The best-selling “mummy porn” erotic fantasy 50 Shades of Grey (and its sequels) is notable for being short on culture and long on bad writing and naff BDSM sex scenes. I know this because I weakened, while bored on holiday at Christmas, and read the damn thing (a friend sent me a PDF of the book so I could read it in secret on my iPad!). Those who know me well – as a voracious reader of books on pianism and classical music, and the works of contemporary novelists such as Alan Hollinghurst, Ian McEwan, Helen Dunmore and Paul Theroux – are probably now, as I write, throwing their hands up in horror at this confession. However, as a reviewer and one who will join in noisily with a good debate around the dinner table, I believe it is necessary to read, hear or see the rubbish so that one can a) offer criticism based on knowledge, rather than hearsay; and b) really appreciate great literature, music or art when one comes across it.
50 Shades…. has been responsible for sending Thomas Tallis’s wonderful, soaring 40-part motet Spem in Alium to the top of the classical music charts (it’s the piece Christian Grey, the controlling, BDSM-obsessed ‘hero’ of the book, is listening to the first time he seduces our ‘heroine’, the irritatingly immature Anastasia). Another piece which has enjoyed a resurgence of interest thanks to the book is the ‘Adagio’ from J S Bach’s Concerto in D Minor after Marcello, BWV 974. Christian Grey, who is not only drop-dead gorgeous and richer than Croesus but also a talented amateur pianist (natch), is playing this piece (naked at the piano, I might add) the first morning-after-the-night-before:
I hear the music.The lilting notes of the piano, a sad sweet lament……
Christian is at the piano, completely lost in the music he’s playing. His expression is sad and forlorn, like the music. His playing is stunning……I listen enraptured. He’s such an accomplished musician….
When he’s finished, Christian tells Anastasia that it is Bach’s transcription of an oboe concerto, originally by Marcello.
I first came across this arresting piece on the soundtrack of a French film called ‘Je Te Mangerais’ (in English ‘Highly Strung’) about a couple of French lesbians (one of whom is a pianist), which I saw just after I’d done my ATCL Recital Diploma in December 2011. I was looking for some repertoire to keep me occupied while I was waiting for the exam results, and, by a neat coincidence, the entire Concerto was on the repertoire list for the LTCL, which I decided to attempt after I’d received my ATCL result.
It is the pure beauty of the Adagio, a limber solo melody over a hypnotic, repeating bass line, that makes it so compelling: a serene oasis between a witty, rhetorical opening movement and a Presto finale, an exuberant 3/8 romp, scored almost entirely in semiquavers.
Bach transcribed 16 instrumental concertos by other composers for solo harpsichord during the 1710s. Six were originally works by Antonio Vivaldi. Alessandro Marcello lacked the style and innovation of Vivaldi, and it is possible that Bach selected this concerto to transcribe to test his own skill and adaptive ingenuity. Bach’s transcription, like its original, is in the usual three movements of an Italian concerto. The shell of the first movement is clearly Marcello’s work, though Bach is quick to thicken the lean textures of the original, particularly in the middle of the movement where the writing is very dense.
In the Adagio, the right hand melodic line is highly ornamented, suggesting improvisation, and is perhaps an opportunity for Bach to show off the emotional possibilities of the harpsichord, as well as the technical prowess of the keyboard player. When I first started learning it, I was also working on Chopin’s Nocturne in E, op 62 no. 2, a piece in which a beautiful simple melodic line is decorated with ornaments and fiorituras. Chopin revered Bach, and learning the two pieces concurrently demonstrated the influence and inspiration Chopin drew from JSB.
As for playing the piece, a soft, light right hand and arm is crucial to achieve a beautiful singing tone in the melody. Keep the mordents and trills quite leisurely/lengthened, and the demi-semiquaver bars relaxed to create a sense of improvisation. I like to spread some of the chords – e.g. bars 5 and 13. Keep the LH chords soft – “floating chords” where the keys are depressed just enough to create sound – and think 3 in a bar (rather than 6 quavers). Throughout, the piece needs to ‘breathe’, so observe Bach’s phrasing where marked (there is limited phrasing in my Barenreiter edition) and don’t overdo the drop slurs (e.g. at bar 18), and don’t push the LH. Remember, this is 5 minutes of serenity between two dramatic and exciting outer movements.
For me, the benchmark recording of this work has to be Glenn Gould’s. His treatment of the ornaments is particularly fine, and the rest of the Concerto is splendidly orchestral. James Rhodes has also recorded the Adagio but to my mind it is an overly contrived, self-conscious reading of the piece. A quick trawl around Spotify threw up some other interesting interpretations of the work, including a ‘cello version with Rostropovich, and a rather smooth, “lounge” style improv by Gabriela Montero. When studying the concerto, it is worth listening to Marcello’s original to hear how Bach has handled the orchestral writing, and where he has stripped out material to highlight the capabilities of the harpsichord.
Download the score of the complete Concerto in D minor BWV 974 from IMSLP. For a simplified version of the score, click here
Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis
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I missed the bit about Grey being a pianist. I only skimmed it for the smut but it was so badly written I couldn’t persevere with it!
My teacher recently suffered a coughing fit when a fine performance by a fellow student of Chopin’s 4th Scherzo prompted me to confess that all of the Ballades and Scherzi had served as background music for many of my teenage erotic adventures. To this day, the B sections particularly summon up some interesting memories, as does a great deal of Liszt 🙂 Debussy and Bach? Not so much…
Fascinating to compare the Bach with the Marcello original. It shows that gorgeously tender side of Bach that I often forget about. In a similar mood I particularly love the F minor concerto slow movement too (the one with the pizzicato strings) – there’s also a beautiful recording of it by the Swingle Singers.
But I was perusing that 50 Shades ‘soundtrack’ and I was struck by how unerotic it is! Lots of tenderness, sweet romance, a few pieces of cheese … but little that I at least could associate with sex, let alone BDSM!
I guess the erotic in music is very personal though. I’ve heard people mention pieces they associate with sex over the years and I’ve often been surprised. But I’m convinced there is something beyond the purely subjective and personal association: there are composers who are particularly tuned in to sexual energy in their expressive world. For me, above all, Mozart. It’s a subject I’d love to read (or perhaps write!) about.
Guest post, Tim?!
I agree about the 50 Shades soundtrack: it’s very unerotic. Maybe the author is someone who doesn’t get turned on by music…? For seduction I think I’d probably choose La Plus Que Lente by Debussy, or his Valse Romantique. Both have a sensuous lilt to them. I find a lot of Debussy’s music very erotic. And some of Chopin’s (though he may not have intended it to be so).
And then there are the Cocteau Twins (anything from ‘Treasure’) and Goldfrapp…..
Definitely worth exploring this subject further: maybe we should write a joint post?!
I like your idea. I’ll do some research and see what I find. Certainly agree about Debussy.
I think it might be hard to find classical pieces specifically matching the 50 Shades theme. Will have to look for hints in poetic texts and song lyrics. There’s a marvellously kinky track by Goldfrapp I can think of as a starter.
I think I might be thinking about the same track by Goldfrapp….
Wow. The quoted passage sounds like some form-stealing alien unconvincingly attempting to replicate human speech.
The rest of the book isn’t much better!