"Standing Stone", Paul McCartney's second large-scale classical work, is a symphonic poem of epic proportions based on a Celtic legend written by McCartney himself. McCartney freely admits that he cannot read or write music and has never had any schooling in the "rules" of classical music. In order to give form to this piece, he decided to create his Celtic story of the origins of mankind and the mystery of human existence upon which to drape this symphonic work. For those wanting to read this legend, be assured that it is included in what is perhaps the thickest set of liner notes I have ever seen with a compact disc, including the composers thoughts on the piece as well as a brief history of the first performance and a few sketches Paul made while writing his poem. To get the music in his head into musical notation, he played or sang each part into a computer which would recognize the note and then create the written musical notation. And the result? As a long-time Beatles fan, I really wanted to fall in love with this piece. However, the lack of a strong central theme in a piece this long (over 74 minutes) and the hodge-podge of influences and styles ranging from Holst to Ives to gypsy themes to minimalism left a lot to be desired. The huddled masses, however, feel otherwise as this piece has been #1 on the Classical charts all winter. I am not trying to say that the piece is completely devoid of substance. Much the opposite, as trademark McCartney melodies are skillfully woven into the fabric at many key points. The more I listen to the piece, the more nuances I uncover, and the more I like it.
The symphonic poem opens with a dissonant crash of randomness, a primitive rainstorm signifying the creation of form out of chaos. One doesn't have to wait long to hear the first of many beautiful melodies, this one played by a solo horn portraying the beginning of life. Continually layered over the piece is a full chorus, though except for a short section near the end, this chorus provides mood and texture but does not sing words. Overall, the first third of the piece is energetic and exciting as it depicts fire and the beginning of life. The tempo is mostly upbeat and it is easy to hear McCartney being excited about the creation of a new orchestral piece, bringing his Celtic legend to life. The second third drags along with only a few good melodies and a double helping of still, near-silent expanses, almost as if the composer was unsure of how to bridge the gap between the beginning of his story and his clearly perceived conclusion. However, the final section is back in mood with the first, portraying a rustic celebration and dance complete with peasant tunes and jigs, filled with an abundance of memorable melodies that could only have written by Paul McCartney. Overall, an impressive and massive (albeit inconsistent) undertaking for someone who has never studied composition and a worthwhile addition to the musical library of any Beatles fan.
This article first appeared in WhatzUp, March 1998.