Friday, March 18, 2016

Chant: Music for Paradise Revisited

Where is Stift Heiligenkreuz?

The Cistercian Abbey Stift Heiligenkreuz, in the heart of the Vienna woods, is located about 10 miles south-west of Vienna, Austria.

Being so near to the city and at the same time in the idyllic rural landscape of the Vienna woods makes the Abbey a popular tourist destination. With some 170,000 visitors every year Stift Heiligenkreuz is the most popular tourist attraction around Vienna.

How old is it?

Stift Heiligenkreuz 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.

One result of this continuous life can be seen in the buildings of the Abbey, a spectacular and harmonious mixture of all the styles of the last 900 years. The Gothic and Romanesque monastic complex of the Middle Ages is preserved, complemented by magnificent Baroque elements.

When was it founded, and by whom?

Stift Heiligenkreuz was founded in 1133 by St. Leopold III, Margrave of Austria, following the advice of his son Otto. St. Leopold had sent his son to Paris to study, where the young prince heard about a new reform movement of Benedictine monks: the Cistercian Order. On his way back to Austria Otto visited the Cistercian Abbey of Morimond; he liked it enough to end his journey there and entered the Abbey as a monk. He subsequently persuaded his father to found a Cistercian Monastery in Austria: Heiligenkreuz.

How many monks are there today?

Nearly 80 monks belong to the monastery. Stift Heiligenkreuz has been blessed with many vocations in recent years. It is splendid to see so many young men discover this ancient way of life, but we are beginning to run out of space for them!
About half of the monks live in the Abbey itself, while 14 live in a sister monastery, founded by Heiligenkreuz in 1988 in Bochum-Stiepel in Germany. The rest of the monks do pastoral work outside of the monastery—especially in the 20 parishes for which Stift Heiligenkreuz is responsible (it is typical of the Austrian Cistercians to have some monks engaged in the pastoral care of souls outside of the monastery).

What does your daily routine consist of?

Our primary activity as monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz is prayer. Our prayer is not a private search for individual enlightenment, but rather public praise and worship of God. Our prayer is, as Pope Benedict XVI said on September 9th 2007 during his visit to Heiligenkreuz, “free of any useful purpose.” That is to say, we don’t pray for health or success or such things, rather we praise God simply because He is good. We do this on behalf of the whole of creation, and especially for all men and women, most especially those who have lost sight of the final horizon of their lives. We monks pray for the Church and for the whole world; that is our service, our duty, our office or officium.

The Rule of St. Benedict teaches that the monk also has to work: “Ora et labora: pray and work.” The work which we do takes many forms. We have twenty parishes, in which we give pastoral care to more than 30,000 people. We are engaged in pilgrim and youth ministry in the monastery itself. We also do scholarly work: in 1802 Heiligenkreuz founded a Philosophical-Theological Academy and Seminary, which today has about 180 students. Pope Benedict raised this Academy to a Papal Athenaeum on his 2007 visit to Heiligenkreuz. Many monks teach as professors in the Papal Academy and many of the younger monks study there—a rather intense form of “work.” There are monks who attend to the economic sustenance of the Abbey; monks who take care of the many guests that visit us; and then there are special areas of work. One monk for example works as an artist and sculptor.

Tell us about Gregorian chant.

Gregorian chant is a form of sung prayer which has been tried and tested through the centuries. It has pre-Christian roots in the ancient Jewish Temple Liturgy. The early Christians adopted many of the ancient chants and developed them further. The Roman Church had the core of what we now know as Gregorian chant by the 7th and 8th centuries. The name “Gregorian chant” comes from Pope St. Gregory the Great (died 604) who founded a “schola cantorum,” a chant school, which collected all the existing chants.

Gregorian chant is always sung without accompaniment, and in unison; that is, there is only one melodic line, without harmony. This frees the chant from the rhythmical constraints necessary to keep several melodic lines together, allowing for an intricacy of rhythm practically unknown in later music.

