The iTunes classical chart hasn’t been around very long, but for the time it has been available the number one slot has usually featured Pavarotti singing ‘Nessun dorma’. Nothing wrong with that, except that the chart was invented specifically to encourage the current classical music scene and give an impression of who was doing what within it. Now a piece written 450 years ago — Tallis’s ‘Spem in alium’ — has taken over at the top, in a recording by the Tallis Scholars.
Manna sure drops from heaven in unpredictable ways. This posting has come as a result of the success of an erotic novel, Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James, where it is suggested that Tallis’s music is the ultimate turn-on. Half of me can’t quite believe that a penitential Latin-texted motet of the most extreme intellectual complexity (it has 40 independent vocal parts) might qualify for this purpose; the other half can’t believe what the media is capable of, once it gets its teeth into something.
Suddenly a very large number of people who otherwise would never have given Tudor polyphony the time of day are at least putting ‘Spem’ on in the background. A piece which was once the very definition of élite is becoming a household name. I wonder what happens next. ‘Nessun dorma’ has proved evergreen because it has a melody people can hum; ‘Spem’ has a million melodies all at once, and no orchestra. But perhaps for once melody and orchestras aren’t the point. In this context mood is everything.