The Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos released their double-platinum juggernaut in March, 1994, 25 years ago!
(Shortened, adapted version of a post published on ‘RollingStone’)
A surprising number of huge-selling, classic albums came out in March 1994: but the most perplexing hit, both then and now, arrived 25 years ago: Chant was an album of Gregorian chants recorded decades earlier by Spain’s Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos.
The record was a fairly straightforward compilation of gentle, soothing, mystical chants in Latin, and somehow it became a sales juggernaut. By May, the record made it up to Number Three on the Billboard 200, and it ultimately spent 53 weeks on the chart. It was also Number One on the Classical Albums chart and Number 17 on the Christian Albums chart. The label that released Chant, Angel Records, made a music video for the track “Alleluia, beatus vir qui suffert” (“Happy is the man who endures”) for MTV. By July, the RIAA certified it double platinum; by contrast The New York Times reported at the time that a typical classical album could expect to sell only about 10,000 copies in its first year.
Maybe most perplexing is the fact that the recordings had come out years earlier, on four separate releases between 1973 and 1982. These were later packaged into a two-disc set, Las Mejores Obras del Canto Gregoriano, which was released in Spain, where it reached Number One in 1993. The Spanish label that put it out marketed it as ‘a stress reliever’. This tipped off Angel that it could be a hit, if they could work out how to sell it.
“We called it Chant” said Stephen Murphy, Angel’s President, “so it would have a name the way a pop album does. And we came up with the cover as a way of appealing to a young audience.” Angel followed up its success in subsequent years with three sequels, culled from the original recordings, Chant Noel, Chant II and Chant III; both Noel and II also made it onto the Billboard 200.
It became such a phenomenon, in fact, that the monks’ Spanish monastery, located in Burgos, became a tourist trap in the mid-Nineties. An Angel rep told Entertainment Weekly in January 1995 that rooms in the abbey were booked through the summer — even if it wasn’t open to all. When the label was running a promotion to win a chance to spend the night there, they had to exclude women because of the monks’ rules. “If a woman wins, she’ll stay in a nearby hotel and be taken on a guided tour,” the rep told the magazine.
All of the attention did not sit well with the real-life monks, who weren’t seeking so much attention. When Angel’s parent label, EMI, offered them $7.5 million to make new recordings, they turned it down, according to The Washington Post. “In our community we operate under the principle of not needing, and for that reason money does not bother us too much,” a rep (or “spokesmonk,” as WaPo called him) named Abbot Clemente Serna said in 1994. It was rumoured at the time that the money they received went to charity and for upkeep around the monastery.
When the paper asked Serna about the gold and platinum plaques the monastery received, he was humble: “I would rather not be thought of as a star,” he said. “I’m just an ordinary monk.”
What is Gregorian Chant and what is the reason for its great appeal?
“Gregorian [also known as Plainchant] is the official music of the Roman Liturgy; or more precisely it is the official sung prayer of the Roman liturgy. Chant is not music sung at the liturgy as an artistic decoration placed on the liturgical action. Rather it is liturgy. To put it another way, Gregorian chant is the liturgical prayer sung rather than spoken. It is important to note that Gregorian chant is not a style. The collection of chant contains several styles. Rather, Gregorian chant is a corpus of music. This corpus includes simple things such as singing the Mass responses on a single note as well as difficult and ornate antiphons sung by trained choirs.” (Unam Sanctam Catholicam blog)
Gregorian chants convey the calm, meditative atmosphere of the Catholic Church’s prayers through song. Although the name of Gregorian chant is derived from Pope Gregory I “The Great”, it has its original roots much earlier in history. Pure chant is a single line of music in which the text — a psalm, a prayer, the elements of the Mass — dictates the cadence. It was originally meant to be sung by one voice, but evolved to many voices, all singing the same line as one voice. King David employed the technique while singing his psalms and the early Christians, many of whom came out of the synagogues, continued to use the same form of chant. In the first centuries of our era, as Christianity grew exponentially and eventually became part of the Roman empire, Latin became the language of chant. Chant became “Gregorian chant” when music-loving Pope Gregory I made the Roman form the standard of the Church. As the popularity of Gregorian chant grew, it underwent several reforms and evolutions, mostly during the 12th and 13th centuries.
Sung well, Gregorian chant is the most beautiful and evocative of music, moving many listeners to tears. Unlike modern Church music, it possesses the qualities to raise the mind and heart to God. Perhaps its great appeal in recent times may well be due to the atmosphere of prayer, spirituality and mystery it elicits. These are the elements that most appeal to listeners. People seek the spiritual – perhaps more today than ever before – in a world full of noise, passing distractions, and superficiality. It’s an antidote to the materialism which dominates the world’s affairs … offering a glimpse of beauty beyond this world. This is why Gregorian Chant has become so popular in recent years, even among the young.