Music News

Gregorian singers seek stardom with papal blessing

LONDON (Billboard) - It’s a pretty safe bet that very few musical groups count Pope Benedict XVI among their fans.

But the pontiff is a definite admirer of the latest boys in the hood(s) to sign globally to Universal Classics U.K. It’s a choir of Austrian monks from Stift Heiligenkreuz -- the Abbey of the Holy Cross -- a monastery in the heart of the Vienna woods.

Benedict XVI declared himself impressed by the brothers’ vocal talents when visiting the monastery last September. Their new status, however, owes little to papal favor or even divine intervention; rather, it came via a lengthy search by Universal through ads in British religious publications for a choir performing Gregorian chants.

After the pope’s visit, the monastery posted a videoclip featuring the monks’ 15-strong choir (and a performance of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”) on YouTube. It quickly began attracting buzz online and has generated more than 82,000 views.

One monk says they were subsequently encouraged to submit the clip to Universal by “a friend from the media business in London.”

Despite competition from some 100 choirs, Heiligenkreuz’s monks were the clear winner, London-based Universal Classics executive Tom Lewis says. “They are, quite simply, the best Gregorian singers we have heard. They make a magical, evocative sound, which is both immediately calming and deeply moving.”

The monks recorded the material for their Universal album April 1-3 in the Abbey church, and the CD will be released internationally May 19. According to Lewis, “There is considerable interest worldwide.”

While Universal has credited the use of Gregorian chant-styled music on the hugely successful Xbox game “Halo” as reviving interest in the 900-year-old genre, the monastery’s choirmaster prefers a less secular theory. “Hardly anybody can resist the fascination of this ancient form,” subprior Simeon Wester says. “It has a meditative power resulting from the harmony between archaic melodies and free rhythms.”