Every summer seems to have that book. You know, the one whose cover you spot facing you on every subway, bus, or train ride you take–the one that it seems like everybody is reading right now, the one that’s all over the news. These buzzed about books take over the media for a while; everybody remembers the feeding frenzies when Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games (and all of their ensuing progeny) hit book stores. Well, three of those big summer books are E.L. James’s smash hit erotica novels Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. Although the first book was published in 2011 to immediate and overwhelming success, the books are still a hot topic and, if sales numbers are any indication, a wildly popular read.
The book’s nature as an unexpected bondage-porn bestseller has caused it to be wildly unpopular with various critics and family groups and equally wildly popular with readers, particularly female readers in their thirties and beyond. In fact, the books’ popularity have created a most unexpected side effect in the world of classical music (a world that doesn’t find itself often mentioned in the same article as the S&M scene). As it turns out, the author James mentions Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium in her first book: the protagonist, Anastasia, listens to the piece blindfolded during a scene set in what James calls the “Red Room of Pain.” This passage has prompted a rabid interest in Tallis’s piece: the Tallis Scholar’s recording of this 1570 motet has shot to number 7 on the UK Classical Singles chart. With 18 weeks at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List, that’s a lot of readers who are curious about Tallis. (For those wondering, the piece, translated from Latin, is entitled “Hope In Any Other” and is a 40-part motet by for eight choirs of five voices each.)
The unexpected Tallis fever that has so benefited the British Tallis Scholars has gotten the classical world thinking. The use of sex to sell classical music has been a hotly contested subject for years now. Both sides of the debate are represented in spades: artists (particularly young artists) are all too happy to blend roles of model and musician into sexy press materials and album covers; many within the classical music community decry that route as cheap–a tacky, substance-less way to sell sub-par music. With the unintentionally lucrative sales of the Tallis Scholars’ recording as an example, though, some business-minded voices in classical music are wondering if E.L. James has hit upon an accidental gold mine for classical music sales. ArtsJournal blogger Chloe Veltman writes, “With clever product placement, the classical music industry may be able to leverage the benefits of sex appeal without having to resort to the bare shoulders on CD covers (which, let’s face it, don’t make that much of a difference to sales figures anyway at the end of the day)….50 Shades of Grey’ is doing wonders for the Tallis Scholars and the singers didn’t have to take their shirts off and wiggle for the camera.”
Veltman argues that perhaps this is a sneaky and less potentially “degrading” way for classical music sales to hit some high points. Whether this is a viable business model remains to be seen, but the situation as it stands now is a nice one for an ensemble like the Tallis Scholars to be in. Says Tallis Scholars founder and director Peter Phillips, “I haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey but I am most grateful to the author for introducing so many new listeners to the musical sensation that is Thomas Tallis’s ‘Spem in alium.’” Although most readers’ discoveries of this work was accidental and may not lead to greater interest in Tallis, for some it may. Either way, Tallis’s 40-voice masterpiece deserves a rebirth, no matter what the reason may be. As for the underlying question of sex and sex appeal’s place in classical music: that debate will rage on.