Chant and Piano

Eine deutsche Version dieses Textes gibt es hier.

Personal background

Almost a month ago the album “Chant - Amor et Passio” by the Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz was released. It’s the long awaited successor of “Chant - Music for Paradise” (“Music for the Soul” in the US) which sold over 1.1 million copies worldwide since its release in 2008.

I’ve known the monks since 2005 and have had the great grace to make several lasting friendships at the beautiful monastery in the Vienna Woods. Thanks to their liturgy and their singing of Gregorian Chant I feel at home in Heiligenkreuz.

In 2006 I played my first piano recital at the Stift. Fr. Simeon Wester, the Music Director for the Abbey (and now also the Prior of Stift Heiligenkreuz), asked me if I would like the schola to join me for one piece. I should accompany the Litany of Loreto on the piano. The idea was appealing. I had never heard of this unusual combination, but I was willing to try. We had one rehearsal. The concert went well and the audience was very touched by our musical experiment. The idea of chant and piano was born (you can listen to this improvised performance here).

A couple of years later the monks and their sublime singing were discovered by Universal Music. Their album “Chant - Music for Paradise” became a huge, unexpected success. This was a great opportunity to share the gospel and the treasure of Gregorian Chant with thousands, even millions of people. On the other hand such success meant invasions of journalists and visitors to the monastery to an extent that would become quite distressing for the monks at times.

They waited over 3 years to go back into the studio (or to get the studio back into their church), this time recording for their own record company Obsculta Music in order to be more independent. You can imagine how humbled and honored I felt when Fr. Karl Wallner asked me in September if I’d like to record a couple of “bonus tracks” with the monks. Fr. Simeon gave me four chants for which I should compose a piano accompaniment.

Musical challenges

So, how do you proceed when you have to compose a piano part for a musical piece that is originally meant to be sung a cappella and that does not require an accompaniment by definition? There were several criteria that I needed to take into consideration:

  1. The original must remain untouched. The Chant melodies are many centuries old and they withstood the test of time. They are perfect the way they are. There is nothing that needs to be changed. Also, when the monks sing Gregorian Chant, they do not interpret it but they pray it. This dignity has to be preserved. I felt there was only one right way to approach the composing process: to pray and listen in order to find the key that would unlock the hidden harmonies behind the unison chants. Which leads us to the second consideration:
  2. The accompaniment must add value to the original. Although Gregorian Chant does not call for an accompaniment of any kind, it does not prevent it either. When I was meditating on the chants and their texts, it became clear that one purpose of the accompaniment would be to reveal the underlying structure of the prayers. This is a main objective of my compositions for “Chant - Amor et Passio” which I tried to realize through the use of classical harmonies. Sometimes it is obvious how a harmonic progression emphasizes the structure of the prayer (take for instance the different verses in Ubi Caritas which are slightly different every time but always lead to a plain G major chord when the antiphon is repeated). In the Litanies I use more complex harmonies that structure the pieces on a larger scale. The invocations divide the prayers into different sections, which is not clear if you only hear the melody. I did not want simply to repeat the same accompaniment for every invocation. Quite the contrary, I wanted the inner spiritual development that occurs when praying a Litany to be expressed by a constant flow and harmonic evolution in the piano part. I have to give credit to Fr. Simeon for the quite unorthodox idea to move up a halftone at several points in the Litany of Loreto (which by the way was the only clear guidance he gave me - for the rest, I had a free hand to write what I felt was right).
  3. The accompaniment has to be unobtrusive. Since the original chants do not call for an accompaniment, the composer must resist the temptation to write too many notes. In my compositions I tried to keep the piano in the background in order to serve the chant and the monks who sing it. They should feel the freedom to sing their prayers pretty much as they’re used to, but at the same time I wanted their singing to be strongly sustained by my piano part. In order to achieve this I had to find a harmonic and pianistic language that blends so naturally with the original chant melodies that the monks would almost not be aware of the fact that they were being accompanied.

Conclusion

I did my best to provide an accompaniment that would remain faithful to the spirit of Gregorian Chant, despite this being an almost impossible task. I can honestly say that these compositions are among the most personal I have ever written, and I feel blessed by the experience in many ways. Not only was it a huge honor to be a part of this adventure, but the hours I spent making music and praying together with the Monks from Heiligenkreuz have been a musical and spiritual peak in my career. May the timeless beauty of “Chant - Amor et Passio” reach the hearts of many listeners.