liverpool Oratorio... the symphonic poem Standing Stone relies entirely on colours and effects drawn from orchestral and choral forces... 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 in which Celtic man might have wondered about the origins of life and the mystery of human existence.
The poem (also called Standing Stone) is quite a long one of about 250 lines; it is divided into four sections each named after its first line. Although McCartney calls the music a 'symphonic poem', he does stress that the musical work is intended to stand alone without help from the poem. The music is, however, divided into four movements, with titles identical to those of the four sections of the poem. The orchestral effects are many and varied, particularly in the percussion department, and the choir effects are too. Although the choir does sing, at the end of the piece, a tuneful love song to McCartney's own words, for much of the piece it is used more as another orchestral instrument, with wordless or monosyllabic utterances or vocalisations creating interesting effects.
McCartney sees this as a natural progression from his Beatles days, when they would experiment a lot and use odd instruments that happened to be lying around - hence, for example, the innovative added part for piccolo trumpet in Penny Lane. This sort of experimentation was one of the things that made the Beatles so different from everyone else, of course. And McCartney enjoyed working with all sorts of musicians, including classical musicians as long as they weren't too stuffy. So he was pleased to collaborate with composer-conductor Carl Davis in the Liverpool Oratorio, and with a number of musicians (notably including John Harle and Richard Rodney Bennett) in Standing Stone.
McCartney worked for a while on this new EMI commission, mostly at an electronic keyboard linked to a computer. This set-up would apparently produce some weird-looking printouts and, in the process, some very interesting noises. He decided to link this work-in-progress with his poem about the mysteries of the dawn of mankind, following his research into the ancient Celtic and pre-Celtic legends and the awe-inspiring megaliths, menhirs and other monuments of the past. He was particularly inspired by a spiral design in the entrance stone to the prehistoric passage grave at Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland.
People still have deep feelings for these ancient stones even though they do not understand their mysteries, and it is the inexplicable fascination of standing stones that inspired the title of the work. It is not feasible to assign a definite story-line which can be followed through the various passages and movements of the music, but it is possible to provide an outline of what is being evoked from time to time.
'After heavy light years'
The work begins with an image in sound of the formation of the earth, a depiction of chaos and uncertainty gradually resolving itself into some comparative stability. Then the rains seem to come, cutting through the texture. After a short period of tranquillity a rainbow begins to form.
Woodwinds begin hesitantly to depict the gradual emergence of simple, primitive life forms. The story moves on, hastening towards the birth of mankind. Humans are here, and the movement ends in a positive and optimistic mood.
'He awoke startled'
A lone human stands upon the shore: this is the 'first person singular'. Mankind has arrived, to face all the challenges of the world. He swims across to a crystal ship, and stands on deck as it carries him out to sea. The music becomes vibrant and luminous. The direction in the score at this point is 'Pulsating, with a cool jazz feel'. The ship becomes lost in a storm at sea. The music is atonal and includes many 'mistakes' and 'wrong notes' which cropped up during the computerised composition process and were deliberately left in the finished work.
After a while the storm quietens down, the fog lifts, the ship seems to find haven, and order and harmony are restored.
'Subtle colours merged soft contours'
This is pastoral, reflective music, flowing gently and delicately in the flutes and clarinets, with a touch of piquancy added here and there by intentionally 'wrong' notes. First Person Singular comes to an island and in gratitude for a safe landfall decides to raise a standing stone. For the first time, other people appear. They welcome him, and agree to work with him to help him raise the stone.
But news is brought by a messenger: marauders are approaching from the north. The people are frightened. First Person sees it as his duty to help his friends, the village tribe he has come among. He takes an ancient potion and enters a trance-like state in which he can commune with the gods. The gods tell him to convince the marauders that he has the power to make the sky fall.
The gods assure him that all will be well, and the marauders are scared off by an eclipse of the moon. Cue moonlight music.
'Strings pluck, horns blow, drums beat'
The music is full of celebration and victory. At one point we hear the sounds of a ceilidh. An orchestral jig precedes the final hymn of celebration.
McCartney wrote that he wanted everyone to leave feeling happy after a performance of Standing Stone, and feeling that they had understood most of what they had heard. So in conclusion he gives us a fine uplifting love theme, first in the orchestra, then with the choir singing unaccompanied, and then in a full version as a grand finale.
The final message of Standing Stone is that mankind's whole journey is about love. Love is the most natural thing in the world. Love is the oldest secret of the universe. Love is all we seek, and all you need is love.