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The Magnificent Chant of "Saints and Angels at Ephesus"

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    2241benedictine_00000001395Everybody likes singing Sisters. I remember as a child hearing the music that my mother liked to play. They were vinyl records and sometimes my memory can still recreate the voices of those women religious.

    Today the delivery method has changed. Direct digital downloads are now possible. Recently, some liturgical chants have been finding their way out from the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus and into the world by way of the digital path.

    The Sisters there live a life of union with God in prayer according to the Rule of St. Benedict. They have a love for the traditional liturgy and devote themselves in a special way to prayerfully interceding for the sacred priesthood and to making vestments and altar linens. Founded in 1995, this young, monastic order of Sisters sings together eight times a day, chanting the Divine Office in Latin.

    Their previous album with De Montfort Music and Decca Records, Advent at Ephesus, was a big hit last year. This week, their new album, Angels and Saints at Ephesus, is released. It contains a nice selection of hymns and chants from various liturgical occasions.

    Nine-time International Grammy-winning producer Christopher Alder (from Germany) and two-time Grammy-winning engineer Mark Donahue worked together to capture the sound of the Sisters in their contemplative environment. Because the music comes forth from the genuine liturgical life lived by the Sisters, it has an authenticity and purity that gives it a special charm.

    I think that if we make a deliberate effort to integrate this sort of music into our own daily practices, we can, when we listen to it, create a space in our lives that helps us replace ugliness with beauty. We can thereby dwell in a place where we become better able to contemplate truth and to grow in our understanding of truth.

    The reason I emphasize this link between beauty and truth is because Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, when he was still a cardinal, made a very important speech on this theme. It was called, “Wounded By the Arrow of Beauty,” and it is still available in a book from Ignatius Press.

    “The encounter with beauty can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the soul and thus makes it see clearly, so that henceforth it has criteria, based on what it has experienced, and can now weigh the arguments correctly,” said then-Cardinal Ratzinger.

    Beauty thus serves a great purpose. It educates our perceptions in order that we may proceed to grasp truth better. As Ratzinger explained it, beauty “brings us into contact with the power of truth.” The danger, however, is that an album such as Angels and Saints at Ephesus becomes just another commodity in the marketplace. And if we are honest, we will observe that such has often been the case with previous instances of hit records of sacred music. (Anyone remember the Gregorian chant craze from a while back?)

    The problem is that people sample an exotic new thing only for a while. They enter into its spirit only in a superficial way. They soon move on to something else that becomes a newer source of distraction or excitement in their lives.

    In other words, I fear that when the hymns and chants on this album become uprooted from their place in the liturgical life of the Sisters, and globally disseminated by digital media, the music can quickly turn into sonic wallpaper. People can play it simply as background music, where it would serve a purpose no different from that offered by waterfall sounds or bland “waiting room” muzak. Turned into a commodity and abstracted from the liturgy, it risks becoming trivialized.

    Six of the seventeen tracks on Angels and Saints at Ephesus are in English. Oddly enough, with one exception, they are not my favorite musical offerings on the album — even though both you and I may recognize many of the melodies they use (familiar from hymns sung at church with different words):

    1. O God of Loveliness
    4. Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
    8. Lorica of St. Patrick
    10. Virgin Wholly Marvellous
    13. A Rose Unpetalled
    17. Dear Angel Ever at My Side

    My reason for feeling this way is that a familiarity with English means that the listener tends to engage with such songs in a commoditizing way, as they would do with popular music. The first track, “O God of Loveliness,” is a good example of what makes me worry about the potential for a “Disneyfication” of hymns and chant. When one hears it, the immediate impression is not unpleasant. But when, verse after verse, the harmonizations do not change much, I worry that perhaps the marketplace may invest here in what stock market players call a “pure play” — a company that does only one thing, not many things, so that investors know exactly what they are getting when they pay for it.

    I think it is bad enough that most people want a “pure play” on Gregorian chant, i.e., they want it done only a cappella, and at ridiculously slow tempos — which may make some sense when sung live in a gigantic echoing cathedral, but which are rigidly unmusical in smaller environments (like the usual parish) or in highly controlled environments (like a digital recording).

    But for the future — and this is a wish that is a total digression from my review here of the album under consideration — I wish artists would dare to do something innovative with old traditions. You don’t have to be crazy and paste bass and drums and synthesizers over everything. But for a track like “O God of Loveliness,” why not have organ accompaniment where it can voice various sounds that change in interesting ways even if the harmonies may not?

