For No One

I had not heard the song ‘For No One’ in years. Then, earlier in the week I saw this recording:

There is a story behind the recording that encapsulates the benefits of bringing together classical approaches with the new; the old with the young. The majority of schools we recommend to parents achieve this brilliantly. To look at this juxtaposition from the angle of music was a welcome change, and also re-enforced the need to look at cultural balances when visiting schools.

Perhaps the underrated song in the Beatles catalogue, Paul McCartney wrote and composed ‘For No One’ in the bathroom of a chalet in Klosters, in 1966, while on holiday with Jane Asher. (‘I had done a bit of skiing in ‘Help’ and quite liked it…’ he recalled later.)

John Lennon rated the song highly, recognising that it was all McCartney’s work. This orchestral version did not go onto the Revolver album, but is better. The ‘boys’ were embarrassed at the notion of a rock group using a string quartet as their backing, despite McCartney’s keenness to introduce to pop music a new sound – the French Horn. (‘It was an instrument I’d always loved from when I was a kid…’ he recalled later.)

Melancholy as it is, with the fusty classical string players behind the morose young Paul, the film is of one of the great recordings of the last century.

We see the late arrival of Alan Civil, the acclaimed French hornist from the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Ever the perfectionist, George Martin the Beatles producer has methodically chased down the best hornist in London, and insists on ten takes, late into the night. Civil’s sublime counterpoint is composed in the studio and evolves through the takes. As a deliberate wind up, Martin and McCartney request it hits a top ‘F’. They pretend not to know that this is technically beyond the French horn’s range and almost impossibly difficult to achieve. Kept out of the joke and managing to achieve the top ‘F’, Civil does not find their constantly berating him to do better at all funny. Meanwhile the lab-like sound engineers in their white coats, stand entranced by the creation they will let loose on an adulating world. 

For the very limited amount my opinion is worth, these few quite possibly unique minutes of backing to a 1960’s ballad have the purity of late Baroque harmony. Ending on a diminished chord leaves the music hanging, unresolved as the tragedy of the subject matter, poignant as an aria by George Handel who like McCartney, I have realised a) worked as a musician in Hamburg before composing his finest work in England; and b) lost a parent at the age of fourteen. Probably not an original observation, since so much has been written about The Beatles…

The song may well be a cruel reaction to the break down in McCartney’s relationship with Jane Asher, and a petulant farewell to her parents. Their large house on Wimpole Street, where he lived for some time, afforded the peace for Lennon to come round and write some of the finest Beatles songs with him in a basement room with a small piano. Meanwhile, they introduced McCartney to high literature and art. (Those who remarked on his academic potential included the head of an Oxford college who had sat next to him at High Table). Their daughter may be remembered to posterity chiefly as the provocateur of a verse whose fluidity matches the accompanying melody:

And in her eyes, you see nothing

No sign of love behind the tears

Cried for no one

A love that should have lasted years

A Beatles song that comes close is Here There and Everywhere. As Leonard Bernstein pointed out, it might have been their finest if anyone had bothered to write an orchestral score. I had one scribbled down and it was performed at an event I helped organise in 2007. (A former Bonas MacFarlane tutee was the soloist?). Was I the first to do so? Again, probably not – too much has been written… I gave it to the young man who wrote it. And within eighteen months, I had thrown away the only recording.