Victoria's Secret Gives New Meaning To `Chamber Music'

Who has sold the most classical records?

Pavarotti? Bernstein? Horowitz?

If you checked "none of the above," you'd be right. Much to the potential embarrassment of the classical world, the correct answer is "Victoria's Secret."

We will wait a minute for your blushes to subside.

Of the 10 platinum (selling more than a million copies) recordings in the history of classical music, five are from Victoria's Secret, the women's-wear firm that specializes in frothy silk-and-satin lingerie.

How is this possible?

It is not just silk and satin that have been marching out of Victoria's Secret stores over the holidays, but copies of "Classics By Request," the collections the company has produced with the esteemed London Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to exquisite nothings and lace-covered cover-ups, the Victoria folks have been purveying bits and snippets of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," "Adagio for Strings," "Nutcracker" and "Water Music," to name but a few items on the five best-selling discs.

You have to look hard on the brief leaflet that passes for liner notes to find the name of the conductor of this series, which was recorded in London in 1991 expressly for Victoria's Secret. The diligent will find that the series was recorded "under the baton of the distinguished Don Jackson."

Don who? Don't worry; I'd never heard of him before, either. But the London Symphony Orchestra is perfectly capable of playing all this stuff without any conductor at all, beyond a nod from the concertmaster.

Non-threatening music

What we have here is classical music as discreet backgrounds, in short selections that are designed to be low-key, elegant, familiar and non-threatening. Not all of it is orchestral music; some selections are chamber quartets or quintets by Boccherini or Haydn, and there's even some movements from concerto literature (you will look in vain for any solo credits). The selections are placed so closely together that they follow each other on the disc virtually without pause, probably so intimate moods won't be interrupted.

Is the music supposed to be erotic, in keeping with the lingerie?

Judging from the lists of selections on the five discs, probably not: There's hardly any of the pieces usually deemed erotic; scarcely any opera, for example, and the sensuous Impressionists get relatively short shrift. Opera is almost invariably about love: love unrequited, too well-requited, scorned and spurned and unfaithfully (or, less often, faithfully) returned - that is the stuff on which Verdi and Mozart and Wagner fed. It is not known whether the Druid priestess Norma, in the eponymous opera that will be heard next weekend in a Seattle Opera production, wore the early medieval equivalent of a lace teddy beneath her sacred robes, but erotic secrets were certainly Norma's stock in trade.

But instead of impassioned opera scores, we get pastoral interludes and chorales and a little decorous ballet music. This is music not to stir the passions, but to provide cultural backdrops.

Marketing `safe' culture

The publicity firm promoting the Victoria's Secret recordings, which are sold (in CD or tape format) in stores and through the company's mail-order catalog, emphasizes the safe-classics aspect of the recordings in literature that also makes it plain how unfamiliar they are with composers such as "Hayden" and works such as "Bach's The Tempered Clavier." Culture needs to appear safe to the consumers, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who buy "Classics By Request": "It is obvious that classical music can appeal to new demographic groups if presented correctly, in an uncluttered, non-threatening, romantic environment. . . . Culture among the twenty- and thirty-something set isn't dead - it's just seeping in on the sly."

Hard though it may be for music lovers to imagine the Adagio from Mozart's Clarinet Concerto as something that needs to "seep in on the sly," this approach seems to be winning over the Victoria's Secret customer base. It's hard to argue with any series that sells more than 5 million copies.

And it's equally hard to argue that if 5 million more people have heard recordings of classical music, even as backgrounds for lingerie, the recordings have not spun in vain. If you had any further doubts that marketing is everything, just remember a few years back, when recorded classical music was supposed to be the ammunition that emptied convenience-store parking lots of unsavory characters lurking about: One good whiff of a baroque concerto grosso was supposed to send them packing. Now the same pieces, more or less, are supposed to lure you to the boudoir.