Saturday, May 31, 2008

CD by monks takes UK chart by storm

A new album of Gregorian chant has taken the music world by storm after it reached the top 10 in the UK pop charts and went to number one in the classical music list.

The album, by the Cistercian monks of Holy Cross Abbey in the Viennese woods in Austria, is entitled Chant Music for Paradise. It was sung by 17 of the abbey’s monks.

The monks’ path to fame started when a friend of the monastery in London spotted an advert in the Catholic papers in Britain by Universal Records looking for singers of plain chant.

Over 100 entries were submitted from all over the world but it was the last-minute entry by the monks of Holy Cross that caught the record moguls’ imagination.

“The whole experience of recording the CD has become a grace of God for us,” said Fr Karl, the abbey’s spokesperson and press officer, who handled the publicity for Pope Benedict’s visit to the monastery in September 2007.

He added: “We did not seek this opportunity; it was really given to us by God. It it is a good sort of thing for us: we actually don’t have to do anything other than what we always do: pray. We don’t travel around the world, and we don’t distract ourselves from our vocation.

“And yet the world is fascinated by precisely this activity, which to us is our ‘job’ .”

Asked how the monks feel when they sing Gregorian chant, Fr Karl said: “Gregorian chant is our prayer.” He added that the music not only calms, it also gives strength.

It is as though “one crosses a spiritual border” and leaves the superficial world behind. Gregorian chant, he said, opens the heart for God and the spiritual world. It also has an emotional dimension; it is joy and fear, praise and mourning, jubilation and thanksgiving.

The music varies, explained the monk, from day to day throughout the year. After one has been in the monastery
for a few years or decades, one looks forward to the days when certain antiphons or Alleluias are sung, he said.

Fr Karl described the days of recording as “unusual”, adding that they were a deeply religious experience.

Fr Karl continued: “The recordings were done in the church where our relic of the True Cross is kept. In the midst of the microphones and other paraphernalia, we always kept the reliquary in sight, and we faced the tabernacle, where the Blessed Sacrament is kept.

“We always sang facing the altar – towards God. Thus the recordings were not just musical productions but rather continuous prayer.”

Holy Cross Abbey, in Stift Heiligenkreuz, was founded in 1133 by St Leopold III, Margrave of Austria, following the advice of his son Otto. It is 875 years old this year.

Although pillaged by invading Turks in the 17th Century, and persecuted by the Nazis from 1938 to 1945, it has never been destroyed or dissolved. It is the only Cistercian Abbey in the world to exist so long without interruption.

The monks said they will use any profits to fund the upkeep of their monastery and to contribute towards the studies of students from Vietnam and other places in their Pontifical Academy.

There are 77 monks at Holy Cross, about half of whom live in the monastery. The other half live in a sister monastery in Germany or run some 20 parishes.

This is not the first time that Gregorian chant has hit the charts in Britain. In the mid-1990s, the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain achieved a similar feat.

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