Program: #94-10 Air Date: Mar 07, 1994
NOTE: In March, 1994, we had the great honor of premiering the second-best selling classical recording in history (after The Three Tenors) to the entire Western hemisphere. Here is that program.
Preservation of this program is made possible by a generous grant from Barry Plotkin.
LET'S SEE, NOW. THE ROMAN Catholic Church abandoned its centuries-long commitment to Gregorian chant with the Second Vatican Council in the 1960's, and many American parishes put their faith in a watery folk-pop idiom to stanch the flow of young worshipers. Some leading lights of the early-music movement have given up on genuinely early repertory in recent decades to ply their authenticist trade before wider audiences in the standard repertory of later eras. The work of dead white European males, even living ones, is widely scorned as stodgy and un-American if not sexist and racist.
And through these fickle skies, like some spiteful comet with a tail of imitators in tow, soars an album of 1,000-year-old Gregorian chant, sung by Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain. Angel's "Chant" has been No. 1 on the American classical charts since it appeared in March. It actually reached No. 12 before it was released, since some stores opened their shipments early.
More remarkable still, it has bounded through the pop charts, from No. 32 in its first week to No. 5 and the "greatest gainer" last week. It went platinum, with sales of a million copies, in just over a month and has since sold another 300,000. One cut, "Alleluia, beatus vir qui suffert" ("Hallelujah, blessed is the man who stands the proof"), has been spun off as a single and as a music video aimed at MTV and similar outlets.
The phenomenon draws on several farflung trends, from alternative rock and American New Age fashions to the mystical Minimalism of Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki in Eastern Europe. (Gregorian chant is the original mystical minimalism, with its spare, repetitious, mesmerizing settings of liturgical texts, but it is subtler and, in its understated way, perhaps ultimately more powerful.) Enigma's album "MCMXC A.D.," which was the biggest-selling album in Europe at the time of its American release in 1991, was a harbinger: "Sadeness," with snippets of Gregorian chant over a rhythm track, became a successful single.
Now classical labels, traditionally the keepers of this seemingly arcane repertory, are rushing to feed the frenzy created by the popular press, casting about to produce chant compilations of their own or give a fresh marketing push to disks long and quietly in the catalogue.
"It has given us a much-needed fillip," said Peter Alward, the vice president for artists and repertory of EMI Classics, Angel's London-based parent. Mr. Alward added that for a typical classical release, worldwide sales of 10,000 copies in the first year would be considered good. "Chant" and its overseas equivalents have sold more than two million copies.
EMI's Spanish arm set the ball rolling last November with "Canto Gregoriano," a two-CD set that luxuriated atop the Spanish pop charts for six weeks. EMI affiliates elsewhere released similar versions of that set, but Angel went all out.
"We consciously decided to go for the widest possible distribution, the widest possible sales opportunity," said Steven Murphy, Angel's president. "So we took a very classically packaged product, with two CD's and a demure cover and lots of notes about the works, and we programmed a one-CD version of it. We called it 'Chant,' 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."
The cover illustration shows rapt monks levitating amid clouds, seemingly in transit from the monastery (a smattering of bricks below) to heaven. The scantily informative notes evoke "the peace of the countryside" and "the timeless calm of the cloister" (and overstate the role of Pope Gregory I in the preservation of chant). The music video, directed by Andrew Moore, strikes similar chords, parading "Koyaanisqatsi"-like juxtapositions (monastic solitude versus New York bustle, an infant alongside characterful old faces) through smoke and clouds.
THE STORY IS, IN FACT, older than that. "A psalm implies serenity of soul; it is the author of peace, which calms bewildering and seething thoughts," wrote St. Basil, who founded the Christian monastic movement in the fourth century, with reference to chant. "A psalm is a city of refuge from the demons, a means of inducing help from the angels, a weapon in fears by night, a rest from toils by day, a safeguard for infants, an adornment for those at the height of their vigor, a consolation for the elders, a most fitting ornament for women. It peoples the solitudes; it rids the marketplace of excesses."
In short, it is an ideal retreat from the go-go 1980's. Richard Taruskin, another musicologist with a specialty in early music, adds that chant is also suited to anti-elitist times.
"Of all musical styles, it is the only form that demanded unison singing," Mr. Taruskin said. "It is very communal, as anyone who has ever sung it knows. That, if anything, is what plays into the New Age impulse."
"Sequentia doesn't have a problem with BMG wanting to have a hit record, but they would like to have artistic input," said Jon Aaron, the group's American manager. "They would be happy to put together a record that would serve BMG's purposes, but there has been no consultation with them at all."
