Magazine article The Spectator

Music: Glad to Be Grey

Magazine article The Spectator

Music: Glad to Be Grey

Article excerpt

Great works of art may have a strange afterlife. Deracinated from the world that created them they are at the mercy of what people think is important centuries later. Nothing shows this more clearly than the contribution that Tallis's 'Spem in alium' has made to Fifty Shades of Grey .

In case you are none the wiser, 'Spem in alium' is probably the most complex piece of music to come from the 16th century, and just possibly from any century. Written for 40 independent voices, it is unlikely to be sung with every note in place, though any sort of approximation shows just how majestic it is. Whether this was in the mind of E.L. James when she had her lovers do what they liked to do while listening to it, I cannot say; but its title is mentioned in the book, and the Tallis Scholars' recording did very nicely on the back of it. I have been asked repeatedly in interviews what I thought of coupling a work of high art with S&M, to which I replied that it doesn't matter to me how people encounter Tallis, as long as they do. My favourite interview on this topic was in Rome, in Italian, from which I learnt some vocabulary I didn't know before.

Rather than pay for a proper recording of the Tallis, the directors of the new film commissioned a spoof version of it, which involves some token voice-leading over a backing track, before it is interrupted by a cello. The only piece of classical music referred to in the book that properly survives into the film is a snippet of Chopin, which Grey himself is pretending to play on the piano. Otherwise it is a question of dumbing down the references to an easy-listening sequence of low-brow mediocrity, which does nothing to raise the achievement of a film already stripped bare of vibrancy. Why do this? James did well with her music -- Bach, Fauré, Verdi, Rachmaninov, Vaughan Williams as well as Tallis were all mentioned. There was a hint of class, now lost.

At the other end of the spectrum was the performance of 'Spem in alium' I conducted at Ted Hughes's memorial service in Westminster Abbey in May 1999. What to say about a piece of music written 450 years ago which, without the services of a hip publicist, can both qualify for embellishing a sex scene and be written into the will of the poet laureate: Hughes had stipulated much of what took place on that May morning, down to setting aside £12,000 for us to sing Tallis's colossus. …

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