Instead of being composed in strict rhythmic beats, the chant is composed in a free musical rhythm that rises and falls in accord with the inner meaning of each piece. Moreover, instead of being composed in major or minor keys, like music of later centuries, Gregorian chant is composed in eight “modes”, key-like tonal structures, which allow for a wide range of musical moods. The chant is written in an old system of notation on four lines.

The peaceful and other-worldly (to some ears “eerie”) tonality of Gregorian chant, and its free rhythm, make it the perfect music for unfolding the meaning of the sacred texts that are sung in it. These texts are generally taken from the Bible, the word of God. Thus the monks sing back to God the words which He has Himself given us…joining Heaven and earth. Most of the texts are taken from the Old Testament Psalms. The music is always at the service of the text—unfolding its meaning, and disposing the soul to enter into its spirit. Thus Gregorian chant is not merely “music,” rather it is “sung prayer.” Gregorian chant is the music of the Western Catholic Church. As monks of Heiligenkreuz we are happy that we have such a valuable tradition, and one so dear to the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI.

What language is used?

Gregorian chant is sung in Latin, which is still the official language of the Roman Catholic Church. The serious but melodious language of ancient Rome is perfectly suited to chant. Latin has many simple vowels, and this allows a range of notes (often more than 20) to be sung on a single syllable, make it the perfect language for the musical meditation of Scripture.

How did you get the opportunity to record the album?

On February 28th 2008 a friend of our monastery in London sent an e-mail to Father Karl Wallner, who is in charge of the Abbey’s website and our press spokesman. The e-mail contained only the words “quick, quick, Karl!” and a link to the notice from Universal about their search for Gregorian singers. Father Karl did not take the matter seriously. He hadn’t even heard of Universal and did not know what it is… but the following day—the 28th of February, the last day of the competition—he sent an e-mail to Universal with a link to the Gregorian chant samples on our website, After hearing the samples and watching a clip of Heiligenkreuz on youtube the people at Universal were excited.

We never thought we would win the contest, but Tom Lewis, the Development Manager of UCJ (Universal Classic and Jazz) was totally enthusiastic about our chant. So that’s how the project began. After Universal called Father Karl, and it slowly began to sink in what a great opportunity we had been given to share our tradition, we were thunderstruck. To be clear, we monks did not seek this out ourselves; we did not ambitiously climb try to push ourselves on the world. Rather, it is really the hand of God which brought us this opportunity to give Him glory. Since the beginning was so providential we decided to carry on with the project; we have no desire to become music stars; we will remain monks.

What was it like recording the album?

At first it was not so easy to take up this project. We have some experience in media attention because of the visit of the Pope in 2007; but none of us joined the monastery in order to be constantly filmed, interviewed or photographed. And the media attention was fairly intense at first. Some of our young confreres were also concerned that our sacred music could be used inappropriately, or that we could be portrayed as a “boy group.”

But the people from Universal were very sensitive to our worries and respected the religious atmosphere here. Moreover, through this project we are fulfilling a mission from the Pope. Pope Benedict XVI loves Gregorian chant, and it will certainly please him if it can become more widely known through us; we think of his words to us on September 9th: “Deep within everyone’s heart, whether they know it or not, is a yearning for supreme happiness and thus, ultimately, for God. Such a primordial human longing for completion is fulfilled by a monastery where the community gathers several times a day for the praise of God.”

So we decided to give this witness and record some of our prayers for the album. It was a really good experience to work with such professional people. We got to know each other well in the three days of recording sessions. Those three days were a bit stressful, as seven hours of recording were added on top of our normal rhythm of prayer which begins at 5.15 a.m. It was a joy for us, but also a bit of a sacrifice.

What does recording the album mean for the monastery?

The whole experience has become a grace of God for us. We did not seek this opportunity; it was really given us by God. And it is a good sort of thing for us: we actually don’t have to do anything other than what we always do: we 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 the activity which is our “job.”

And now we are of course curious to see whether the CD is successful. It was interesting to see that in just a couple of days after the first press announcements tens of thousands of people watched the video.

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