Ecce Cor Meum
reviewed by Pedro Blas Gonzalez
Taking over eight years to complete, Ecce Cor Meum (Behold My Heart) is Paul McCartney’s fourth classical composition. The others are Liverpool Oratorio (1991), Standing Stone (1997) and Working Classical (1999).
This is a work that, according to McCartney, served him as a great learning experience. The piece totals just under one hour and was commissioned by Anthony Smith, president (1998-2005) of Magdalen College at Oxford. The piece was to coincide with the dedication of a new concert hall at Magdalen College.
McCartney admits that he was at first somewhat shocked to receive the invitation. Only later did it dawn on him that, “they wanted something different, otherwise they wouldn’t be asking me. And I thought: That’s good, it allows me some latitude, it means I don’t have to fit myself into any sort of box.”
He began to compose the work on a synthesizer. This offered him flexibility. But it also served as a source of frustration, as far as the vocal parts are concerned. While the synthesizer can reach certain high notes effortlessly, the same was not to be the case with the singers. Ecce Cor Meum is a work that is written for adult and children’s choir. He explains: “I was composing at a synthesizer, where you find yourself using what you like. It may be that on a synthesizer a solo violin is a terrible sound, so you avoid using it, whereas a real solo violin is a beautiful sound, but you can’t stand the scratchiness in the meanwhile. The oboe had a beautiful sound on the synthesizer, so I found myself using the oboe a lot more than I might have done otherwise.” These are wonderful revelations that are highly inspirational and informative to music fans and musicians alike.
What seems so impressive about this work, in addition to its beautiful, vital sentiment is the sincerity which informs it. In the liner notes written by Peter Quantrill, McCartney talks about the many obstacles and dead ends that he encountered in the process of composing.
The most devastating of these transcends music. McCartney’s wife, Linda, died of cancer in April 1998. It seems impossible to imagine that this work is not a direct consequence of McCartney’s emotional strain during this trying time. The final result is a complex, serious piece that serves as a testament to his ability to compose moving, beautiful music.
Ecce Cor Meum is divided into four movements and an interlude. “Spiritus,” “Gratia,” “Interlude,” “Musica” and “Ecco Cor Meum” each displaying a pathos of its own. The title of the work, McCartney tells us, comes from an inscription that he saw at the base of a crucifix statue in St. Ignatius Loyola church in New York.
The first movement, “Spiritus,” begins slowly, with sopranos and chorus. The words, “Spiritus, Spiritus, lead us to love/Spirit, show us the way” beckon the spirit of holiness for the necessary strength to love.
The coupling of children’s voices and the melodious strings of “Gratia,” the second movement, serves as an ode to wonderment where, “This guiding light will burn so bright/So much wonder surrounds us.” Words like angelic and free-flowing beauty have often been used to describe the impact of children’s voices on adult ears; as if recognition of purity manifested. Yet these monikers remain more truism than cliché, regardless of how often such phrases are made use of. The truth of this is verified in the joy offered by the listening experience.
The “Interlude” (Lament) acts as a meditative stopping point that allows us to reflect on the meaning and essence of the prior two movements. The melancholic oboe ebbs and flows like a person who sobs in solitude.
From this reflective sojourn the piece moves into its fourth movement, “Musica.” Appropriately, the words summon the order of all things divine to “Notice how gently we spin/Here on the skin of a sphere/Of a sphere/Now music to lull us to sleep/Now lull us to sleep/Music to wake us from a dream.”
The final movement, “Ecce Cor Meum,” may mean Behold my Heart, but McCartney interprets it as “Let me tell you what I think.” This movement begins with the words, “Behold my heart/There in the future we may be apart/Here in my music I show you my heart.” This may signal the further suggestion, “In the future, after I have departed.” In due time, this piece will undoubtedly come to round off McCartney’s musical legacy. A composition like this helps to connect two distinct musical poles, if not tastes.
The final movement seems more autobiographical than any of the previous ones. It acts as a link to the composers’ past, but also as an arrow that points to the future; as to how “I and my music may come to be regarded.” The movement offers several subtle clues: The staple McCartney harmony and his distinctive driving bass line. While Ecce Cor Meum may not be Paul McCartney’s final musical output, it is nonetheless his most challenging and ambitious.
Pedro Blas Gonzalez is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Barry University in Miami, Florida. Amongst his intellectual pursuits is his interest in the relationship that exists between subjectivity, self-autonomy and philosophy.