It starts with an evocation of the primeval beginnings of the cosmos, for which Paul McCartney wanted the orchestral musicians to relinquish their technical expertise and replace it with playing that suitably echoes the chaos of creation.
So we’ve this void and this ball of fire, and we know nothing – we don’t even know what fire is. I needed to find a sound for that. Something primitive. I needed to rob the players of all their expensive tuition. So for the first three minutes or so, we only hear open notes. No fingering. So we’ve got these open strings in divided cellos and basses, kind of rubbing up against each other, creating this really earthy rhythmic friction.
Mankind makes an appearance in the second movement, ‘He awoke startled’. And so begins a voyage of self discovery and outward investigation which leads to good and evil and salvation in the natural world.
Standing Stone climaxes with Celebration, in which McCartney bridges the gap between contemporary and classical composition through his natural gift for melody. An accessible piece of music, the album is no classical masterpiece but shows how McCartney retains his populist touch across the genres.
McCartney wrote a poem to accompany the music. It was inspired by Ivan Vaughan, who had introduced him to John Lennon in July 1957. Vaughan and McCartney were both born on the same day, 18 June 1942, in Liverpool.
Vaughan was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1977. In 1984 he featured in a BBC documentary about a search for a cure, and two years later published a book, Ivan: Living with Parkinson’s Disease. His death in August 1993 affected McCartney deeply, inspiring him to write poetry.
McCartney’s poem, ‘Standing Stone’, was an ambitious piece dwelling on existential themes, as described in the album’s sleevenotes.
I’ve spent much of the last four years composing what has now become my second large-scale classical work, the symphonic poem Standing Stone. Unlike the Liverpool Oratorio which features prominent roles for four solo singers, Standing Stone relies entirely on colours and effects drawn from orchestral and choral forces. With no soloists to propel the “story” and to help keep me on track throughout the writing of about 75 minutes of music, I wrote a poem (reprinted in full in the booklet!) in which I try to describe the way Celtic man might have wondered about the origins of life and the mystery of human existence. As with all successful “programme” music, I hope the music is strong enough to stand alone without help from the poem and that you, the listener, will enjoy what you hear.
Edited by poet Tom Pickard, the poem also appeared in Blackbird Singing, McCartney’s 2001 poetry and lyrics anthology, which also included ‘Ivan’, a tribute to his friend.
In the studio
With the score written and arranged, the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus assembled for demo recordings at Abbey Road’s Studio One on 3 and 4 March 1993. Movements I and II were recorded on the first day, and II and IV on the next.
The 80-piece orchestra worked from 2.30-5.30 and 7-10pm on both days, with the 120-strong choir joining for the two evening sessions. Working in an adjacent studio were the band Oasis, who were so loud that they were asked to turn down their amplifiers by producer John Fraser. Oasis took umbrage at the request and stormed out of the studio, leaving EMI to foot the cost of the studio hire.
The Standing Stone sessions, which were engineered by John Kurlander, were filmed by Christopher Swan for a documentary, The Making Of Standing Stone, which was broadcast by the BBC and PBS towards the end of 1997.
The demo recordings were a success, and plans were made for follow-up sessions in October 1997. However, these were brought forward to 30 April and 1 and 2 May. Again engineered by Kurlander in Studio One, they took place from 3-6pm.
The recordings were mixed and edited at Hog Hill Studios in a two-week period from 12 May, and were mastered the following month. A final recording session took place in Studio One on 2 July to correct some problems discovered during mastering, and editing was done on 3 and 4 July.
The compact disc came with a 48 page booklet, and the standard case was enclosed with a cardboard sleeve. It featured an essay by Andrew Stewart, and reproductions of two paintings by Paul from 1994 named Standing Stone Story and Standing Stone Story II.
The booklet contained further photographs by Linda, Mary McCartney and David Eustace. A deluxe box set containing a two-disc vinyl edition was limited to 2,500 copies, and was released on 1 December.
Standing Stone topped the classical charts in both the US and UK, and briefly entered the pop charts.
The premiere of Standing Stone took place at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 14 October. The film of the concert was broadcast on the newly-launched Channel 5 in the UK on Christmas Day 1997.
The documentary, The Making Of Standing Stone, was broadcast on PBS in America on 23 November, and by the BBC in the United Kingdom on 26 December. It included footage from the demo recordings at Abbey Road and from the Royal Albert Hall premiere and rehearsals.
The Royal Albert Hall performance of Standing Stone was released on a VHS video in 1997. The documentary was included in a subsequent DVD edition the following year. Another DVD was released in 2007 and featured the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Foster.