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Music

When classic rock artist Paul McCartney went classical

With arias ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘We All Stand Together’, Paul McCartney had proven himself adept at writing classical elegies, so it can’t have been surprising when he decided to write a full-length operetta in the early 1990s. And when Sir Carl Davis approached the pop writer to compose a mini-opera celebrating the splendour of Liverpool, the songwriting bassist leapt at the chance to try his hand at a genre he had flirted with in the past.

McCartney was used to writing from a guitar, and although The Beatles had shown an interest in using orchestral musicians on their recordings, this was the first time McCartney had written in a way that noted every idea down on sheets and sheets of paper, offering the veteran pop smith an education he never received in the realm of rock. He was growing more interested in the form, allowing the process to showcase his feelings.

“We developed a dialogue between us,” Davis recalled. “I was one of his collaborators. I wasn’t a Lennon in that I’d suggest a note, but I would get through his ideas. He’d sing or hum what he wanted, and I’d feverishly write them down. He could get a chord, like a G or a C or E minor on guitar, but there’s a difference in writing in the pop world. They don’t write them down until after, they have the words and some of the chords, but it’s not noted down, so that was where our dialogue came in, and our work together. It was a learning experience for Paul who wasn’t so used to writing this way.”

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Naturally, McCartney’s decision to write a piece of classical music was viewed with suspicion by some quarters, who felt that the Beatle – riffs and rapier-sharp wit – should stick to rock music, if he knew what was best for him. When it was launched, the singer had to put up with a cycle of snotty reviews, each more incendiary than the one that came before it.

Allan Kozinn was one of a handful who appreciated what McCartney was trying to achieve with the work, feeling that the piece presented a reflection of the composer’s desire to enjoy classical music, melding the conventions to suit his truth in the world at large. Liverpool and rock had changed over the decades, but the conventions of classical music remained steadfast over the years. And so it came to pass that the former Beatle used his celebrity to bolster the work, feeling that it was something that would draw audiences, if not critics.

“The philosophy was, we’d have the best,” Davis admitted, “And in those days there was no one better than Kiri Te Kanawa, beloved as a soprano, and willing to crossover. We decided we could have four singers, two male, two female, and there’s a lot of choruses throughout. When we opened it up the success was pretty immediate, the Beatle/McCartney thing ensured a success, but critically it was mostly scorned. But people were coming to see it and Paul’s attitude was ‘Well, it can’t be all that bad then!’” Stewart Copeland held a similar view when critics tore at his opera work.

It opened McCartney up to a new form of creativity, giving him the chance to explore a new form of composition and process. McCartney returned to the genre of classical music in the late 1990s, adding to the idiosyncratic trajectory that had grown since he had decided to release the Thrillington album in the late-1970s.

The man many had written off as a “safe melodist” was swiftly growing into the most assured counter-cultural voice of his generation, and he showed there was much more to life than pop predilections and clever hybrids destined for the realm of pop.

From that position, the bassist veered into more esoteric territories when he teamed up with Martin ‘Youth’ Glover as part of The Fireman, or by writing with Kanye West. As ever, education and process led him on, and he wasn’t willing to let his experience or age quash the pursuance of art.

For McCartney, the journey was everything, as he felt it was easier to become something grander in the search for absolution and artfulness. McCartney’s back catalogue is the most expansive of The Beatles, and his work only grows more engaging with every passing lick and year.

The Liverpool Oratorio helped McCartney to realise that humility is the backbone of creative endeavour. And Davis was impressed by the former Beatle’s desire to create a new fusion in the world of the classical aria. Such as it was, the sprawling work shows that the Beatle was invested in the world of Liverpool, feeling that it belonged on the stage at large. It was something bigger-it was operatic in its resolve.

Stream The Liverpool Oratorio below.