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Fifty Shades of Grey during Lent

Wednesday, 5 March, 2014

It’s Ash Wednesday today. Time to begin the annual Lenten fast. This year, as usual, it means avoiding alcohol and what we used to call “sweets”, which covers everything from confectionary to chocolate to crème caramel. But Lent isn’t just 40 days and nights of penance. It’s a time of meditation, which is enhanced by listening to music such as Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), an extraordinary choral work by an extraordinary English composer who managed to survive the religious upheavals under Henry VIII, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I.

For the listeners to his masterpiece, Tallis implores Domine Deus/ Creator caeli et terrae / respice humilitatem nostrum (Lord God/ Creator of Heaven and Earth / be mindful of our lowliness”), but it is highly unlikely that his idea of lowliness involved the kind of sado-masochism Christina and Anastasia practice in Fifty Shades of Grey, the best-selling soft-porn novel by EL James. Yet, there it is:

“The singing starts again … building and building, and he rains down blows on me … and I groan and writhe … Lost in him, lost in the astral, seraphic voices … I am completely at the mercy of his expert touch …
“‘What was that music?’ I mumble almost inarticulately.
“‘It’s called Spem in Alium, a 40-part motet by Thomas Tallis.’
“‘It was … overwhelming.'”

Along with Sex On Fire by the Kings of Leon and Toxic by Britney Spears, Spem in alium by The Tallis Scholars appears on the soundtrack of Fifty Shades of Grey. Odd bedfellows to be sure, but EL James knows that the rapture of music is good for the soul. Spem in alium nunquam habui (“I have never put my hope in any other”) is how this great devotional work begins before its tapestry of sound turns into a plea to the One “who absolves all the sins/ of suffering man” omnia peccata hominum/ in tribulatione dimittis.


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