Whether it’s Mozart or odes by a 12th century seer, classical music has always been sexy

Whether it’s Mozart or odes by a 12th century seer, classical music has always been sexy
  • PublishedJune 26, 2024

The first person who thought to write down what exactly might be happening in a woman’s body when experiencing orgasm, at least in the Western world, was a composer in 12th-century Germany.

“When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain, which brings with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight during the act and summons forth the emission of the man’s seed,” she wrote.

Hildegard von Bingen was by no means the first, or the last, composer to explore sex and, more interestingly, pleasure in classical music.

We often don’t think to listen out for tales of masturbation or promiscuity, but sex has always been in classical music — either shrouded in sacred 12th-century metaphor or in the composer’s liner notes for their symphony.

We might not speak the language of a 13th-century Occitan love song, but it is sitting there in plain sight.

Here’s a quick primer, a top five across the centuries of sex in classical music — from erotic and sacred metaphor to utter trash.

Mozart’s ‘Leck mich im Arsch’ (literally ‘Lick me in the arse’)

This one does what is says on the tin. An exercise in writing a lovely, six-part a cappella canon for a choir to sing — however Mozart gives it his trademark bawdy flair. With the title sung by the chorus repeatedly, this piece is thought to have been primarily a party piece for friends.

Even if Peter Shaffer’s portrayal of Wolfy in the 1981 play Amadeus took immense liberties, his 18th-century paper trail does indicate he enjoyed a good time with his friends, singing dirty songs.

Possibly everything by Hildegard von Bingen

This abbess, mystic, cookbook writer and researcher of the medicinal benefits of nettles and cannabis claimed that her musical works were received through visions, fully formed from the heavens. After being appointed prioress in 1136, she started writing songs for her nuns to sing.

While she was writing behind closed doors along the Rhine in the 12th century, a lot of her music conjures vivid imagery of the sacred and the erotic. Her famous drawing of a vision she experienced called The Cosmic Egg looks to any person with any sense in 2024 like a vagina.

Medieval illumination depicting a vision of the cosmos, a many-layered, multi-hued oval shape.
This 12th-century illumination of Hildegard von Bingen’s vision of the cosmos looks remarkably like something else. (Wikimedia Commons: The Yorck Project)

Having played much of Bingen’s music over the last decade, I hear lots of devotion and pleasure in everything she composed.

The Song of Solomon 

Bingen’s fusing of the spirit of the divine with the pleasure of the human body is nothing new in culture and arts — just look at a whirling dervish, Shaker Dances or the Song of Solomon (‘Shir Hashirim’ or the ‘Canticum Canticorum’ or the ‘Song of Songs’).

This one is the OG erotic poem of devotion — a very old set of poetry from the Hebrew Bible. Really you could look at any version, but ‘Das Hohelied Salomos: Ich sucht des Nachts in meinem Bett’ by Melchior Franck is steamy and lovely.

This is the only work in the Bible that focuses exclusively on human-to-human love (not human-to-divine) and includes great worship of the male and female form.

O loved one, delectable maiden!

You are as stately as a palm tree,

And your breasts are like its clusters.

I say I will climb the palm tree

And lay hold of its branches.

It wasn’t until protestants came along in the 16th century and translated Song of Solomon into a modern language that many in the church realised how steamy it was and banned it. It remains in the “very unsacred, naughty” category for some denominations today.

‘Ciaramella, Dolce Ciaramella’ by Zacara

This one brings the explicit.

Why would a 14th-century composer have treble voices singing all about the beauty of the shape of a shawm (a really old ancestor of the oboe)? The screams of delight and pleasure at the end of this recording will explain.

Making matters far more juicy is the fact that Zacara worked for the Pope, positioning his music as hallowed and significant, right at the start of the Renaissance.

For further reading, please see Michelle’s band camp activities in American Pie (1999).

‘Will You Buy a Fine Dog’ and ‘Now Is the Month of Maying’ by Thomas Morley

Thomas Morley, or as I call him, “The King of Smut”, might have been making music right beside Shakespeare, and remembered through musical history as the founding father of the English madrigal, but he also loved to write a pitch perfect ode to intercourse and bad behaviour.

Just watch one of the world’s most beautiful countertenors sing this tribute to everyone’s favourite bedtime toy:Don’t be tricked into thinking this is a celebration of the arrival of spring. “Now is the month of maying, when merry lads are playing” is an entirely obvious code for “Now is the time to roll around the haystacks and have sex.”


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