Something of Heaven

Father Karl Wallner on the success of his monastery’s CDs.

Some of the most popular musicians in Europe today are not rock stars but contemplative monks. Last February, Universal Music signed the monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz, a 12th-century monastery in the Vienna woods in Austria, to a recording contract. Universal had seen a video clip from YouTube of the monks singing Gregorian chant.

The May 2008 release of Chant: Music for Paradise stunned Europe, first rising to the top of the classical music charts from Britain to Austria, then eclipsing performers like Madonna on the pop ones.

The North American release last July of Chant: Music for the Soul also enjoyed great success, becoming the most popular classical album in the United States and Canada.

Father Karl Wallner of Stift Heiligenkreuz is spokesman for the monks and dean of the monastery’s school of theology. He talked with CWR about the success and unfolding signifi cance of the monastery’s CDs.

What is the background for the CDs?

Father Karl Wallner: First, I have to begin with our monastery. There is a continuity here. We have been singing Gregorian chant since 1133 when the monastery was founded.

After the Second Vatican Council, as it is [recommended] in the texts of the council, we stayed with Latin and Gregorian chant. It was Pope Benedict XVI himself who came to stop in our abbey [during his 2007 visit to Austria] and prayed here and listened to Gregorian chant. This was six months before the whole CD project started.

Then the concrete project started on the 28th of February [2008] when I got an e-mail from a friend sending a link. I clicked on the link and it opened to Universal [Music in London]. Universal was looking for the most beautiful voices singing plain chant. And the deadline for it was the next day. So I sent a very short e-mail to Universal saying the Holy Father is a big fan of our monastery and so on.

Then I got a call from Universal saying they were so happy about this, that they had [already] listened to some examples of Gregorian chant from our website and a YouTube clip, and that they had chosen us.

In Europe it has been a big sensation. There have been about 700,000 copies sold. The fi rst sensation was after its release in England: it went to the top of the pop charts in England; only two Austrian musicians before us had been in the English top 10.

How do you interpret the success of the CD?

Wallner: I think it shows that people are looking for something to nourish their souls. The beauty of those melodies attracts them. Muslim youngsters have written me and said that they are listening to the CD so that they don’t go out into aggression when they are driving their cars. I also get letters from atheists who write and say they get the feeling when they listen to this music that there is something coming from out of this world.

I think Pope Benedict reminds us that we will not have a future of Christian spirituality if we do not live out of our roots, and Gregorian chant is a very proven way of praying to God and meditating about the Bible.

I have a feeling that in those countrieswhere the secularization is the strongest the interest is strongest, even stronger than in those countries that are still somehow Catholic. Secular journalists ask me questions like: What do you feel when you sing? Do you really speak to God? Can you hear something from God? But the [Catholic] journalists ask very superficial questions like: What will you do with the money that you are earning?

In Holland, the group working with Universal refused to make a release [last] spring and then in summer because they said nobody was going to be interested in it. But after they [agreed to release] it on the 22nd of October, it went to the number one place on the charts within three weeks.

After Vatican II some suggested that the Church needed to imitate the world in order to evangelize the world. But the success of your CD suggests the reverse—that fidelity to God appeals more to the world than copying it.

Wallner: Yes, that’s exactly it. We also have an example of this in architecture. In Europe we have a lot of churches that have been built out of just concrete. They built them in the 1970s and the 1980s, and they are empty because they are ugly. People can see ugly and sober buildings where they are working.

When you go to Church, you want to feel something, to see something, to sense something of heaven. The liturgy has to give them something like a physical sensation of that which they are expecting when they go to heaven and that’s why liturgy is attracting people.

We have in Vienna a lot of Orthodox churches and sometimes I go with students to them. Young people are looking for a touch of the supernatural. That’s why we are attracting such a lot of young people.

How have Austrians responded to the CD?

Wallner: It was a big sensation for weeks and weeks. It was at first place on the music charts. It was not only good for this monastery but also the other monasteries here. The greatest success is that Austrians suddenly realize that monks are in those monasteries and praying beautifully.

We hope that all people can find their way back to God, and that is our purpose. Music is something that really connects us to God. We would be happy if people ask themselves [after hearing the CD]: What is the last purpose of my life? Why are those monks so happy? Why is this music so beautiful?

When you look at the cover of the CD you see five monks looking in different directions but walking in one direction. That was our idea. We are men who have a direction in life. We walk towards God.

The 70 young monks who are singing on the CD are not professional singers. And they didn’t even have professional education in Gregorian chant; so it has to be their religious enthusiasm that [gives the CD its] quality.

I think the Lord has chosen us to do some good promotion. I think the hype of the CD will end sometime, but when the hype about the CD is over I hope we will have left some good promotion for God in this world.

How did the music get on YouTube?

Wallner: We are all dealing here with the new media. We are men of the 21st century. We want all of our students to use the Internet because it is a source of science and of knowledge. One of the young brothers made the clip by himself immediately after the visit of the Holy Father—a combination of Gregorian chant and scenes of the visit from the Pope.

This clip was on YouTube since 2007 but there were only 5,000 [viewings] at that time. But within fi ve days [of the CD’s release] there were over 100,000 [viewings]. From that we could see that this would become a success.

We want our monks to be able to deal with e-mail and the Internet. I have to say I am somewhat sad about the prejudices that exist about monks. We have always been the special guardians of the advancement of science and knowledge, copying the works of the philosophers of the Greek and the Roman times and building libraries. So why shouldn’t, in this century where knowledge is transported electronically, we deal with electronic media?

I do not know why people think monks are living like Neanderthals in holes. I was once asked by a journalist when I was going to London: Have you ever gone by airplane? And I thought: What are they thinking about us?

On the Internet the world is back to monastic scrolling.

Wallner: That’s a good argument. There is a long list of inventions that were made by monks. They have always been excellent engineers in bringing forward the old traditions. Without the monasteries I think we should not have airplanes and computers. I am really sad when people are astonished that we are writing e-mails. They are instruments but they are not the main purpose. A website is an easy way to show the outside world how beautiful the monastery is.

Do you see the success of the CDs as the beginnings of a kind of new Benedictine revival, with Pope Benedict making old riches new again?

Wallner: It is a cultural tragedy that all that had been beautiful before has been condemned as very bad and oldfashioned and so forth. This cultural revolution has to stop and we have to find our way back to the beauty of the liturgy. The architecture of beauty has to be combined with a liturgy of beauty and with melodies of beauty, and then you have something really exciting.

Music is very important to Pope Benedict. He plays the piano and has a good ear for music. It is interesting that great theologians of recent times have been excellent musicians.

The Holy Father gave us great encouragement. Had he not come here, I don’t think we would have started this project. Universal is a very secular company and some of the young monks who came directly out of the world said, “Please do not do this. Don’t sell our beautiful and holy prayers. They could abuse it.” But this cannot happen because we made a very good contract [with Universal] and the music will never be abused.

In the speech the Holy Father delivered here, he said monks are praying because they adore God and this is a gift to the world. They give testimony to people that there is a last purpose in life which is God himself.


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