LONDON

Most of the choir and orchestra sit tomb-silent, as a single oboe's lament rises over the welling strings, soft as a mourner's sigh.

It is for Linda, written by Paul, and everyone in the room knows it.

Paul -- McCartney -- leans way back and tips his face skyward in his small chair, set in the middle of this converted church. He's been tapping his toes and singing along with "Ecce Cor Meum" ("Behold My Heart"), the piece he spent eight years composing. Before its Nov. 3 premiere at Royal Albert Hall the next night, the singers and musicians are rehearsing the one-hour work -- including the interlude, a long and aching elegy to Linda McCartney, who died of breast cancer in 1998 during the composing of "Ecce."

Now Paul is staring straight up into the air, to the hall's elegantly detailed 30-foot ceiling, or maybe beyond.

A few of the idle cello players and sopranos look at him. The man is as famous as France; it's hard not to stare. Others fiddle with their horns or stare awkwardly at their sheet music.

Paul and Linda seem to be having a moment.

And with all the smarm and scandal battering the 64-year-old former Beatle these days, nobody is about to spoil it.

* * *

Outside the warm bubble of the rehearsal space, Macca, as the tabloids here call him, is up to his yellow submarine in lurid scandal. He and the former model he married four years after Linda's death, Heather Mills McCartney, split up in May after four years together. With a fortune in the neighborhood of $1.5 billion on the line, documents from the divorce proceedings keep appearing mysteriously -- via anonymous fax -- on the front pages of the British tabloids.

Heather alleges ugly things; according to those news reports, her version of Sir Paul is dark and controlling, almost cartoonishly psychotic, like a Liverpudlian Snidely Whiplash. It is also almost universally disbelieved in a country that has known McCartney since he was a floppy-haired teenager.

Oddball stories from Heather's past, along with long-ago nude photos from a sex manual, have done little to help her public image. By saying almost nothing, Macca has won the battle for the taxi drivers' hearts. But it is clearly a battle he doesn't want, and he is taking a painful beating.

In here, though, he's sipping hot tea and wolfing down three bagel halves after hours of rehearsals. Settled in a deep leather chair in room in the church's basement, he looks far younger and thinner than in his photos, and sharp in a navy blue pinstriped suit with a playful fireball-red silk lining. He's upbeat and relaxed, knees splayed, little dabs of cream cheese on the fingertips that wrote "Hey Jude."

As he talks, he keeps breaking into song. When he makes a point about songwriting, he sings a few bars of "Eleanor Rigby." That seems normal enough, until it sinks in that the man who sang "Eleanor Rigby" is sitting there singing "Eleanor Rigby." He says the lyrics and the music to most of his compositions came at the same time; he mentions "Let It Be," "She's Leaving Home," "Fool on the Hill." One notable exception is "Yesterday," which started as a tune. The first words he fitted to one of the world's most recognized melodies, just to block out the spacing, were, he says, singing with campy sincerity, "Scrambled eggs, oh my baby I love your legs."

"It was good, but I had to change it," he says, laughing.

He's jolly, thinking about music. His mind is filled with "Ecce Cor Meum."

And a woman different from the one in all the trashy headlines.

"Linda very much pervades the whole piece," he says of the American he married in 1969 and with whom he raised four children.

When McCartney was asked to write a choral piece to inaugurate a concert hall at Oxford University's Magdalen College, he and Linda went to see the place together in 1996. They were together when he agreed to take on the project, which he says he took as a chance to try something new.

"When I was in the middle of it, she passed away, and we went through all the anguish, which stopped me," he says. "And then when I was able to pick it up, I picked it up by writing some of the very sad things in it." Near "Ecce's" opening, the sopranos soar: "Take love away and we are ruined / In a world without each other / How could we go on living our lives?"

"I remember sitting at a keyboard and just weeping as I wrote this piece," he says about the woman who was his partner for three decades, for whom he wrote "My Love" and "Maybe I'm Amazed."

He talks around his breakup with Heather without mentioning her name, adding little to his few public statements that he is "sad," that he believes keeping details of the divorce private is the most dignified course, the best way to protect Beatrice, their 3-year-old daughter.

Being recognized in every corner of the planet is "slightly sort of spooky," he says, but "90 percent of the time" he enjoys it. He likes the people who recognize him on the street and say (he affects a flat American accent), "Hey, Paul! Let it be, dude!" The downside is the relentless red-meat coverage of his divorce -- the tabloids may adore Macca, but they love scandals even more.

