Cistercians Hit the Charts

Interview on Best-Selling Chant CD

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By Dominik Hartig

VIENNA, Austria, JUNE 13, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The Cistercian monks of the Stift Heiligenkreuz Abbey are unlikely candidates to make pop music's Top 10 list -- but they did just that, debuting at No. 9 in the United Kingdom.

A CD of their prayer, "Chant: Music for Paradise," (sold as "Chant: Music for the Soul" in some countries) has been called a "must-have" by reviewers.

Cistercian Father Karl Wallner, rector of the Benedict XVI Papal University of Heiligenkreuz, attributed the CD's overwhelming welcome to the fact that "Gregorian chant spreads harmony, peace and consolation in the depth of the soul."

ZENIT spoke with Father Wallner about the CD and the monks who made it.

Q: Entitled "Chant -- Music for Paradise," the Cistercians' CD has had extraordinary success. It would seem that Gregorian chant could be described as "music for the world." How do you account for this?

Father Wallner: The CD enables one to listen to our daily prayer to God, which we sing in the holy traditions of the Church and of the order, on the basis of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Its success, on one hand, is amazing. And it is amazing that suddenly a world that has become so profane is interested in a soft and harmonious Latin chant and that our CD jumped to the top of the pop music charts.

In England, not only is the CD number one in the field of classical music, but it is also among the top 10 on the charts where usually only pop and similar music is found. Even in stores, our CD has been put under the title "pop."

Here is my interpretation of this: Secular music has arrived at a dead point. In a world anguished by stress and nerves, it now causes more stress and nerves. Sacred music, above all Gregorian chant, has always been an oasis to bring relief to the soul. And it seems that many seek this oasis with nostalgia.

We have observed that for years, young people whom we invite to hear our chant, listen in silence, are fascinated, and then say with enthusiasm how they [found it] "cool." Therefore, it seems clear that there is an instinct in men's ailing hearts, which drives them to look for a medicine. Hence Gregorian chant is a medicine for the soul.

Q: Not long ago the Holy Father said that music, and in general true art, does not separate man from his daily concerns or from the reality of every day. Is this also true for Gregorian chant?

Father Wallner: I consider our choral prayer, during which we use Gregorian chant to praise and exalt God, a moment of relaxation and spiritual uplifting. Benedict speaks of [it as the] "work for God" -- in Latin, "opus Dei." Thus, it isn't a waste of time. It isn't something absurd; it's an action full of significance, a "work" -- a work, in fact, for God.

And in true music, there isn't only one man who sings, rather, it is a dimension of the Eternal that penetrates man, creating in him an ability to listen. Why has Gregorian chant always been called "the song of the angels?" Because something is felt that comes from and resounds from another world, something that cannot be measured with mere coordinates, such as rhythm, harmony and notes. That is why this form of music is not foreign to daily life, but heals the wounds of every day and helps to overcome them.

Q: What are the characteristics of this form of sung prayer, which is "daily bread" in convents and monasteries?

Father Wallner: Gregorian chant is very ancient. It was born in the first millennium, appearing already in the 4th century, and in many aspects is addressed to the Most High.

First of all the texts are, for the most part, verses from the Bible: hence it is the word of God, which from the mouths of men returns to God in the form of singing.

In the second place, the composers of the melodies were pious anonymous men consecrated to God, mostly monks, who created the music not out of a desire for fame, but men who desired, once the work was complete, to return to total anonymity. Hence, men who in their longing for holiness created something holy.

In the third place, chant is very fascinating, inasmuch as it is situated outside our normal experience of music. There are no tones of C major or D minor, there are no tempi, there is no established rhythm; it is a song for only one voice. Hence, it is a different sound from all other sounds that we today call music. And at the same time, it is at the root of all that which subsequently developed as music.

Fourth point: chant is above all a sung prayer. We sing it always before the altar; therefore, it is not for the people, but for God. That is why we can never go on tour with our chant, because it is always a question of prayer. The recordings for the CD "Chant -- Music for Paradise" were also taken from prayer.

Q: In the month of June, the Pope will pray, among other things, that all Christians cultivate a profound personal friendship with Christ, thus witnessing to his love. In what way can music and song create this friendship and perhaps also reinforce it?

Father Wallner: As a youth I learned to pray through the rosary. If I want to intensify my friendship with Jesus, I kneel before the Most High. Gregorian chant is, in fact, a form of prayer which is not about aggression or intensity, but is like "daily bread" -- so one can sing throughout life. The relationship with God that comes from the heart is already a premise.

In our meetings with young people, in which between 200 and 300 youth participate, we begin by singing a piece of Gregorian chant. This serves to create an atmosphere of peace for the young people. Then we sing the very beautiful new sacred songs that have the power to create in young people's hearts a personal relationship with Jesus. Then we pray a part of the rosary, and kneel in silence with young people in adoration of the Most High; we [also] teach them to formulate in their hearts a "you" with Jesus, to start this dialogue of the heart.

Returning to your question: Yes, music can lead to God, it can open hearts -- uplift the soul and unite it to God.

Q: Could you talk about the background of this CD?

Father Wallner: "Chant -- Music for Paradise" was born from joy and carries joy. And the reason is that the singing is based on our liturgy for the dead. The entire Requiem is on the CD, that is, the Mass for the dead.

Joy? Yes, because true joy is joy for eternal life. We experienced this in February of this year at Heiligenkreuz, when over the span of 16 days, three of our brethren died, while in the preceding five years, no brother had died. One of them had reached 100 years of age: At the time of the Nazis he had been imprisoned in a death cell.

However, for many of the young monks who have come to us in recent years and who experienced for the first time the gentle death of one of our brothers, to participate in songs of the liturgy for the dead made a great impression. In convent life, there is no liturgy more edifying than the liturgy for the dead, because one of us has arrived where we all want to go: to eternal communion with God. For this reason the CD is called precisely "Music for Paradise."

Q: One last question: Is Gregorian chant reserved exclusively for specialists, or can the rest of us also appreciate it?

Father Wallner: The CD is for everyone, in my opinion, also for young people. In any case, the ratings already demonstrate this.

When I entered [the monastery] at age 18, initially chant was strange for me. Today I love it very much because it really isn't "fast food" music, which leads to laziness and indolence of soul, but -- to continue the analogy -- it is a strong broth, a vitamin concentrate.

Gregorian chant spreads harmony, peace and comfort in the depth of the heart. And I would like to add a personal thought, because as a Catholic dogmatic I believe that the divine can be imprinted in a sacred way on the earthly reality. In our convent we are living a moment of grace, because we are in close union with the Church, with the Pope and with the magisterium. And it is possible to feel this internal harmony with all that is in the hearts of the 17 singers. This music is a small sacred gift that God has willed to give to the world through us.

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On the Net:

"Chant: Music for Paradise": http://www.chantmusicforparadise.com

Video on the Making of the CD: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92YVt6y3Gfk&feature=related