How Did 'Fifty Shades Of Grey' Sell Classical Music?

Jul 11, 2012
Originally published on February 13, 2015 9:37 am

The reviews rolling in have been dreadful, but it seems that audiences will probably pour into theaters this Valentine's Day weekend to see Fifty Shades of Grey on the big screen. Though classical music is apparently nowhere to be heard in the film's soundtrack, it still figures as a huge presence in E L James' trilogy, which, as of a year ago, had sold more than 100 million copies in more than 50 languages.

Among the more obvious commercial tie-in products, some classical albums have enjoyed significant Fifty Shades afterglow, as I wrote three years ago (read the original, from July 11, 2012, below). Since the time this article was first published, an official compilation was released on EMI Classics that beat out every other title on the Billboard classical chart for months. And here we are — even before the movie's opening night, the first Fifty Shades book is back at No. 3 on the New York Times best-sellers list. Could Thomas Tallis be far behind?


File this under Strange Bedfellows. The crazy-huge success of E L James' Fifty Shades erotic trilogy — which as of late May 2012 stood at more than 10 million sales in all formats and 60 physical printings, according to publisher Vintage Books — has made quite the impact in ... classical music, of all things.

Consider this: Thomas Tallis' wondrous 40-part motet Spem in alium, written around 1570 and recorded by The Tallis Scholars more than 25 years ago, has bounded up the classical charts, thanks to its mention in the first installment of Fifty Shades.

I've just learned through fans' postings online — I must admit I haven't read the book — that Spem is what the seductive Christian Grey is listening to on his first night with the book's heroine.*

This unexpected rebounding has been enough of a high/low cultural collision that Peter Phillips, the very proper and rather starchy founder and director of The Tallis Scholars, has actually issued a statement about it. "I haven't read Fifty Shades of Grey," Phillips said, "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. Written during the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth, it features 40 individual voices singing in Latin that combine to a thrilling climax for the words 'respice humilitatem nostram' (be mindful of our humiliation)."

But the strange pop-culture moment The Tallis Scholars are now enjoying isn't where the intersection of classical music and Fifty Shades ends. E L James has issued her own "soundtrack" lists for full, multisensorial Fifty Shades enjoyment — with Bach, Delibes, Villa-Lobos, Chopin, Verdi, Vaughan Williams, Canteloube and Mozart included. (Interestingly, it's not The Tallis Scholars' recording that James name checks — she recommends The Sixteen's version instead.) Apparently, Mr. Grey likes the classical quite a bit.

Though I will leave it to Fifty Shades fans to unpack the full nuances of Phillips' comments, this Tallis Scholars recording would definitely be on my own list of desert island albums, and anything that gets this gorgeousness out in front of a (much, much) wider audience is great.

*What I have also learned today: Said heroine shares my first name, though we pronounce it differently, and her nickname is the nonsensical-to-the-name's-meaning Ana (though Ana, on its own, is a perfectly lovely name — just doesn't fit mine). I won't comment on how appalling I find that, except: yuck.

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