The bona fides of Gregorian chant may matter little to listeners who simply want to chill, but the distinctions should not be lost. Gregorian chant, to those who grew up singing and hearing it, is a distinctive body of work that has receded into one of music's most inexplicable secrets. In addition to comprising glorious sounds, pure and simple, it represents the beginning of Western music as it has come down to us.
The first systematic compilation of chant was initiated in the ninth century, as part of Charlemagne's project of religious and political unification in the Holy Roman Empire. The venerable name of Pope Gregory, who died in 604, was invoked as authority, and legends quickly arose as to the extent of his work as composer or compiler. Ninth-century illustrations show him with a dove (the Holy Spirit) chattering in his ear as he dictates chant to monks acting as scribes.
Yet the Ensemble Organum's recordings of Old Roman chant and other repertory on Harmonia Mundi France sell only a few thousand copies each, said Rene Goiffon, the president of Harmonia Mundi U.S.A. Then again, another medieval compilation on Harmonia Mundi, "An English Ladymass" by the female vocal quartet Anonymous 4, just hit the 82,000 mark.
"In a year, 'Chant' will be history," said Mr. Goiffon, who has a few other early-music hits building, "and we'll still be chugging along."
But what amazing history "Chant" will be! There is little to compare it to in the classical field except the "Three Tenors" concert on Decca/ London, which has sold more than 10 million audio and video copies worldwide. The Gorecki Third Symphony on Elektra Nonesuch, another runaway hit, has sold a more modest 700,000 worldwide.
So are young listeners routinely veering from gangster rap one minute to Gregorian chant the next? Some may be. Juxtapositions that might once have seemed jarring are commonplace now that remote controls and multichannel television have turned channel-surfing into the national pastime.
"IT'S THE ULTIMATE fragmentation of contemporary tastes and attention, and it's a worldwide phenomenon," said Nicholas Kenyon, the former editor of Early Music magazine and now the director of the BBC's Radio 3 in London. "With the availability of CD's, everyone can put together his own taste in his own way. It's so easy to tap into a little Mahler, a little plainsong, a little whatever."
Unsuspecting listeners to "Chant" who are won over by the idiom and led to delve further will find many wonderful recordings of Gregorian chant to explore. For sheer performance values, Sony's new "Gregorian Chant," with the uncatchily named Choralschola of the Niederaltaicher Scholaren led by Konrad Ruhland, is preferable to "Chant." So are several recordings by the Schola Hungarica on Hungaroton, including one of Old Roman chant, to complement the Ensemble Organum disk.
More adventurous listeners should seek out "Chant Gregorien" on Harmonic Records. Dominique Vellard and the Ensemble Gilles Binchois apply a suppler interpretation of early chant notation than that propagated by the Solesmes monks.
Mr. Murphy can afford to be cautious just now. And, oh, yes: the Silos monks are preparing to record a Mass in the fall.
- "Puer Natus Est Nobis": Introit (Mode VII) – 3:36
- "Os Iusti": Gradual (Mode I) – 2:49
- "Christus Factus Est Pro Nobis": Gradual (Mode V) – 2:39
- "Mandatum Novum Do Vobis": Antiphonal And Psalm 132 (Mode III) – 1:41
- "Media Vita In Morte Sumus": Responsorio (Mode IV) – 6:11
- "Alleluia, Beatus Vir Qui Suffert": Alleluia (Mode I) – 3:10
- "Spiritus Domini": Introit (Mode VIII) – 3:46
- "Improperium": Offertorio (Mode VIII) – 2:36
- "Laetatus Sum": Gradual (Mode VII) – 2:17
- "Kyrie XI A": Kyrie (Mode I) – 1:06
- "Puer Natus In Bethlehem": Ritmo (Mode I) – 1:58
- "Jacta Cogitatum Tuum": Gradual (Mode VII) – 3:34
- "Verbum Caro Factum Est": Responsorio (Mode VII) – 4:04
- "Genuit Puerpera Regem": Antiphonal And Psalm 99 (Mode II) – 2:56
- "Occuli Omnium": Gradual (Mode VII) – 3:21
- "Ave Mundi Spes Maria": Sequenza (Mode I) – 4:18
- "Kyrie Fons Bonitatis": Trope (Mode III) – 4:00
- "Veni Sancte Spiritus": Sequenza (Mode I) – 2:42
- "Hosanna Filio David": Antiphonal (Mode VII) – 0:42