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Features | Wright Writing


A Garland for Linda: Paul McCartney and the healing power of music

By Michael Wright, Sunday Times (1999)

This is the unlikely story of what is arguably one of the most significant days for English music, in the dying light of the 20th century. Unlikely, because nine works by an eclectic mix of front-rank composers are to be given world premieres.So John Tavener, Judith Bingham, John Rutter, David Matthews, Roxanna Panufnik, Michael Berkeley, Giles Swayne, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett and (perhaps unlikeliest of all) Sir Paul McCartney sit huddled together in a public school chapel, murmuming encouragement to one another as their pieces are rehearsed.

This severe, soaring space is to play host, for one night only, to an audience of Surrey stockbrokers, animal rights activists, vegetarians and healers. Decked out in their best commuter-belt chic, they are on their way to experiencing the first performance of an extraordinary choral tribute to the late Linda McCartney, called A Garland for Linda. “I say, it’s a bit of a scream”, says Deirdre Hicks, an elegant lady who used to sing with Vaughan Williams, between sips of champagne on the lawn. “There’s a load of Americans here who bought their tickets via the internet”. She spits out the word as if it were a dead insect, before lowering her voice to whisper, with exaggerated horror: “And they say they’re all here because of the Beatles.”

It is a sunny afternoon, and many of the choir, The Joyful Company of Singers, under conductor Richard Hickox, stand barefoot on the chapel’s altar steps, enjoying the feeling of the cold stone on their skin as they practise their complex parts. They exude that special alertness, despite the heat, which comes from singing and engaging with new music. Or is it that Paul McCartney is sitting in the choir stalls in a salmon pink shirt, listening carefully to every bar?

McCartney is the key to everything, even though it is a visionary businessman called Stephen Connock who has dreamed up A Garland for Linda and magicked the event into existence. Connock’s idea was to emulate A Garland for the Queen, the 1953 cycle of pieces with which 10 leading British composers, including Vaughan Williams, Bax and Bliss, marked the coronation. This time round, however, A Garland for Linda is to provide the impetus for the launch of a new charity called The Garland Appeal which – idiosyncratically – seeks to raise £2m for both cancer research and British music.

“The linking theme is the power of music to move people and to give them a sense of hope if they’re really ill”, says Connock, a cancer sufferer himself, who is currently engaged in writing two books on Vaughan-Williams, and appears to have the temperament of a latter-day saint. Here is a man who is refreshingly adamant that it is just as important to raise money for British music as it is for research into cancer, “because no one is doing it. No one’s raising money for that cause. And this gorgeous music cries out to be performed, and to give people pleasure. For me, a million pounds for cancer is important, but it will not revolutionise cancer treatment. A million pounds for British music can do something fundamental.”

So Connock telephones McCartney, and suddenly the ball starts rolling. With the help of Richard Hickox, the eight composers are assembled. “Everybody wanted to do it because of Paul” explains Hickox. “You can literally feel the love in the pieces for him.” But there is more to it than this: a nerve had been touched in many of the composers by Connock’s suggestion of music’s healing power. “This is not a thing that people talk about much nowadays”, says John Tavener. “Music has become so sophisticated that it has lost its purpose. It is art for art’s sake. It has lost its roots. Rather sadly, the only music that now seems to have any effect on people is pop music. And I think we’re in a dangerous state, if music cannot return to being a part of everyday life; a part of metaphysics.”

EMI Classics will record A Garland for Linda at the end of August; Chester Music is to publish the score. And Connock is aiming for 200 performances of the work around the world in the next 12 months. “Without Paul agreeing to it all, we wouldn’t be here now”, Connock explains. “He had to lend his name, and Linda’s name, to it. I didn’t ask him to write a piece of music himself, because I thought that might be demanding too much. But he came up with something wonderful, with a lyrical theme that is the equal of an of the melodies he’s composed before. I was thrilled, because I knew that it would ‘make’ the whole cycle.”

Paul McCartney is a brave man. His first foray into ‘classical’ composition, The Liverpool Oratorio, was greeted in 1991 with almost universal derision. In 1997, his next attempt, Standing Stones, was similarly ridiculed. And still he keeps on coming back for more. This new choral piece, written as part of A Garland for Linda, goes a step further, in that it is the first classical work he has written without the help of an established composer. And for the first time, his work will be heard sandwiched amongst the creations of some of Britain’s most talented composers, and suffer all of the inevitable comparisons that must follow.

“Bit intimidating? Yes, slightly”, he tells me, after sharing a rehearsal with his distinguished peers. “But if it was a pop concert, they’d be intimidated. It’s good; it’s what happens when you dare to walk out of your field.” The eyes are a little cloudier than of old, but there is still the familiar twinkle there; the half-smile that never quite evaporates. At 57, McCartney’s speaking voice is strikingly deep and firm. It was tempting to expect him to look older and wearier than when Linda was alive, but he appears thoroughly invigorated by the project at hand.

“I’m a young lad at this game”, he says, munching on a sandwich, “which is actually quite interesting for me, because in the other game, I’ve done a lot, and had a lot of success. Some people say, look, you’ve made a great reputation, why don’t you just leave it at that? And I see that point of view. But I enjoy learning. I enjoy working with choirs. There’s a whole rich field there. And with the Beatles we would do close harmony; there’s some pretty nice harmony on some of our records.”

Of course, in many ways, McCartney’s has always shared an affinity with classical music. With a hint of pride, he recalls his use of a string quartet on Yesterday, and the French horn playing of Alan Civil on For No One, and the extended, rhapsodic ending of Hey Jude. And with a hint of irritation, he recalls the music theory teacher who attempted to teach him how to read music when he had just written Eleanor Rigby. “It’s not the simplest of things, is that piece. And he wanted to take me back to the five-finger exercise.”

