The New York Times reports to- day that a chant re- cording by the monks of Heiligen- kreuz monastery in Austria has soared on the British pop charts (at one point beating out Madonna).
The album, entitled "Chant: Music for the Soul," will be released in the United States next Tuesday.
The last time we saw such a phenomenon was the stunning success of the 1994 chant album by the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain.
Obviously, Gregorian chant is not for everyone. It is an archaic musical idiom. But these periodic crossover albums demonstrate that chant does appeal to many more people than we usually imagine. Within a limited repertoire, we can in 2008 still use chant in public worship.
There are simple chant melodies in many hymnals, and many of us already know some of them. One of the first that I learned (my father taught it to me as a child) is a tune known as Divinum Mysterium, with the English text "Of the Father's Love Begotten." It is a lovely Christmas chant, and congregations can easily learn to sing it.
What is the appeal of Gregorian chant?
First, it can be musically very simple, moving stepwise up and down the scale with only a few leaps. If you know "Of the Father's Love Begotten," you will see immediately what I mean. The chantlike French folk tune that is paired with the words "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" is chantlike for that very reason.
Second, in its less elaborate forms, chant serves the text. The music is not something you want to whistle and tap your foot to. The music gives the text a boost without overshadowing it.
Third, chant is placid. If I have had a hectic week, why should I go to a worship service where percussion-punctuated praise music thumps my nerves and bumps up my blood pressure? Chant can help me slow down enough to pay attention to God's still small voice.
A few weeks ago, I visited the non-denominational Community of Jesus on Cape Cod, where singing Gregorian chant as part of the regular worship services is part of the routine. The musicians in that community have been given the charge by European guardians of the chant tradition to foster it here in America.
One of those musicians, organist James Jordan, told me of his plan to develop a simple method of teaching local churches how to begin using chant. (I think he's still working on that.)
In the meantime, you can hear their community's own choir (the Gloria Dei Cantores Schola) singing chant on any of the seven chant CDs they have recorded. In addition, you can hear the gold-standard chant recordings by the monks of the Abbey of Solesmes in France. Click this link from the Community of Jesus' publishing arm, Paraclete Press, for a list of available disks. And if you're a Gregorian junkie, you can get a 26-disk set by the two choirs for 30% off. Books on chant are also available.