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Twelve Days of Christmas: Amor et Passio

available at Amazon
Chant: Amor et Passio, Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz
(released on November 3, 2011)
Obsculta Music | 72'33"
Everything about the secular celebration of Christmas is backwards. We are suffocated with Christmas carols and decorations earlier and earlier in the fall, so that by the time Christmas arrives, when people should be decorating their houses and trimming trees and singing carols, most are tired of the idea. Christmastide is supposed to last until Epiphany, on January 6 (the so-called Twelve Days of Christmas, as in the famous song about leaping lords and partridges in pear trees), and by extension through Epiphanytide until Purification, on February 2. Instead, within a day or two of Christmas, people are throwing their Christmas trees out into the street, and just when we would be happy to hear carols, Christmas dies without the commercial drive to support it. In this period we like to offer up some brief thoughts on recent releases of music we have enjoyed, both Christmas-related and not.

The Cistercian monks at Stift Heiligenkreuz made news a couple years ago when they released a recording of chant on the Universal/Decca label. That disc was eventually repackaged as a two-disc set, with an extra disc of Advent and Christmas chants, that is worth a listen. The monks, in fact, have gone full tilt technologically speaking, even hosting their own Monastic Channel (auf Deutsch) on YouTube. The Austrian monks have now launched their own label, Obsculta Music, with this new CD that also features their community's singing (available through Amazon, but at the moment only as mp3 files). One can hear Gregorian chant performed many different ways, from the very humble to the most polished professional musicians. Some of my favorite recordings remain those made by monks and nuns, like the monks of Solesmes and Santo Domingo de Silos, and the monks of Heiligenkreuz fall into the same category -- not as purely gorgeous in sound as a group of professional singers, but imbued with a sense of devotion to this music as much more than just notes on a page.

The disc follows a Holy Week trajectory, with music from Holy Thursday (Amor), Good Friday (Passio), Easter (Silentium et Jubilatio), and finally a glimpse of heaven itself (Caelum). In that final section the monks have done something rather unusual, performing four chants that, one could say, reflect the heavenly liturgy, with piano accompaniments by the Luxembourgian composer David Ianni, who has a long relationship with Stift Heiligenkreuz. The musical style of these accompaniments is generally minimalistic, with wavelike patterns that reinforce the repetitive nature of these formulaic hymns and litanies, which could strike the ear as meditative or New Agey, depending on your tastes (perhaps a case of gilding the lily, although chant is durable music and has withstood all manner of adaptation). A sample, along with some views of the monastery and its monks, in the video embedded below.

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