San Jose, CA
March 5th 2014
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent for (Western) Christians worldwide. Lent is the season of penance and prayer, in which we prepare ourselves spiritually for the celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ.
Music and prayer are intimately linked in Christian tradition. Yet in this season of prayer, unless we are monks or nuns praying the Divine Office, we find our musical choices lacking. “The Glory of These Forty Days” gets old very quickly.
Again into this void comes a group of cloistered nuns from western Missouri, The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles. Their second major-label release, Advent at Ephesus, provided an accessible and beautiful alternative to playing Christmas music during Advent. Their follow-up, Lent at Ephesus, seems more significant, if only because Lenten music is a nearly lost genre. Here the sisters rescue some Latin chants from the obscurity of the Divine Office and the older form of the Good Friday and Palm Sunday liturgies, sing a few public-domain English-language hymns that deserve to be heard more, and present three of their own compositions, providing a well-paced, eighty-minute long reintroduction to the music of the season.
This is powerful stuff, far in spirit from the sappy self-help Christianity (and probable heresy) of “Ashes” and the St. Louis Jesuit/OCP-style easy listening music which has been passed off as “church music” or even “liturgical” for three decades. Here is the Palm Sunday entry presaging Christ coming into his kingdom. Here is Mary mourning, Christ suffering and dying. And here are sinners’ prayers for forgiveness, poetic Acts of Contrition including (Fr. Edmund Vaughn’s) “God of Mercy and Compassion” and the Sisters’ own subtly post-Vatican II “Divine Physician”.
Musically it seems a step backwards for the Sisters. That is not technically true. The singing is every bit as well-executed as their prior releases, even as they include more difficult polyphony than before. The problem is with the production. As before, the album is mixed too wide and there is too much reverbration. The richer sound, both from the polyphony and more frequent use of organum in the plain chants, makes what was previously a nuisance into something that tires the ear. This is worst in pieces where the Sisters chose to sing a drone. It may sound great in their chapel, but on the record it is like ringing. This is a beautiful album, but, like re-mastered rock albums suffering from the “Loudness War”, one difficult to listen to from beginning to end.
At the time of writing, Lent at Ephesus is at the top of Billboard’s Classical charts. If the “Christian” charts weren’t reserved for Protestant praise music it’s probably be #1 there, too: it’s currently outselling Billboard’s top Christian album on Amazon.com. That’s no small feat for cloistered nuns only interested in paying their mortgage and spreading the faith, and seems more impressive when one considers that sin, suffering, death, and the Crucifixion are the subject matter. But these are also songs of love, hope and mercy–real hope made meaningful by real trouble just as the joy of Eastertide is possible thanks to the preparations of Lent.
Lent at Ephesus, recorded with Decca Records, can be ordered directly from the Benedictines of Mary, and is also available from most online music sellers.