"In the time I'm going through now, with a divorce, I know that everything that happens will be widely reported -- and actually everything that doesn't happen will be widely reported, even more," he says. He allows that he chose this life, and "it's something with great advantages. When I have these sort of drawbacks, I think, 'You know what, compared to some people's lives, you've got it pretty good.' "

As he drains his tea and finishes his bagel, it is Linda who comes up repeatedly, as inspiration for "Ecce's" most upbeat passages along with its darkest ones. "Life has to go on," he says. "I am basically an optimist and she was very much an optimist."

Asked why he didn't dedicate the work to Linda, he smiles.

"It actually would have been very awkward with a new wife to say, 'This is for Linda,' just pragmatically," he says. "But it was started with Linda and, had she lived, I'm sure it would have been dedicated to her."

* * *

"Ecce Cor Meum," which has its U.S. premiere at Carnegie Hall in New York next Tuesday, is an hour-long composition, a beautiful piece filled with sumptuous arrangements and harmonies, that reads and sounds like a retrospective of a life. But McCartney, who is working on a new studio album, talking about touring next year and mulling a classical guitar concerto, makes clear his is a life still in progress.

"It's 'Behold My Heart' -- so far," he says.

Its central themes are peace and love, the same simple (his critics say simplistic and annoying) mantras he has been pushing since the Beatles formed in the late 1950s. When the choir sings, "Peace and love are always our true nature / love is all," it's easy to hear the echoes from records with deep grooves worn in the vinyl: "All you need is love, love / love is all you need."

"I'm not very good at hate songs," says the man whose love-laden pop songs have topped the U.S. charts 29 times. "It doesn't come naturally to me. No matter how angry I might be, I seem to still write a love song. And that's the joy of what I do."

He is asked about this passage: "Life aboard this fast revolver still remains a magic mystery / Loud reports of anger fill the pages of our history." The Beatles references seem obvious in "Revolver" and "Magical Mystery Tour," and maybe those angry reports were of the gunshots that took John Lennon?

McCartney stands and steps over to a lamp to have a better look at the tiny print of the lyrics in the CD jacket. He says the words may be relevant to his own life, but more importantly, they are universal. He reads aloud and annotates: "Life aboard this fast revolver . . . the revolver is the Earth. Still remains a magic mystery . . . life on Earth is quite a mystery. Loud reports of anger fill the pages of our history . . . there's been war and suffering."

He then reads the last two lines of the stanza, and he's back, inevitably, to love: "Those of us with love can now embrace / With sweet relief a life lived at a gentler pace."

"So in other words, love is the answer to this turbulent world," he says, adding, "I'm not trying to preach, but I think the world at the moment could use a little bit of peace and love."

As he always has, since the days he wrote "Let It Be" for his mother, Mary, who died when he was 14, he chooses music to express what matters most to him.

"It's just something I've done naturally all my life, almost not meaning to," he says. "It's just the way it comes out with me. Peace is important. Love is important. These are themes that are important to me. So I wrote my thoughts from my heart."

In "Ecce," he saves one of his sweetest melodies for a line repeated over and over, something he has been fairly shouting for 50 years: "Here in my music, I show you my heart."

The title comes from Latin words he saw on a statue of Jesus's crucifixion that he saw in St. Ignatius Loyola Church in Manhattan. Despite that Christian imagery, McCartney says his work is more spiritual than religious. "I wouldn't like to do something that was only available to Christians, or to Jewish people, or to Muslims," he says. "I like the idea that it's a sort of global work."

Critics have dismissed "Ecce," which was released on CD in September, as pleasant but lightweight and simplistic, the classical dabblings of a pop star. McCartney acknowledges he is still learning the trade since his first classical work, "Liverpool Oratorio," was released in 1991. His first drafts of the score for "Ecce" were written on a computer, and it was full of "basic mistakes." "I needed a lot of help just getting it to an orchestra," he says. "This was a huge learning experience for me."

"At my stage of the game I could just sit back and say (taking on an upper-class British accent), 'You know, there's not a lot for me to learn, I've pretty much done it all, I'm the master at this,' " he says. "But I don't like that. I've never felt like that, even when John and I were writing stuff that turns out to have been pretty masterful. . . . But we never actually sat there and said, 'That's it, we're done.' It was always, 'Now what do we do?' It was always moving on."

McCartney excuses himself. The last rehearsal is about to start before opening night at the Royal Albert Hall, with its royal-red velvet curtains and majestic high ceilings. It's a stage he knows well; "Liverpool Oratorio" premiered there, and in 1999 he led a tribute concert there for Linda.

An hour later the session wraps up, and McCartney bounces up to the orchestra, clapping and laughing and thanking everyone. Then he wraps himself into a warm overcoat and scarf and hops into an SUV driven by John Hammel, his friend since the early 1970s. As they drive off, he opens his window and leans out, beaming, and sings a loud chorus of "Ecce Cor Meum." The street is dark and empty, and McCartney's joyful serenade echoes off the old stone buildings.