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Monday, September 10, 2012

The Commodification of the Gregorian Chant

The Gregorian Chant is a monophonic liturgical music that originated in the monastic tradition. It is named after Pope Gregory I, Bishop of Rome from 590 to 640, who they say called it the “Song of Angels.” It is mostly used in the liturgies of the Catholic Church but has found its way to popular culture with the release of the Chant Album of the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in 1994. It was originally recorded by the monks in the 1970s upon the invitation of the Spanish City of Logroño to popularize the chant among churchgoers. The album did not sell well at that time but the re-released album in 1994 sold 3 million copies after it was widely advertised as an antidote for the stress of modern life.

I believe that Universal Classics record label wanted to replicate the success of this album when they searched for musicians with “sacred voices” in 2008. They used new technologies including sending emails to various groups and people such as Fr. Karl Wallner, who was the head of the Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz at that time. Even though the monastery was established as early as 1133, they too or maybe just a small part of their organization have kept abreast of changes with the modern world. They have their own website and posted videos in YouTube showcasing their life and music also as means to attract more monks for their monastery. They were willing to share a sacred part of their life with the world not just to bring people closer to God through their praise and worship but also to generate funds for their upkeep and to support their various charitable works. Fr. Karl believed that their being selected was miraculous since he only got the very short and vague email with link on the last day and clicking on that link opened the opportunity for them to reach out to more people with their sacred music.

The release of the Gregorian chant to the market opened up the music to more people. No longer is it confined to the walls of the churches and monasteries but anybody who would wish to listen to such music. Each person would have his own reason for listening – to pray, to reach out to God, for comfort and relaxation, for study and understanding of the techniques involved, to create his own music, to join the fad… whatever. Can anything be lost with its release to the pop culture? To the music and tradition of the monks, somehow, I don’t think so… yet for the people that took part in its production? Maybe there is. People change and as mentioned in the lecture, some of the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos that took part in the earlier album left their monastery and became Rock stars. The life and hearts of some monks from the Abbey of Heiligenkreuz that participated in the production album may be altered as they lose the simplicity of their physical activities but more of their hearts as they now view the music and the whole activities involved with it a more complicated outlook.

The music will always be there for the monks in the monasteries. Their music tradition has survived for ages and it will continue to survive because it is part of their life, their praise and worship, an opportunity to break the silence of the monastery yet continue with their prayer. It makes one in union with the whole community despite their individuality. However, it will not be the same outside the walls of monasteries. There will be people listening and their reasons will be as different as they are different people yet the revival and survival of the music in the popular culture will most likely depend on how they are marketed by producers... or maybe through divine intervention? With the availability of new technologies, maybe just a click or a touch could open up ones soul to the “Song of Angels.”

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beth, the group "Dead Can Dance" Aussie fellow and British miss together make some very wonderful and different music. Middle East to Gregorian chant. I think you would find them interesting.


1:39 PM  

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