Classical Perspectives

Fifty Shades Stokes Interest in Early Music–But for How Long?

Performers, scholars and devotees of early music are having their “I told you so” moment with the stunning chart success of Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album. Not so much for it being #1 on the classical charts (it topped the U.K. Classical Singles chart on July 16 and the next day, July 17, was #1 on the U.S. iTunes Classical Songs Chart), but for rising to #22 (and climbing) on the all-genre Billboard chart. Emerging as the signature track from the album’s 15 mostly familiar classical works cited in E.L. James’s blockbuster Fifty Shades erotic trilogy  is Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium, a complex motet for 40 voices composed around 1570.

We have been this way before: remember the Ravel’s Bolero frenzy inspired by Bo Derek’s career launching vehicle, 10? The Tallis motet might be the same deal, some say.

“The Tallis motet is the Ravel’s Bolero for the hook-up generation,” Gene Murrow, the executive director of the Gotham Early Music Scene, a presenting and advocacy organization, told Brian Wise of New York City’s WQXR classical station.

Yet Murrow believes any means of exposing early music to a new audience can only be good.

“I think it’s very important. I’m a big believer that whatever gateway you can open to any genre of music brings listeners in who might not have discovered it.” (Gotham will present a program devoted to the “Art & Ecstasy of the Chaconne” on Oct. 4.)

Thomas Tallis’s 40-part motet from circa 1570, Spem in alium, as featured on Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album, as performed by the Tallis Scholars.

Indeed, as Wise notes, the early music community sees the Tallis recording as countering decades of 19th- and early 20th-century favorites–by Wagner, Mahler, Tchaikovsky–as the chief signifiers of romance and seduction in pop culture.

On the other hand, once Fifty Shades has lost its cultural juice, so to speak, will its millions of fans retain an early music afterglow, so to speak? There are doubters who see this stage of commercial tumescence going flaccid as the trilogy’s fortunes decline. Responding to Wise’s blog on the WQCR website, Brian Robins said the tumult over Tallis is “all very fanciful,” adding: “Having spent over 30 years in the retail record industry in a previous life, you have my assurance that of the huge numbers who purchased Nigel Kennedy’s Vivaldi ‘4 Seasons’, almost none returned for more Vivaldi (or any other early music).”

From Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album, Lakme’s Flower Duet, as sung by Mady Mesplé and Danielle Millet

Gev Sweeney, from Ocean Grove, NJ, had a similar point of view, based on his experience as an author whose novel, he claims, was short-circuited by the Fifty Shades phenomenon: “Nice, but too much of a good thing turns it into a bad thing. Before 50 Shades, there was a developing story called Salutaris, a contemp paranormal about a vampire damned to being a priest who can’t drink any blood except the blood of Christ during Communion. This character was also an opera singer in the late 18th century, and he’s spent two hundred years teaching music in Catholic colleges to untalented singers. His signature piece is Spem in alium, which is the last piece his choirs perform before the Vatican moves him to another college. The author–yours truly–abandoned Salutaris because Spem‘s inclusion in the erotic trilogy, and its subsequent popularity, cheapened the work and lessened its effect to be taken seriously in something like Salutaris. (Salutaris is Google-able, if you want to see what I’m talking about.).”

Regardless, early music is having its moment. It is, after all, still with us, no matter how far below the mainstream cultural radar. Groups such as Anonymous 4 and the Tallis Scholars were drawing healthy crowds to their concerts well ahead of Fifty Shades‘s arrival. Regardless of the Tallis motet being nothing more than a passing fancy for some, or many, there has already been a bump in the number of listeners gravitating to the genre this year, and some will stay and delve deeper into it. Given its highly spiritual and intensely emotional components, can this be a bad thing? Hardly.

Elena Kuschnerova performs Concerto in D Minor BWV 974: Il Adagio, Bach’s piano transcription of Alessandro Marcello’s concerto for oboe and string orchestra. Video produced by Francesca Smaldino. On Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album, this composition is performed by Alexandre Tharaud, with Les Violins du Roy and Bernard Labadie.

Geoffrey Williams, a countertenor with the vocal ensemble New York Polyphony, notes that the Tallis motet, while powerful, is essentially a novelty piece. “Sure, Spem in alium is relatively unique for its 40-voice makeup and the mostly unknown impetus for its composition,” he says. “It isn’t especially an anomaly amongst early music enthusiasts–anymore than Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli or Bach’s Passions might be to the classical concertgoer.

“What it does provide is an open door to inquiring readers and hopefully future audience members to explore other equally sublime repertoire in the roughly 1,000 years’ worth of what we generally categorize as ‘early music.'”

Or consider Monica Huggett’s take on the whole thing. The Baroque violinist and artist in residence at Juilliard’s historical performance program, who only recently heard of the Tallis motet’s appearance in Fifty Shades, told WQXR’s Wise: “If this book makes housewives hear the glory of Thomas Tallis’ music, so much the better.”

To paraphrase Smokey Robinson, we second that emotion.

(Note: on her website, Ms. James has posted playlists of songs for all three books in the trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. The Tallis motet is nowhere to be found on any of these lists, which lean towards more contemporary, and far less illustrious, tunes by lesser lights such as Britney Spears, Kings of Leon and the odious Coldplay; at least Aretha, Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald made the cut.)

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