Are you there?

Music - Dermot Clinch is touched by a tribute to Linda McCartney

The elegiac tone is in favour these days. So it is a nice surprise that a new CD of pieces by contemporary composers in memory of Linda McCartney, who died of cancer in 1998, is not in fact one long sob. Sir Paul McCartney's own piece, to his own text, in memory of his wife, is inevitably a little sad. But even here the question "Are you there?" receives a hopeful answer, "I am here in every song you sing / In the wings of a rising lark / Now and then 'til the end of time. Amen". Still, it would be hard not to find McCartney's lament just a little bit touching.

The disc, released this week by EMI, is called A Garland for Linda, echoing a famous earlier tribute, by composers including Ralph Vaughan Williams and Michael Tippett, called "A Garland for the Queen". That was for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and if it seems a little presumptious to reuse a title associated until now exclusively with the monarch, let's not quibble. After all, the disc is in aid of charity.

EMI's CD performs, in any case, a service still unusual enough in the world of "serious music" to be remarkable: it asks composers to write music that people might enjoy listening to. If charity is to benefit, the disc needs to sell. Thus Michael Berkeley moderates a somewhat abrasive contemporary idiom to write a sweet Farewell that Francis Poulenc, or even Sir John Tavener, might not disown. Tavener himself knows few idioms other than the elegiac and spins a plangent line to the ideal text for the job: a Prayer for the Healing of the Sick imploring that victims of wasting disease be raised from their beds of sickness.

Tavener's music is always easy to deride. But isn't it time to realise that touching chords with people - as Paul McCartney did and still sometimes does - can be an achievement in itself? On this disc, among contributions by composers more academically respectable, Tavener's will be the one people will wish to hear again. The courage to be simple and affecting means that Tavener is now our national composer, in demand for the Princess of Wales's funeral and the millennium celebration in the Dome. Simple harmonic devices and a restricted emotional palette have raised him to unofficial Master of the Queen's Musick while the chap who occupies the post officially has been forgotten.

But what is the trick if you are asked to write on the subject of death? The range of responses is impressive. Giles Swayne writes a mystical piece about a swan who gets blown off course but reaches its destination. Judith Bingham remembers swimming among water lilies and writes a swelling, tendril-waving piece of Pre-Raphaelite melodrama, full of ripe sincerity. David Matthews takes the lateral route, celebrates Linda McCartney's life, and sets an American Indian poem about love in the morning: "My love was up before me / It came running to me from the doorway of the dawn." The improvisatory freedom and technical fluency of Matthews's piece make it the most original response on the disc by far.

And McCartney himself? Sir Paul recently received the National Public Radio New Horizon Award "in recognition of his work in broadening the appeal of classical music". This says a lot. McCartney, no doubt the greatest and most natural song-writer of the century, now believes that to be serious you must be classical, and that to be classical you must sound serious. His choral tribute contains sweet moments and hints of lovely melody, but it's hard not to long for the old days.