Singing monks think of God, sell a million

April 17, 1994|By Al Goodman | Al Goodman,Special to The Sun

Madrid, Spain -- Just when the singing monks thought they could finally get some peace and quiet, their new album of Gregorian chants suddenly surpassed sales of 1 million units worldwide. And now, tourists fill their church to see the budding music stars in person.

The 36 Benedictine monks cloistered at the 11th-century monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos have weathered a lot of storms in blustery old Castile, but none quite like the gale force of publicity since their "Chant" album broke all marketing predictions.

"They're not going to go on tour like Eric Clapton. This is an acci- dent for them. They're thinking about God," says Ramon Trecet, a disc jockey at Spanish National Radio.

The album of Roman Catholic liturgical music in Latin, including some chants that are 1,000 years old, has sold more than 300,000 copies in the United States since its release March 15. It topped the classical music charts, says Rafael Perez, classical music director for EMI Music Spain, and is now No. 12 on Billboard's pop charts.

EMI first launched the album in Spain last November and has since sold 400,000 copies. For six consecutive weeks, the monks were tops on the Spanish pop charts, outpacing Gloria Estefan's "Mi Tierra" and Frank Sinatra's "Duets." Additional sales have come in about 20 other nations, Mr. Perez says.

"The man of the 21st century wants to find himself again, and this music is spiritual food for a being who hungers for authenticity and stable values . . . in a tired post- industrial society," says an EMI statement, trying to explain the popularity of the music that has attracted buyers even in the 16- to 25-year-old age group.

During the long Easter weekend, a few thousand visitors made the pilgrimage to the village of Santo Domingo de Silos, population 160. The tourists filled the town's five small hotels and crowded into the church where the monks in black Benedictine habits chant seven times a day, starting at 6 a.m. It is the only chance to see them singing "live."

The monastery, approached through wheat and barley fields on the two-hour drive north of Madrid, has not been completely isolated in recent times. It typically has about 90,000 visitors a year and has a modern telephone system that plays Gregorian chant for callers who are put on hold. But the monks, who rarely leave the monastery except for urgent business such as medical visits, say the album's popularity has caused more than a few ripples in their lives, which are devoted to prayer, study and music.

Visitors are expected to increase by 15 to 20 percent in 1994, says Emeterio Martin, the village mayor. Reporters have called so often for interviews that the monastery abbot took the unusual step Feb. 23 of offering a news conference at the Madrid Holiday Inn. Television crews from NBC, ABC, CNN and the BBC were among the more than 100 journalists in attendance. The media later traveled en masse to the monastery, disturbing the calm of the colonnaded cloister.

"We are not accustomed to such pressure," Abbot Clemente Serna said that day. "We've been the first to be surprised at the success of the music. . . . The Gregorian chant for us is not concert music but an expression of prayer."

Even though interviews have now been cut back sharply, Father Miguel Vivancos, an English-speaking monk, says that only relative tranquillity has returned to the monastery.

"We prefer solitude," he adds.

Yet Spain's King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia were scheduled to visit the monastery April 28 to officially close a conference on the Spanish language. The conference was planned long before the monks' album became a hit, says a palace spokeswoman.

The Gregorian chant, named for Pope Gregory I (590-604), "represents an exaltation of melody in its pure sense. It prefers an arc and a curved line to a straight line, the silhouette of a natural landscape to the profile of a city with great skyscrapers," writes Ismael Fernandez de la Cuesta, who conducts some of the chants on the album.

The "Chant" album is a re-issue of music recorded at the monastery church on four occasions between 1973 and 1981. The album sold in Spain is a two-record set with 32 selections. In the United States and elsewhere, the chants were reduced to a single album, retaining music from all four recording sessions.

As with all successful albums, the royalty payments for the monks are starting to roll in. Rafael Gil, president of EMI Music Spain, said at the Feb. 23 news conference that the monastery would get a "fair share," in keeping with a normal recording contract, but he declined to reveal the percentage.

Abbot Serna did say how the money would be spent by the monks, whose average age is 44: "We think we will send the money to people in need." At the Santo Domingo de Silos monastery, he says, the monks are not in it for the money.

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