Singing Monks Of Heiligenkreuz

After auditioning over YouTube, the brothers of the Holy Cross land a contract with Universal Classics

On The Town | Dardis McNamee | April 2008

The Monks of Heiligenkreuz, singing the Gregorian Chants they will record for Universal (Photo: Heiligenkreuz)

The Abbey of Heiligenkreuz takes up most of the little village that bears its name, nestled in a broad valley at the Western end of the Vienna Woods. About 15 kilometres (10 miles) from Vienna, it’s not far from the hunting lodge at Mayerling, where the Crown Prince Rudolf and his lover, the Baroness Vetsera, met their end.

Passions like those seem remote from this serene and gentle abbey, a town within a town much like the fictional monastery in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, where life passes from Matins to Evensong much as it has for eight centuries. Gregorian Chant echoes in the long corridors and the Abbey wine flows freely as they break their bread. It is a place the modern world seems to have passed by.

But not entirely: The monks of Heiligenkreuz have just landed a lucrative contract with Universal Music to record an album of Gregorian Chant, the studio announced Mar. 23. The monks are scheduled to begin recording at the abbey in early April, with the global release date set for the summer, according to a Universal spokesman.

This will put them right up there on the list with Amy Winehouse and Eminem and a whole host of pop singers who are, shall we say, a world apart from life in the abbey.

Entering through the abbey gateway, an outer courtyard leads passed a cluster of low stone buildings painted the Schönbrunner yellow so characteristic of Austria. Then through another broad courtyard with covered walkway arcades, you pass the Abtkeller serving the famed Heiligenkreuzer wines.

And through yet another archway is the Abbey church, and as luck would have it, rich voices of Gregorian chant suddenly emerge from somewhere deep inside, swelling with the long arching lines of melody and resonating against the ancient stone. It is a haunting sound, yet also comforting, a sound that speaks to a need for which there are no words.

Those in the know have long been aware of the remarkable singing monks of Heiligenkreuz. Florian Henckel von Donnersmark, for one, who came there to write his Oscar winning script for Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) at the monastery, where his uncle, Gregor Henckel-Donnersmarck, is the abbot. Now the rest of the world is about to find out.

While these Cistercian brothers live a secluded life, they are hardly out of the loop. They heard through a friend that Universal was advertising in The Church Times for "men of the cloth" to sing on an album of Gregorian chants. So the 80 monks compiled a clip of their singing and in order to meet the deadline, put it on YouTube as an audition. (

The studio was dazzled.

"I was blown away by the quality of their singing," said Tom Lewis, an executive at Universal in announcing the contract. "They are quite simply the best Gregorian singers we have heard. They make a magical sound which is calming and deeply moving. They are using the very latest communication devices to get their music heard. They’re very passionate and excited about this opportunity."

The video beautifully put together, beginning with a luminous shot of altar candles and cutting to images of monks in flowing white habits walking with an almost surreal grace in double file through the ancient cloisters, as the sound of their voices floats on the air.

The video closes in a picturesque aerial shot of the warren of courtyards of Heiligenkreuz, spreading out across the lush valley, deep in the Vienna woods.

Universal had gotten interested in Gregorian chant, one of the oldest surviving forms of western music dating from the 10th century, after detecting a resurgence of interest in plainchant thanks to a best-selling computer game, Halo, Lewis explained.

Universal received more than 100 entries from all over the world – "from monks, nuns, academics, amateur choirs, school choirs and even a pop act who do pop covers in a Gregorian style," he said.

But recording executives knew excellence when they heard it.

"Quite simply, their sound was more beautiful than anyone else’s. It’s both immediately calming and deeply moving," Lewis said.

The monks’ spokesman, Father Karl Wallner, said they had initially responded as kind of a joke.

"It was just for fun that we wrote to them in an e-mail," Father Karl told the BBC. "I didn’t think they would choose us."

All that’s changed, now that they won.

"Now it has become a very serious and positive think for us, because Gregorian Chant is the expression of our spirituality. It’s how we pray," Father Karl said in a statement released through the company. Any profits made from the project will be put back into the monastery and training young monks.

Gregorian chant hit the pop charts briefly back in the 1990s when it was sampled by the band Enigma.

"This time round, the sound of Gregorian chant forms the soundtrack to the incredibly popular Halo X-box game," Lewis said. "We think this might have triggered the renewed interest."

But the response to the music doesn’t surprise him.

"Gregorian chant has an incredibly distinctive, immediate sound," Lewis said. "My feeling is that when people hear it, in whatever context, they react immediately. This music is incredibly calming and spiritual, and people do tend to listen to it more in times of heightened anxiety (as we are all feeling right now)."

Unlike Enigma, the Heiligenkreuz monks’ voices will not be set against a pop-music background, Lewis continued.

"We will be recording it as it is sung (with no over-production). We feel it is at its most powerful when it is also presented in its simplest possible form."

The monastery’s Father Karl said the album would feature between 10 and 12 singers.

The monks are proud of what they have achieved in doing God’s Work, proud of having "a very healthy and prospering monastery" which they can now "show it to the whole world."

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