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Two great, chart-topping Benedictine chant albums

By Thomas Van (bio - articles - email) | Mar 29, 2014

Weeks ago, we reported the unusual phenomenon of two chant albums reaching the top of Billboard’s traditional classical music chart. I say this is unusual, but not unheard of, because it seems to happen every few years since the ‘90s chant craze was kicked off by the 1994 rerelease of Chant, an album by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. That album’s popularity had as much to do with a growing interest in New Age music as it had to do with interest in Roman Catholicism, and ever since, press for chant albums has all too often focused on its relaxing and stress-relieving effects rather than its intrinsic musical value or its religious context. Yet whatever the reason, if people are buying and listening to great music, let alone great music that is hundreds of years old, let alone great, hundreds-of-years-old music that is central to Catholic worship through the ages, it’s hard to call that else but a good thing, and noteworthy.

The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, founded in 1995, have recorded five albums of chant and polyphony so far. Their latest, Lent at Ephesus, has been at number one on the traditional classical chart for the past five weeks; their previous album, Angels and Saints at Ephesus, currently at number three, has been on the chart for forty-five weeks now. Lent was produced by 2013 Grammy Award-winning producer Blanton Alspaugh, while Angels and Saints was produced by nine-time International Grammy-winning producer Christopher Alder and recorded by two-time Grammy-winning engineer Mark Donahue, in the sisters’ house in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. Both albums include pieces in Latin and English, ranging from the obscure to the familiar (“Adoramus Te Christe,” “O Sacred Head Surrounded,” “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” “Ave Regina Caelorum”). There are even a few original compositions and arrangements by the nuns, which fit in well with the rest.

These nuns sing the office eight times a day for a total of about three hours, led by a Mother Superior who is a trained singer, so while they are not a professional ensemble, they sound as good as one. Listening to the most recent two albums, I found much to praise and little to complain about. There is always a pleasing sense of forward motion to the performances, lighter or heavier in a manner appropriate to the individual piece, with the exception of one or two pieces with awkward pauses between lines. A sour minor third in “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” and a missed opportunity to bring out the independent lines in a Palestrina piece are the only other flaws I heard in the otherwise beautiful music. The words are nearly always easily audible, except some slight difficulty I had with a couple of the English pieces, and I found following along with the translations of the Latin spiritually enriching. While both Angels and Saints and Lent at Ephesus are very good, I prefer the pieces on the latter, as well as the production and the blend of voices, which is slightly richer and fuller (for an all-female ensemble, they do an excellent job singing tenor and bass parts!). My favorite piece is the pre-eighth-century chant “Improperia,” a setting of the ancient Reproaches from the Good Friday Liturgy.

Reading the liner notes for Lent at Ephesus, I was moved that credit for each original work is given to the Benedictine sisters as a group rather than to whichever individual sister composed or arranged the piece. One of them, “My Mercy,” is described thus: “An interior prayer brought forth in song in 2007 through holy obedience, it remains a perennial favorite of the community.” We should thank God that the holy obedience which gave us the spirituality of St. Therese of Lisieux is still at work today. Though their music has met with some worldly success, in their making-of video the sisters give the credit for both the success and the music itself to God and the angels, whom they honor in song. While the albums are available on iTunes and elsewhere, the best way to support the sisters is to buy their albums directly from their website, where audio samples may also be heard. Lent in Ephesus in particular would make a good purchase as an aid to contemplation for the remainder of the penitential season.

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