Carl Davis Interview: The Liverpool Oratorio

❉ We talk to composer & conductor Carl Davis CBE about Paul McCartney’s elegiac classical opus, released in the US 27 years ago today.

“We were thinking about Liverpool composers and we said, ‘Paul’s a Liverpool composer, he’s pretty famous!’ The Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1841, I think, and they were looking for something about Liverpool. So, when we went with that idea, we thought, how do we get Paul, do we just ring him up?”

“It was all quite fortuitous really; my wife Jean [Boht] is an actress”, Carl Davis begins. “She was in a sitcom in the eighties called Bread, which was written by Carla Lane, and it was about a Liverpool family surviving off benefits, the DHSS. Through that, we got to meet Linda McCartney, who was good friends with Jean, both vegetarian and concerned about animal cruelty. Linda and Paul got involved in the show”.

Carl Davis and Jean Boht attend the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences new members. (Getty Images)

In what proved a wonderfully irreverent appearance, the McCartneys visited the Boswell family in Liverpool, mirroring the series’ theme about riches and differences. It was a brief appearance, but it did prove two facts about Paul McCartney. Firstly, despite all the fame, success and wealth he had acquired from The Beatles, Liverpool was never far from his heart. Secondly, it showed that McCartney was eager to have interests outside of pop music. And when Carl Davis, a composer whose works ranged from scoring the startling stage production Lipizzaner to Meryl Streep-starring The French Lieutenant’s Woman was asked to commemorate the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s 150th anniversary, he knew who he wanted to work with.

“We were thinking about Liverpool composers and we said, ‘Paul’s a Liverpool composer, he’s pretty famous!’” Davis chuckles. “The Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1841, I think, and they were looking for something about Liverpool. So, when we went with that idea, we thought, how do we get Paul, do we just ring him up? Then we were invited to the McCartneys’ country house where we discussed the project and came up with the ideas in his kitchen. We were talking, and he mentioned that he was born in the middle of an air raid. His mother was a midwife, and he was born in an air raid. This really struck home with me, having grown up across the seas, and Jean had very strong memories of air raids. So, we went with that”.

There are war symbols afoot throughout the Liverpool Oratorio. A shanty singing about Air Raid Siren Slices Through.. was a timely reminder how much of a support songs were for those growing up in World War II Britain, Mother and Father Holding Their Child sought to remind how dreadful air raids were for families, and a prayer which rang through of upset I Know I Should Be Glad of This reminded audiences how far they’d come since 1991. And yet, there was a buoyancy to the work. “We went from the air raids to discussing the school, a school where Paul went to, and then we brought that element into it. And we knew that the piece was going to be performed at the Liverpool Chapel, so we brought in the stories of going back around into the crypt. It was a very interesting process, quite like a dialogue between us”.

McCartney has an enviable skill of musical mastery. While playing with The Beatles in Hamburg in 1960, the eighteen-year-old effortlessly changed from guitar to piano to drums. His bass guitar prowess by 1966 (hear Taxman, Rain and Paperback Writer) are still largely unsurpassed and when two members of Wings left the band acrimoniously in 1973, McCartney simply played their parts himself on Band On The Run. Even more incredibly, behind all that McCartney has never been able to read or write music!

“We developed a dialogue between us, 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 fervishly 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 its 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”

It was a work classical in sound, mindful in topic, elegiac in performance. It was a work devoid of pop motifs and was written as thoroughly and as passionately as any Oratorio. Nothing was off limits. A documentary, Ghosts of The Past, captured these two men amid their creative process (it was directed by Geoff Wonfor, who would later steer the Anthology series). “The philosophy was, we’d have the best” Davis continues, “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!’”.

It wasn’t bad, and the world premiere of Liverpool Oratorio taking place on Friday 28 June 1991 drew 2,500 people at the cathedral. Those seated had the opportunity to watch a lavish spectacle featuring 90 members of the Liverpool Philharmonic, 160-strong Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir, 40 choristers of the cathedral, and four extraordinarily gifted solo singers: Kiri Te Kanawa, Sally Burgess, Jerry Hadley and Willard White. If the critics were unimpressed with this addition to McCartney’s bow, it didn’t stop the popularity of the production. It left Liverpool to premiere in London and New York- then it travelled the world.

“Within three years I had done my hundredth show”, Davis says. “We did a wonderful production in Ireland and Northern Ireland, and it is still performed in universities in Spain, in Germany and in France. It’s been very good to me. There’s a huge Japanese fan club over there, and we even had it over there. The Beatle connection has made sure that its still performed. I haven’t looked at it in a few years, I’m writing two ballets simultaneously right now to be performed in different parts of the world in nineteen, but like yourself, an enthusiast came to me recently, he’s French, and said he wants to put it on in France. So, that’s brought me back to the work, there’s the two ballets and the Paris Liverpool Oratorio in 2019 to do”.

❉ ‘Liverpool Oratorio’ by Paul McCartney & Carl Davis was recorded 28–29 June 1991 and released by EMI Classics 7 October 1991 (UK)/22 October 1991 (US).

❉ Eoghan Lyng is a writer, part-time English teacher and full-time lover of life.

❉ Feature image: Paul with Carl Davis writing ‘Liverpool Oratorio’. Photo © Linda McCartney.

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