For all the enthusiasm of his forays into the world of classical music, there remains this suspicion of its demands, its pomposities. “It’s more than just wilfulness”, he says, explaining his lingering resistance to the idea of learning to read music. “It’s that it might spoil it. We had so many instances where we’d be writing a piece in the early days, and George Martin was acting as our notator. He would say, ‘What’s the note? Is it ‘I’ve been working…” [he sings, from Hard Day’s Night], or is it ‘I’ve been working [he sings the note a semitone higher]?’ And we’d say, well, it’s in between. He’d say ‘I can’t do that’. And we’d say: George, you’ve got to. I think that’s where classical music goes wrong. It’s a funny world.”

The problem with McCartney’s efforts in that “funny world” is that, ironically, he has too willingly embraced pastiche rather than seeking out his own musical voice. And as he puts it, “I have to make my mistakes in public.” Indeed, he gradually admits that describing his experience of working with the composers of A Garland for Linda as “slightly intimidating” was a wee bit of an understatement. “No, there are occasions when I’m ready to break out into a cold sweat”, he admits. “But that’s nothing new. I’ve been doing that a long time. My first guitar solo, ever, for example. That was the reason I became a bass player.”

As the afternoon turns to evening, it becomes apparent that A Garland for Linda is a musical creation that comfortably transcends the sum of its parts. “There has been an incredible atmosphere ever since we started rehearsing”, says a euphoric Richard Hickox. “I think this is going to be a huge event. I can smell these things.” Sitting waiting for the concert to begin, the international cellist Robert Cohen observes. “It’s a unique situation”, he says, “to get so many many composers together, half of whom have probably never met one another. And much of the music I have heard is quite inspired. The distinguished flautist, Philippa Harrison, agrees. “It’s very heartfelt, by all the composers. They have written from their own feelings for people they have lost. And what’s amazing is that the music is both accessible and strong.”

The pale evening light slides gently through the soaring windows, imprinting the chequered shadows of their panes upon the chapel’s pale old Bargate stone. A Garland for Linda opens with the solemn loveliness of John Tavener’s antiphonal Prayer for the Healing of the Sick, its opening section sung by a male soloist several leagues away at the far end of the chapel, his voice carrying with all the faintness of an echo. To this the choir reponds, the thick air palpably vibrating to the vast open chords. “Yea, Lord send down from Heaven thy healing might…and banish every hidden ailment.” In the work’s lofty silences comes the sound of a baby softly crying. This is so immeasurably touching that it could almost be part of the score. Eventually a young man carries the baby out, with an apologetic smile at the choir. They smile back at him. It’s that sort of concert.

With Judith Bingham’s piece, Water Lilies, rich, sustained chord clusters fill the chapel’s space like a vast lake dense with algae, occasionally stirred by a modulating breeze. John Rutter offers a lyrical flute solo of perfect simplicity, while the choir sings of music’s mysterious power: “Musica vel ipsas arbores/et horridas movet feras” (Music moves the very trees and wild beasts). Next, from David Matthews, comes a far more declamatory piece, strident and joyful, before the work that everyone has been waiting for: Nova, by one Paul McCartney.

Many of the other composers had spoken with qualified enthusiasm about Nova before the concert, praising it as “delightfully simple”, or “great fun” or that “it has worked out wonderfully”. Certainly, it holds its own in this distinguished company. But what they miss is the fact that McCartney, whatever the current limitations of his musical vocabulary, has created a remarkable piece of drama which speaks with uncanny directness to the listener. The repeated question “Are you there?” from the sopranos and altos rises in unexpectedly jagged intervals, the questioning leaps of the melody neatly capturing the insistence of the demand. The appeal to the listener is potent; the form of address passionate. “God, where are You?”. And then, marvellously, God’s meaty and thunderous response from the basses and tenors in unison: I AM HERE. It’s tempting to laugh at the sheer of audacity of this: how many composers, in the first choral work they have written without outside help, would dare to attempt to put music into the very mouth of god himself? And how many would be unselfconscious enough to give God such a direct, noisy, old-man-with-a white-beard way with words? After some meandering counterpoint, a melody appears with a lively, almost folkloric simplicity, while a soupy accompaniment offers a hint of complexity beneath. And then it’s over, almost as soon as it began.

After Roxanna Panufnik’s lyrical, surging setting of a section from Tennyson’s In Memoriam, Michael Berkeley’s perfect little ode, Farewell, has a delicacy and stillness like dew on primroses, its beauty growing as its simple phrases are repeated: not just one, but a whole sunlit patch of wild flowers. Giles Swayne’s piece, The Flight of the Swan, is the most complex of the bunch. Powerfully rhythmic, with a hint of Carl Orff-style cataclysm accompanying its tale of a swan’s fearsome flight across the ocean, a plangent tenor line soaring discordantly over a twanging cello and brooding chorus. By now, Stella McCartney is asleep, her head on her father’s shoulder. And so to Richard Rodney Bennett, and his jewel-like setting of a 17th century poem, A Good-Night. This is something of great tenderness, couched in the lush harmonies of the English pastoral tradition of Elgar and Vaughan-Williams and Peter Warlock.

A standing ovation, and it is time to depart. With some hesitation, I ask McCarntney what Linda would have made of this remarkable tribute to her. “I think Linda would love it”, he says, cheerfully. “I think she would perhaps giggle at one or two of the harder pieces. That was our wont, whenever we reached moments that we didn’t quite understand. Much to the kids’ embarrassment. They’d be being all serious, and there was these two parents at the back, giggling.” He pauses for a few seconds, deep in thought. “I think she’d be very moved, with most of it. I think she’d be very glad that people have gone to all this bother. And I think she’d wonder what all the fuss was about.”