Two caveats before I begin reviewing the score to Paul McCartney’s first ballet, Ocean’s Kingdom: first, I know virtually nothing about ballet. Then again, in a recent interview, McCartney also admitted that he had virtually no experience with ballet either, so perhaps intimidation should not be a factor. Second, I feel it is slightly unfair to review the orchestral score to Ocean’s Kingdom without seeing the ballet; clearly sections of the movements are meant to underscore dramatic moments, which obviously I cannot see while listening to the album. Being a longtime Beatles and McCartney fan as well as serving as a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine, I can only critique the album from that viewpoint.
Let’s begin with some background on Ocean’s Kingdom: commissioned by the New York City Ballet, the work narrates the romance between Princess Honorata of the Ocean kingdom and Prince Stone (Robert Fairchild) from the Earth kingdom. Forces threaten their love, but predictably love overcomes all. McCartney tells this story through four movements, each reflecting the mood prevalent during key points in the plot. Conducted by John Wilson, the Ocean’s Kingdom recording is produced by John Fraser and performed by The London Classical Orchestra.
Movement One, “Ocean’s Kingdom,” suggests a slow beginning, an ethereal sense of being underwater. The same delicate melody weaves in and out of the music, a lone flutist playing the melancholy notes, eventually amplified by violins and horns. Other woodwind seem to musically mimic flight, or at least the sensation of floating. Pulsing strings indicate rising action in the plot, but the lilting of the melody maintains an undertone of romanticism. Knowing McCartney’s rock and pop works, this overtly romantic strain is hardly surprising.
The dainty, somewhat sad mood changes in Movement Two, “Hall of Dance,” which combines revelry with humor. Lazy trombones suggest some drunken party goers, while strings suggest that the audience is in the presence of royalty. Swift fluctuations in tempo alternate between joyful dancing and a troubling undercurrent pervading the celebration. The melody from “Ocean’s Kingdom” returns, but in a subtle way, dramatically reintroducing the romance of Princess Honorata and Prince Stone. But lower notes and the plucking of strings indicate that trouble is brewing, and the dramatic increase in tempo and volume (along with a greater presence of drums and horns) indicate the story’s climactic moment.
This swift, dramatic tone changes in Movement Three, “Imprisonment,” where forces threaten Honorata’s and Stone’s love. The deep bass drum, trembling strings, and horns resemble a lamentation. However, the lamentation gives way to a forceful increase in tempo and power, but soon returns to the delicate, somber mood present in Movement One. Unlike the other movements, “Imprisonment” seemingly depicts more action, constantly altering between quiet moments and bombastic instrumentation.
“Imprisonment’s” unsure tone continues into Movement Four, “Moonrise,” which serves as the ballet’s conclusion. Will the lovers reunite? The audience presumably knows the answer to that question, but the predictable ending must still be told. Elements of “Moonrise” echo “Hall of Dance” in its celebratory tones. Again, horns suggest the presence of royalty, and the drums and rhythmic violin sections imply joy and triumph. Quiet moments involving strings and flute (similar to Movement One) return to the unapologetically romantic mood of Movements One and Two. From the jubilation indicated in the last few lines—the full-force use of the string and horn sections, the bass drum pounding, and the final blast of sound—the story has reached a happy ending. Harmony has been restored, as has love.
Overall, Ocean’s Kingdom lies comfortably alongside McCartney’s other works in that it relies on melody and leans heavily on romantic overtones. However, the music does not linger in the listener’s ears long after the first listen. While the music is pleasant, it does not rank among the most memorable, distinctive ballets or equal notable composers such as Igor Stravinsky or Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Still, McCartney deserves credit for broadening his musical scope—after all, he has already composed five classical works (Liverpool Oratorio, Standing Stone, Working Classical, A Garland for Linda, and Ecce Cor Meum) and has dabbled in scoring and orchestration (1977′s Thrillington and 1966′s soundtrack to the film The Family Way). Of course much of his Beatles work also implemented classical elements–”Yesterday,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and “For No One,” just to name a few examples. Therefore venturing into the ballet world should not completely surprise McCartney fans. McCartney collectors should add Ocean’s Kingdom to their libraries, and classical listeners may enjoy hearing the rock music legend take on another genre.