An obvious corollary to the adage that sex sells is that everybody wants a piece of that action.
So once E.L. James’s mommy-porn epic Fifty Shades of Grey bedded down in the bestseller list, it was only a matter of time before we were buried under an avalanche of ancillary products hoping to play off the book’s success, using the allure of Fifty Shades to flog everything from bondage gear to kitchen accessories.
Of these spin-offs, Fifty Shades of Grey – The Classical Album may seem the biggest stretch of all. Yes, heroine Anastasia Steele is frequently put through her paces to the sound of classical music, as when she is bound and then disciplined while a choral piece by English composer Thomas Tallis plays on headphones. James, to her credit, even went to the trouble of assembling a YouTube play list, linked to her website, for those readers not already intimate with the sound of Tudor church music.
But let’s be honest – when you’re looking for dirty dancing, you don’t go to the ballet. These days, anyone hankering for aural sex turns to rock ’n’ roll, a music whose very name is a euphemism for love-making. Over the last 60 years, rock has described more variations on the horizontal bop than the Kama Sutra itself.
Even James fleshes out her playlist with rock tunes ranging from the Kings of Leon’s Sex on Fire to The Blower’s Daughter by Damien Rice. Rock is sexy, and it knows it.
But as any second violinist could tell you, the classical canon also has its share of naughty bits.
From 16th-century erotic madrigals to epic operas about obsession and desire, classical music has indulged every shade of eroticism, from mildly naughty to downright depraved. But because it’s considered high culture, many listeners simply assume there’s no sex with violins.
Certainly, classical kink is never as in-your-face obvious as the rock variety. Beethoven did not compose an Erotica symphony, nor have any opera heroines claimed to be like a virgin, although a few could reasonably be described as girls gone wild. Even when the words are obviously naughty, as with something like Monteverdi’s madrigal Eccomi pronta ai baci (“Here I am, ready for kisses”), it often takes an educated ear to recognize that there’s frisky business afoot.
But classical music’s reliance on complicated harmony and extended form can also have its advantages. Where rock tunes tend to be three-minute quickies, offering wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am exhilaration and little more, classical compositions take their time, letting the music build slowly to gradually seduce the audience.
Perhaps the most famous example of this, thanks in part to Bo Derek and the film 10, is Ravel’s Bolero. Like a pop song, it relies on repetition to intensify the impact of a relatively simple melody, but that’s not all it does. Ravel starts the piece at a gentle murmur, then slowly but deliberately builds volume without altering either the tonal centre or the sensually thrumming bump-bumpity-bump, bumpity-bump-bump beat. After some 15 minutes of gathering intensity, the orchestra is fairly throbbing with desire. Suddenly, the melody modulates up, the brass section growls a few chords, and the orchestra falls back, exhausted. Is there anything as vividly orgasmic in rock?
As the musicologist Leonard B. Meyer observed in his book Emotion and Meaning in Music, music’s emotional power derives mostly from its manipulation of expectation. In a pop tune, that rarely goes much further than getting the listener to look forward to the chorus. But with the broader canvas that classical music provides, the composer has many more ways to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde offers a classic example of this. Based on a 13th-century romance by Gottfried von Strassburg, it’s a tale of doomed love that rivals Twilight in its mingling of frustrated desire and death. But Wagner wasn’t content with merely dramatizing Tristan and Isolde’s plight; he wanted to make their passion palpable, and filled the opera with unresolved cadences, so that the music itself seems forever thwarted in its desire for consummation, much like Tristan and Isolde themselves. This all culminates in the liebestod or “love death,” in Act 3, where after almost five minutes of feinting and sidestepping the music at long last resolves in a glorious B-major chord, which marks Isolde’s death. Forget the French notion of an orgasm as “la petite mort” – this is the big one.
Sadly, there’s nothing as climactic as that in Fifty Shades of Grey – The Classical Album. Although it avoids the most hackneyed signifiers of larger-than-life romance, such as Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, with its pulsing French horns and arching string melody, the album leans nonetheless on the overfamiliar and clichéd.
What’s striking, though, is that the clichés aren’t the ones you’d expect. There’s nothing as notoriously salacious as Richard Strauss’s Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome, perhaps the most opulent strip number in opera; neither is there anything as memorably submissive as Un bel di vedremo from Madama Butterfly, in which Puccini’s famous geisha dreams of giving herself to her American lover upon his return.
No, what we’re given instead are the placid arpeggios of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and the plodding pulse of Pachelbel’s Canon – Baroque selections that may make sense in the context of the novel, but otherwise seem about as kinky as going to Baskin Robbins and asking for vanilla.
Even the passages she plucks from the Romantic repertoire — the second movement from Rachmaninoff’s famously lyrical Piano Concerto No. 2, Chopin’s delicate Nocturne,Op. 9 No. 1, British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’s stately Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis — are more pretty than passionate. But that’s because James’s choice of music isn’t about inciting passion but building brand loyalty, intensifying her readers’ bond to the private world of Ana and Chris. It’s an accessory to the book, not an aural aphrodiasiac.
As such, it’s likely to leave uninitiated listeners wondering what all the fuss is about, and wishing they had something truly kinky to listen to. Something like Brown Sugar by the Stones, or Love to Love You Baby by Donna Summer, or Rhianna’s S&M.
Something that rocks.
Six sexy classics
Con che soavita
A subtly naughty madrigal for solo soprano, its 16th-century sexual content depends mostly on where you imagine her lips are when she sings “E vi bacio e v’ascolto” (“I both kiss you and listen to you”).
Franz Liszt,Sonata in B Minor
The Mick Jagger of his day, Liszt was an intensely charismatic virtuoso whose female fans would swoon as soon as he sat at the piano. This moody masterwork finds him at his most intensely romantic.
Richard Wagner,Prelude and LiebestodfromTristan und Isolde
Love, fate, sex, death — Twilight has nothing on Wagner’s Tristan. No wonder George Bernard Shaw described it as “an astonishingly intense and faithful translation into music of the emotions which accompany the union of a pair of lovers.”
Richard Strauss,Dance of the Seven VeilsfromSalome
Incestuous lust? Blasphemous necrophilia? Just another night at the opera for Ricky Strauss, who ups the ante here with the most sensually acrobatic strip music ever written.
Claude Debussy,Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune
With its mournful, hesitating flute solo and dreamy wash of strings and horn, this little ballet piece seemed just another pastoral fantasy until Nijinsky choreographed its onanistic interlude. Naughty, naughty faun!
Even if you’ve never seen the Blake Edwards film 10, it’s hard to miss the erotic content here. Just be careful setting the volume on the whispered opening, or the climax will knock you out of your seat