“He who sits in the heavens laughs,” sang David in Psalm 2, assuring Israel that, occasional appearances to the contrary, God was in no serious danger from His earthly enemies. “The Lord holds them in derision.”
The Lord is certainly having the last laugh where Fifty Shades of Grey is concerned.
In September, EMI Classics released Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album, a compilation of 15 previously released classical recordings that, according to a liner blurb, “inspired” the novelist E.L. James as she wrote her best-selling, sexploitation Fifty Shades trilogy. Some of the pieces, reportedly, are even mentioned in the works. So the album is a soundtrack, as it were, to James’ novels.
But no sooner does the listener hit “play” than she finds herself (James’ audience is predominantly female after all) immersed in a Whitman’s sampler of some of the richest, most ennobling melodies to have emerged from the pens of Western composers in the last four centuries—melodies, it should be added, that the type of woman likely to find James’ trash alluring would not ordinarily be expected to seek out.
Granted, several of the selections do emerge, directly or indirectly, from carnal contexts. Two pieces by Chopin, for instance, are included (“Prélude Op. 28, No. 4 in E minor” and “Nocturne No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 9”), and his carryings on with George Sand (née Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) still set tongues to wagging. There’s also Verdi’s “Prelude” from La traviata, an opera about a courtesan with a heart of gold. And who knows what libidinous soccer moms might make of Debussy’s “La fille aux cheveux de lin” once they realize that the title means “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.”
But, these pieces aside, none of the music on Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album could even remotely be accused of appealing to anyone’s prurient interests. The majority, in fact, when not simply innocent (Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne, Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” Delibes’ “Flower Duet” from Act I of Lakmé, the “Adagio sostenuto” movement of Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor”), could actually engender belief in and desire for the God who inspired them.
Thomas Tallis’ “Spem in alium” (as sung by the Tallis Scholars) is arguably the most rapturous Tudor-era prayer ever set to music, and, even in Latin, its a cappella yearning for deliverance from on high comes across. Fauré’s “In Paradisum” (as sung by the King’s College Choir, Cambridge, and accompanied by the English Chamber Orchestra) comes from the Requiem in D minor, a setting of the Catholic Church’s Mass of the Dead. And the very title of the album’s final selection, Bach’s Cantata BWV 147, “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring” (as performed by the pianist Alexis Weissenberg), points to the cross.
It is, in other words, highly unlikely that the harried housewives most likely to buy Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album—and who no doubt helped it reach No. 1 on Billboard’s classical music chart—will, upon actually listening to it, feel their lower natures enflamed. If anything, they’ll want more of where this music came from, perhaps even bothering to research its theological, or at least, historical roots.
Whereupon they’ll discover that Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” was based on a Tallis hymn whose lyrics began “Why fum’th in fight the Gentiles spite, in fury raging stout? / Why tak’th in hand the people fond, vain things to bring about?”—a paraphrase of the opening verses of David’s Psalm 2.