    There is so much rich potential in music like this such that an imaginative musician can make old things fresh and surprising. And I think that this is our best option for resisting our culture’s Disneyfied “pure play” future: namely, let the truly talented artists show us the way. We can’t let the past live only in museum-approved parameters.

    Although five of the six English-language tracks are not my favorites, there is one that I select for the upper echelon:

    13. A Rose Unpetalled (music by the Benedictines of Mary; words by St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, as translated by Msgr. Ronald Knox)

    This is the only track on the album that contains original music by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. To that original music, it sets part of a poem of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897). She, of course, is also known as Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face (which is the name used in the album booklet’s credits). But it is yet another name of hers, “The Little Flower of Jesus” (or “The Little Flower”), that this poem perhaps invites us to contemplate best.

    As a French Carmelite nun beloved for her simple spiritual wisdom, she wrote the poem in French (“La Rose effeuillée”), and it is Msgr. Ronald Knox who did the translation sung here. He is not credited in the album booklet, however, and the layout in the booklet of the poem impedes contemplation of its loveliness.

    Because it is absolutely my favorite English-language track on the album, to aid the enjoyment of future listeners I include the text here below, with punctuation restored:

    Jesus, to aid thy feeble powers,
    I see thy Mother’s arms outspread,
    As thou on this sad earth of ours
    Dost set thy first, thy faltering tread;
    See, in thy path I cast away
    A rose in all its beauty dressed,
    That on its petals’ disarray
    Thy feet, so light,
    may softly rest. …

    Dear Infant Christ, this fallen rose
    An image of that heart should be
    Which makes, as every instant flows,
    Its whole burnt-sacrifice to thee.
    Upon thy altars, Lord, there gleams
    Full many a flower whose grand display
    Charms thee; but I have other dreams—
    Bloomless, to cast myself away.

    For love of Loveliness supreme,
    Dying, to cast myself away
    Were bright fulfillment of my dream;
    I’d prove my love no easier way;
    Life, here below, forgotten still,
    A rose before Thy path outspread
    At Nazareth, or Calvary’s hill
    Relieve Thy last, Thy labouring tread.

    Jésus, quand je te vois soutenu par ta Mère,
    Quitter ses bras,
    Essayer en tremblant sur notre triste terre
    Tes premiers pas;
    Devant toi je voudrais effeuiller une rose
    En sa fraîcheur,
    Pour que ton petit pied bien doucement repose
    Sur une fleur. …

    L’on marche sans regret sur des feuilles de roses
    Et ces débris
    Sont un simple ornement que sans art on dispose
    Je l’ai compris
    Jésus, pour ton amour j’ai prodigué ma vie,
    Mon avenir
    Aux regards des mortels, rose `a jamais flérie, Je dois mourir.

    Pour toi je dois mourir, Jésus, beauté supreme,
    Oh! quel bonheur!
    Je veux en m’effeuillant te prouver que je t’aime
    De tout mon coeur
    Sous tes pas enfantins, je veux avec mystère
    Vivre ici-bas; Et je voudrais encore adoucir au Calvaire
    Tes derniers pas…

    But, for me, the album Angels and Saints at Ephesus is at its best when the Sisters get down to what they are accustomed to doing multiple times daily — singing in Latin. And that’s why this album is worth listening to. Eleven of the seventeen tracks are from Latin texts:

    2. Te Joseph Celebrent
    3. Christe Sanctorum
    5. Duo Seraphim
    6. Veritas Mea
    7. Jesu Dulcis Memoria
    9. Est Secretum
    11. Laeta Quies
    12. Ave Regina Caelorum
    14. Emicat Meridies
    15. O Deus Ego Amo Te
    16. Jesu Corona Virginum

    What I like about these tracks is not just that they are a fine sample of a glorious tradition of chant, polyphony, and hymnody. That is wonderful; everybody likes a beautiful bouquet of flowers. What I especially like is that if these flowers, uprooted from the liturgical garden, are going to be sold out in the world by digital media, then their beauty must make demands — and Latin, by its nature, makes demands.

    Yes, Latin chant can be commoditized and rendered trivial by the marketplace. But the Latin itself stands in sonic judgment, as a rebuke to those who would receive musical pearls like swine. For if, at any time, you have to ask yourself, “What does the Latin mean?” — then you know that you have not yet entered into the spirit of the music in a fully serious way. Therefore, the Latin demands that you not turn this into background music, and it resists the attempt to make it into sonic wallpaper.

