Over three days during Lent this year, the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles -- a community of Catholic nuns in Gower, Mo. -- quietly assembled in their priory of Our Lady of Ephesus to record Angels and Saints at Ephesus, an extraordinary album of sacred music that has topped the charts since its release just a few weeks ago.
Angels and Saints at Ephesus, released on Decca/DeMontfort Music on May 7, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Classical Traditional Chart, No. 2 on Billboard's Heatseekers Chart, No. 6 on the Classical Overall Chart and No. 15 on the Christian Chart. As of this writing, the album remained on Billboard's Classical Traditional Chart for the second week in a row.
Angels and Saints at Ephesus is a rarity in the realm of commercially available sacred music: savvy, authentic and simply beautiful.
The recording is savvy -- very savvy -- in terms of reaching out to the broadest segment of potential listeners. The 17 tracks on Angels and Saints at Ephesus are made up of short selections (mostly two to three minutes in length) of some of the most listener-friendly hymns and sequences in the repertory of Catholic sacred music.
The hymns and sequences are performed with a very nice balance between Latin and English selections. Thoughtful attention was evidently given to maintaining a comfortable pace between selections that are sung in chant and those performed with chordal harmonies.
The nice mix of styles -- driven by works in the more familiar musical language of the 19th and early 20th centuries, tastefully interspersed with medieval chant melodies -- offers a welcomed contrast to wall-to-wall chant recordings, or recordings of unrelieved polyphony, which, no matter how beautiful, simply overwhelm the listener when they are disembodied from the broader rhythms and diversified pacing of the liturgy.
Savvy, to be sure, the performances on Angels and Saints at Ephesus are nonetheless heartwarmingly authentic. We are listening, after all, to nuns in prayer. One of the most moving things about this album is the way in which the tracks continually reflect the sisters' love of their vocations as brides of Christ.
The listening is easy and, along the way, we get beautiful reflections on the virgins St. Agnes and St. Cecilia, who vigorously defended their purity for Christ. There are also reflections on St. Benedict (founder of the Benedictine Order) and his sister, the nun, St. Scholastica. When the nuns sing "wherever You go, virgins follow, and with songs of praise, they hasten after You, singing sweet resounding hymns" (hymn on the feast of St. Agnes) one gets the clear sense that the sisters are singing for their Groom. We just get to listen.
Of course, to garner any success on the charts, the singing has to be beautiful. And beautiful it is! The entire album was done a cappella -- that is, without the accompaniment of organ or other musical instruments to help the singers stay on pitch and otherwise enliven the performance. This is especially remarkable in light of the fact that these nuns are not, primarily, trained musicians. Yet, the singing rings forth with great purity and crystal clarity.
In short, Angels and Saints at Ephesus is one of the most thoughtful, sincere and well-produced recordings of sacred music I have heard in a long time. It comes on the heels of the sisters' highly successful Advent at Ephesus, which spent five weeks at the top of Billboard's Classical Traditional Chart. With this new release, it looks like the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles are poised to repeat that accomplishment and perhaps even surpass it.
To borrow from the Magnificat, a canticle of the Virgin Mary that these very traditional Catholic nuns sing at Vespers every evening: Angels and Saints at Ephesus was born of souls who proclaim the greatness of the Lord; whose spirits rejoice in God their savior. Looking upon the lowliness of His handmaids, He has done great things for them and Holy is His name. Deo gratias.