I’m writing this just after finishing a radio interview for “Church and Culture” with Fr. Basil Nixen, choirmaster at the Benedictine Monastery in Norcia, Italy, where St. Benedict himself was born in 480 A.D. A native of Yuma, AZ, Fr. Basil was a seminarian when, on the occasion of visiting the monastery, decided to live there the rest of his life.
The topic of our interview was the imminent release of “Benedicta: Marian Chants from Norcia,” a recording of 33 chants honoring Our Lady, published by De Montfort Music. Just prior to the interview, I had the privilege of hearing the entire recording online. I was stunned by its beauty, both of the monks’ voices and sonic ambience of the Basilica of St. Benedict, where the monks live according to the “Rule” of the founder.
The Rule of St. Benedict, as Fr. Basil told me, requires the monks to sing seven or eight times a day, depending on how the text is interpreted. The monks at Norcia sing eight times and have developed complete mastery of delivering the monophonic line of the chant in a perfect unison of voices. They also sing with a sense of horizontal pressure that ensures the music never drags or becomes self-conscious. Chant recordings can sometimes be fussy and over-produced — performed, as it were, rather than prayed. The Benedictine monks of Norcia, as Fr. Basil told me, wanted a recording that simply captured the prayerful singing they do as a community every day.
I told Fr. Basil that as I listened to the recording I realized my body had become relaxed and my mind contemplative and peaceful. He seemed to appreciate that comment more than my praise of the recording itself, which corroborates the monks’ intention in their recording to provide a kind of beauty that nourishes the listener. As I wrote to Monica Fitzgibbons, co-founder with her husband of De Montfort Music, after the interview, “The music you are offering at De Montfort has, and will be, converting hearts, relieving suffering, and dispensing peace to the soul.”
For a relatively new company, De Montfort Music has had remarkable success. Their sacred music has been responsible for three of the top five classical imprints of Billboard’s Classical Chart, including the 2014 best-selling “Christmas at Harvard Square” sung by the boys of the St. Paul Choir School. De Montfort’s website contains all eight of the sacred music recordings. An important part of their success is due to the use of award-winning sound engineers, talent the Fitzgibbons knew while working in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles prior to moving their family to Florida and starting De Montfort Music.
The Benedictines of Norcia have already received worldwide attention for their Birra Norcia, a beer brewed in the monastery by two monks from Texas, which has been “credited” with the selection of both Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. Cardinal Ratzinger visited the monastery on the Feast of St. Benedict in 2003, not long before the papal conclave where he was elected and chose the name “Benedict.” The monks delivered several cases of Birra Norcia to the cardinals at the subsequent conclave that produced a pope named “Francis.” The master brewer is a Texan named Br. Francis Davoren, a fact that led one monk to claim, tongue firmly in cheek, was no coincidence.
The Basilica of St. Benedetto sits on the lovely piazza in Norcia (formerly Nursia) in the Umbrian mountains east of Spoleto, itself associated with music because of its annual music festival founded by composer Gian Carlo Menotti. Over 50,000 visitors each year visit the Basilica, drawn not only by its being the birthplace of St. Benedict but also its reputation for a beautifully sung liturgy and a tasty homemade brew. I asked Fr. Basil if he was prepared for double the number of visitors after this new recording became a hit, and he said, chuckling, that the monks would be thrilled to welcome more visitors. Don’t expect to stay overnight, however, since their guesthouse can only serve eight guests, but there are additional guest rooms available at some nearby monasteries of sisters.
I strongly recommend the reader consider purchasing “Benedicta: Marian Chants from Norcia.” If you buy it directly from De Montfort Music or the Benedictine monks’ website, your money will not be divided with a “middleman,” whether that be Amazon or iTunes. The recording is ideal to introduce someone, whether your children or a friend, to the glory of chant.“Benedicta” will also satisfy the demands of both the audiophile and those already familiar with Gregorian chant. Finally, the monks of Norcia, as Fr. Basil said to me, have chosen “selections that focus on the life of Mary, Our Lady, by focusing on seven mysteries, or defining moments, of her life.” I find that combination irresistible.