    Sure, you can slap up the Latin as wallpaper, if you wish; no one will stop you. By why not accept its aural invitation? The only way to listen to it is to give it your full attention — with the album lyric booklet in hand. You can read along with the Latin words as you try and match up their audible forms with the letters on the page. Even if you don’t know Latin yet, you will have the joy of at least being engaged this way in active listening.

    And it gets better. You can even look over at the English text placed next to the Latin text. Your mind will become ever more active and engaged as you match, as best you can, the Latin words and phrases with the English words and phrases.

    Think you can’t do it? You’re wrong. The music will carry you along.

    Further, the serenity and peace of the beautiful musical sounds will pull you into a deeper and more active engagement of your mind with the truths being expressed and pointed to in the words.

    Because the album offers us such good material, there is only one real complaint I think listeners should have with the album — its lyric booklet, which often does not lay out the texts in a way that would aid and encourage deeper contemplation of the Sisters’ musical offerings.

    Yes, I have musical preferences; I actually prefer chant to be accompanied by the organ, in highly creative and musically innovative ways — in the style of the Belgian school, for example. Musical “pure plays” are for me mostly barbarisms, poses adopted only by Pharisees and the untalented (I say “mostly” to allow room for exceptions, including the album here under review.)

    And I prefer the eleven Latin tracks on Angels and Saints at Ephesus because, combined with “A Rose Unpetalled,” they make a nice playlist of twelve tracks, thirty minutes in length. But the other five I don’t dislike so much as I worry about them encouraging people to lapse into making this music just another commodity. (Besides, if you buy only my most favorite tracks, according to the digital download pricing on iTunes, you would get my least favorite five tracks for free, which is simply wonderful.)

    But nonetheless, while I do commend this fine album from the good Sisters to you, hesitating only over the fear of a commodification of something so sacred, I have to again criticize the album booklet. I think Christian musical artists have to insist on only the highest quality booklets to accompany their music. Otherwise, sacred music is destined to become sonic wallpaper, and only appreciated superficially, if a listener is not encouraged — by way of artistic attention to beautiful packaging and booklets — to enter into active listening, Latin and all.

    In the service of that noble purpose — that beauty might make space for truth to dwell — I conclude my review below with layouts for some of the texts that I feel the album booklet fails to adequately present (and I even tweak some of the translations to help with contemplation of the Latin).

    Earlier, I mentioned a speech on beauty given by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI during his time as a Cardinal. In was in that speech, “Wounded By the Arrow of Beauty,” that he spoke these famous words:

    I have often said that I am convinced that the true apologetics for the Christian message, the most persuasive proof of its truth, offsetting everything that may appear negative, are the saints, on the one hand, and the beauty that the faith has generated, on the other. For faith to grow today, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to come in contact with the beautiful.

    If you feel like you need to begin getting in closer contact with the beautiful, this album by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, is a lovely and humble place to start.

    5. Duo Seraphim (music by Tomas Luis de Victoria, words from the Twelfth Responsory of Matins)

    Duo Seraphim clamabant
    alter ad alterum
    Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus
    Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
    Plena est omnis terra gloria ejus.
    Tres sunt
    qui testimonium dant in coelo:
    et Verbum,
    et Spiritus sanctus:
    et hi tres
    unum sunt,
    Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus
    Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
    Plena est omnis terra gloria ejus.
    Two Seraphs cried out ceaselessly,
    each one to the other:
    Holy, holy, holy
    is the Lord God of hosts;
    the whole world is full of His glory.
    There are Three
    that bear record in Heaven:
    the Father,
    and the Word,
    and the Holy Spirit:
    and these Three
    are One.
    Holy, holy, holy
    is the Lord God of hosts;
    the whole world is full of His glory.

    6. Veritas Mea (music by Oreste Ravanello, words from Psalm 88:25)

    Veritas mea,
    et misericordia mea
    cum ipso:
    et in nomine meo
    exaltabitur, exultabitur
    cornu ejus, cornu ejus.
    Alleluia, Alleluia.
    My truth
    and My mercy
    are with him;
    and in My Name
    his horn
    shall be exalted.

    9. Est Secretum (music by Oreste Ravanello, words of St. Cecilia)

    “Est secretum,
    est secretum,
    quod tibi volo dicere:
    Angelum Dei habeo
    qui nimio zelo,
    custodit corpus meum.”
    “O Valerian,
    there is a secret —
    there is a secret
    that I want to tell you:
    I have a Guardian Angel from God
    to whom I am betrothed,
    who, with far more zeal [than a husband],
    stands guard over my body.”

    You can also watch a YouTube video about the making of the album.

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