It took them half a century, but the Cistercian nuns of St. Mary’s Abbey in Wrentham, Mass., are back on the music charts.
Their CD of beautiful Gregorian chant — To Pray in Beauty — came out earlier this year.
Sister Edith Scholl was part of the abbey’s 1962 Christmas recording as well as this latest one. The Christmas record evolved from the abbey’s Christmas carols program before midnight Mass. At that time, the "Christmas concert" was a popular tradition.
"We recorded Christmas in the Cloister as a LP album, which later became a tape and now is a CD that sells well in our gift shop," explained Sister Edith.
As to the 50 years between recordings, she is not sure about the lengthy delay. "I can’t exactly say why. Perhaps it was the fact that no one gave us the initial impulse."
To Pray in Beauty was recorded by seven sisters last August in the abbey’s church; it was directed by Father Gabriel Bertoniere, who has been the sisters’ longtime choir director. He also wrote the liner notes for the CD and is a much-sought-after expert on Gregorian chant.
Also involved was Scott Levitin, chief master engineer with Warner Elektra Atlantic in the Los Angeles area. While much of his work has been focused on mastering film soundtracks and pop-music recordings, he was quite impressed with the vocal work of the sisters.
"Years ago, I was involved in the weekly broadcast of the Los Angeles Philharmonic," he told the Register. "After doing many years of working with pop music, the chant project was a nice change of pace, in that it was not overproduced."
According to Sister Christa-Maria Hofmann, the recording went very well. "Our group of seven became acquainted with the whirlwind of Gregorian chant, its long phrases and big chunks that needed to be digested. It was an experience of how to sing in such a way that words inspire music."
Equally happy to participate was Sister Karen Myers, because Gregorian chant was the impetus for her to enter the abbey more than a decade ago.
"Liturgy was the door through which I entered the monastery over 12 years ago," she recalled. "St. Gregory, from whom chant takes its name, writes that ‘in the word of God, you find the heart of God.’ In Gregorian chant, sacred texts in Latin are sung to music that is wonderfully harmonious with the meaning of the words. Listening to Gregorian chant, we receive an impression of the tone in which the words might have been spoken and are left with a feeling that the voice of Our Lord might have given us," she added.
The CD was produced by Jade Music, a specialty division of Milan Entertainment. Jade’s mission, since its start some 20 years ago, has been to bring sacred music from around the world to the public. Colette Chamboredon is the company’s founder.
She told the Register that it was the label’s work with the monks of the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain not long after the founding of Jade that sparked the label’s ongoing interest in chant.
"The Abbey of Santo Domingo appealed to us to restore and distribute their records. Following this early collaboration, we expanded our catalogue and worked with other choirs from around the world," said Chamboredon.
Stefan Karrer is the head of Jade Music here in the U.S. and is the one responsible for discovering the nuns of St. Mary’s.
"I’m always looking for new choirs and regularly reach out to abbeys and monasteries around the country," he said. "This collaboration with the sisters went very well."
When asked if Gregorian chant is making a comeback, Karrer said that Gregorian chant has never gone away.
"Over the years, we have seen consistent sales, with increases linked to an album or a choir," he related.
For those who are interested in chant on an academic level, universities such as The Catholic University of America in Washington, the University of Dallas and St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe, Pa., offer graduate degrees in this form of sacred music.
Father Stephen Concordia, a Benedictine priest, is an assistant professor of music at St. Vincent’s. He directs several choirs on campus that perform sacred music. He also conducts a summer workshop on the performance of Gregorian chant.
"Young people are interested in Gregorian chant wherever it is presented as what it is: a great and unique music, prayerful, suited to Catholic liturgy, with a universal appeal," he said.
"To anyone who recognizes the importance of appreciating the cultural and spiritual inheritance of their ancestors, it is obviously of great value to keep this stuff alive."
In Madison, Wis., Benedictine Abbot Marcel Rooney agrees. He is the founder of a new apostolate: the Orate Institute of Sacred Liturgy, Music and Art.
"The mission of the institute is to do all we can to stimulate prayer in the liturgy. For 40 years, we have become focused on performance or doing liturgy, but we need a deeper understanding of what we are doing," said Abbot Rooney.
According to him, what is needed is the rediscovery of some of the rich traditions of the Church.
"Gregorian chant is one of these great traditions," he related. "Why throw it away when it leads us to deeper prayer?"
In addition, the Pontifical University of St. Anselm’s liturgical institute in Rome now offers a master’s program in Gregorian chant and the use of the organ at Mass.
"The most important thing is that music, when it is truly liturgical, creates community," Father Jordi Piqué, dean of the Pontifical University of St. Anselm’s liturgical institute, told Catholic News Agency this spring.
"A very important part of liturgy is the music and chants, and now we’ve been able to unite with the Pontifical University of Sacred Music and offer this master’s."
The degree will require that students study Gregorian chant with "a scientific reflection," as well as seeing its central place, "directed within the liturgy."
Classes for the two-year program will be held every Thursday evening and will be divided into three main topics: liturgy, music and theology.
The university will invite speakers to lecture on topics such as organ improvisation, the sources of Gregorian chant and music composition. One guest lecturer will be the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who will lecture on the vision of music within the liturgy.
Students will also learn how to use the principles of Gregorian chant to compose chant in their own vernacular languages.
"The biggest challenge of liturgical music is the same as it has always been: to take modern-day musical languages and translate them into liturgical languages or vice versa," reflected Father Piqué.
"We have to invite composers to adapt popular and modern-day music, but within the environment of the (Eucharistic) celebration."
Father Piqué noted the increasing use of Gregorian chant at Mass and interpreted it as a refuge from the hurried pace of modern life.
Father Piqué said, "Our times are very filled with noise, and so music within the liturgy is taking on again the calm, tranquil and serene aspect that this open and serene dialogue with God needs to have."
In a day and age where life goes at a faster and faster pace, Cistercian nun Sister Luanne Chabot says chant is needed more than ever.
"Chant’s simplicity, peacefulness and its flow from silence back into silence counter the hectic pace of our times."
Eddie O’Neill writes from
New Castle, Colorado.
Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.