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HEILIGENKREUZ JOURNAL Sacred Songs Sell, Drawing Attention to Their Source
Some monks posing with copies of their album. ByMARK LANDLER Published: June 26, 2008
Ernst Weiss/European Pressphoto Agency
HEILIGENKREUZ,Austria— As noon draws near, the monks glide into the church, their white cowls billowing behind them. They line up in silence, facing each other in long choir stalls. Wood carvings of saints peer down on them from the austere Romanesque nave.
Herwig Prammer/Reuters Monks sang evening vespers last month at Heiligenkreuz Abbey.
Bells peal and the chant begins — low at first, then swelling as all the monks join in. Their soft voices wash over the ancient stones, replacing the empty clatter of the day with something like the sound of eternity.
Except, that is, for the clicks of a camera held by a photographer lurking behind a stone pillar.
It has been like this since last spring, when word got out that the Cistercian monks of the Stift Heiligenkreuz, deep in the Vienna woods, had been signed by Universal Music to record an album of Gregorian chants.
When the album, “Chant: Music for Paradise,” was released in Europe in May — and shot to No. 7 in the British pop charts, at one point outselling releases fromAmy WinehouseandMadonna— the trickle of press attention turned into a torrent. (The CD will be released in the United States on Tuesday.)
Now this monastery, where the daily rituals of prayer and work have guided life for 875 years, finds itself in a media whirligig at once exhilarating and unsettling for its 77
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The battle for Budweiser
The monks at Heiligenkreuz Abbey put their work online.
“We’re monks,” said Johannes Paul Chavanne, 25, a Viennese who entered the monastery after studying law and is training to be a priest. “We’re not pop stars, and we don’t want to be pop stars.”
Too late: the album has made the monks of Heiligenkreuz a crossover hit, the latest example of how Gregorian chant, a onceneglected 1,000yearold part of the Roman Catholic liturgy, can be repackaged for a secular society that savors its soothing, otherworldly cadences.
Heiligenkreuz — the name means Holy Cross — has put one of its more worldly monks, Karl Wallner, in charge of public relations. When not in prayer, he spends his days fielding calls from reporters as far away as New Zealand. His cellphone, its ring tone set to chant, sings constantly.
“I’m like a shield around my community,” said Father Wallner, who has been a monk for 26 years. “There was a lot of concern at first that this would destroy the serenity of the monastery.”
Some monks also worried that putting chants, which are, after all, prayers, into a commercial product amounted to a kind of profanity — “like usingLeonardo da Vincias wallpaper,” in the words of one. For most, those risks are outweighed by what they believe is the music’s great potential: to stir feelings of faith in a society that has drifted far from religion.
Still, the making of these latest monastic stars may say more about the way the secular world, thanks to the power of the Internet, can penetrate even the most secluded of cloisters.
In 1994, the Benedictines of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain prompted the last big revival of Gregorian chant with an album that became a phenomenon. More recently, the use of chant on the popular video gameHalohas piqued interest.
Eager to get in on the trend, Universal’s classical music label took out an advertisement in Catholic publications, inviting chant groups to submit their work. Finding another ensemble like the Benedictines was going to be a long shot, the label’s executives figured.
“Not all monks want to enter into a commercial relationship because that’s not what they spend their days doing,” said Tom Lewis, the artist development manager in London for Universal Classics & Jazz.
But the advertisement was spotted by the grandson of a monk from here. He tipped off Father Wallner, who, in addition to his publicrelations duties, runs the monastery’s theological academy and its Web site.
“An Austrian monk would never know what Universal Music is,” Father Wallner said. “We were chosen by divine providence to show that it is possible to have a healthy religious life today.”
Divine providence may have less to do with it than one monk’s resourcefulness. Father Wallner sent Mr. Lewis a short email message with a link to a video of chants that the monks had uploaded to YouTube afterPope Benedict XVIvisited the monastery last September.
While monks in many monasteries chant, Heiligenkreuz is particularly proud of its singing, which has been honed over years by one of the monks, who used to direct choirs in Germany.
Mr. Lewis was entranced, recalling that the video eclipsed the more than 100 other
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submissions. “There was a smoothness and softness to the voices that you associate with younger people,” he said.
Universal negotiated a contract with the monks, who proved to be anything but naïve in the ways of business. It helped that the abbot, Gregor Henckel Donnersmark, has an M.B.A. and ran the Spanish outpost of a German shipping company before he entered the monastery in 1977.
Among the clauses he sought: Universal cannot use the chanting in video games or pop music. The monks will never tour or perform on stage. And Heiligenkreuz will earn a royalty based on the sales of the album, which the abbot said worked out to roughly 1 euro per CD sold.
The monastery’s share, Father Henckel Donnersmark figures optimistically, could be between $1.5 million and $3.1 million, which it will use to help finance the theological studies of young men from developing countries. So far, Universal has sold nearly 200,000 copies.
“Money is not a source of fulfillment,” the abbot said, though he pointed out that it would defray the monastery’s expenses, which are high, partly because of its success in attracting novices.
Even before the album, these monks had encountered the world of show business. The abbot’s nephew, Florian Henckel von Donnersmark, wrote the screenplay for “The Lives of Others,” an Academy Awardwinning film about East Germany, while holed up in a monk’s cell at Heiligenkreuz. He brought his Oscar back to the monastery, where the monks took turns holding it.
“A place like that can recalibrate your moral compass,” Mr. Henckel von Donnersmark said by telephone from Los Angeles. “These people do nothing but think about how to love and serve God.”
For now, the monks seem sanguine that they can balance this solitary vocation with the glare of celebrity.
“If the problem becomes too big,” the abbot said, “I’ll take a plane down to Santo Domingo de Silos and ask the abbot there for advice.”
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