Peter Van de Graaf shares some of his favorites, from the late German tenor Fritz Wunderlich to American soprano Renee Fleming.
“Angels and Saints at Epheseus” has topped Billboard’s classical charts for weeks.
The album was recorded by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles at their priory in rural Missouri.
The prioress and music arranger for the Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles is Mother Cecilia.
She says the high quality of the nuns’ music comes from singing together eight times a day, which they do to express their love for God.
“The fact that we are singing together so often throughout the day, our voices, our whole heart kind of becomes one in the heart of God,” said Mother Cecilia. “We’re not just some choir that comes together for practice every Tuesday night.”
The success of the album is unimportant to the nuns.
“These CDs are absolutely non-essential to our life, our life of prayer,” she said. “If we hadn’t recorded, or if we don’t record again, it really wouldn’t have any bearing, any effect on our life.”
Hear two tracks from the album:
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE & NOW. And when I think of singing nuns, I think of the 1992 movie "Sister Act." Whoopi Goldberg playing a lounge singer on-the-run hides out in a convent and makes the choir really sing.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SISTER ACT")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Nothing you could say could tear me away from my God, my God. Nothing you could do...
HOBSON: Well, of course, the nuns turned out to be a hit and even performed for the Pope, but that's Hollywood. That could never happen in real life, right? Well, actually, in Missouri right now, there is a group of nuns called the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, and they have surprised the music world with their singing, which has topped Billboard's traditional classical charts for weeks now. This is a cloistered order devoted to prayer, but their CD "Angels and Saints at Epheseus" is currently number two on Amazon's list of music best sellers. Here's a bit of one of the songs called "Christe Sanctorum."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTE SANCTORUM")
BENEDICTINES OF MARY, QUEEN OF APOSTLES: (Singing in foreign language)
HOBSON: Well, the prioress, Mother Cecilia, arranged all the music and she joins us now. And first of all, congratulations.
MOTHER CECILIA: Well, thank you very much for having me.
HOBSON: Tell us about the piece that we're hearing right now.
CECILIA: "Christe Sanctorum" is a chant that we sing a couple of times a year to celebrate the Feast of the Archangels St. Michael and St. Gabriel and St. Raphael.
HOBSON: And for those who don't know much about the life that you lead about, monastic life, the nuns who perform this album are anonymous. And are these songs all songs that you just perform as part of your religious life?
CECILIA: They are. All the chants that are heard are taken from our Divine Liturgy from the divine office that we sing eight times a day.
CECILIA: And the other pieces, the polyphony and the English hymns, we sing during mass throughout the year.
HOBSON: That seems like a lot of singing?
CECILIA: Well, the cut and dry answer is that we love God, and it's also part of the rule that we live. We are Benedictine. We follow the sixth-century rule of St. Benedict, and we're following his directions to come in and pray together, to thank and praise and adore God eight times a day. St. Augustine said that to sing is the work of a lover, and we love God. And so we want to sing to him all the time.
HOBSON: I want to listen to another piece, "Leta Quies." This piece is chanted at the mass of the Feast of St. Benedict, the founder of the Order of St. Benedict. Let's take a listen to this for a moment.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "LETA QUIES")
HOBSON: I think one of the things that may be confusing, interesting and just amazing to people is that you are nuns who come to a monastery because you want to devote yourselves to God and not because you want to be musicians. And yet you've managed to reach a very high level of performance.
CECILIA: It's funny, isn't it?
CECILIA: I mean, who would have thought - I think a lot of that really comes from the fact that we are singing together so often throughout the day. Our voices, our whole heart kind of becomes one in the heart of God, and we're so attuned to each other. I mean, we live together 24 hours a day.
CECILIA: So, you know, we're not just some choir that comes together for practice every Tuesday night. We're together all the time. I think really that's what brings the level that's kind of unexpected for contemplative sisters.
HOBSON: Now, do you ever feel the need for a male singer or are there things that you have to do to the music to make it so that you don't need one?
CECILIA: It's funny you asked. So often I say, if only we had some basses.
CECILIA: That would make life so much easier if we had some basses. No. It does - it makes it a little more difficult to do a couple of the pieces. I have to do a lot of rearranging. For instance, sometimes I'll take a four-part piece for SATBs - soprano, alto, tenor, bass - and try to rearrange it so it sounds decent for all female voices.
HOBSON: Is there an example on the album?
CECILIA: Yes, the "Lorica of St. Patrick."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "LORICA OF ST. PATRICK)
HOBSON: Now you were a musician. You graduated from Rice's Shepherd School of Music. You played horn with the Columbus Symphony in Ohio. Why did you leave that world to become a nun?
CECILIA: When God is calling you to do something, you can only run away for so long. And I knew since I was a young girl that he wanted something of me when I was introduced in my music classes and by friends in college to sacred music. That music really had a tremendous effect on me and on my soul, and it was the music of heaven.
The Palasciano(ph) , the "Miserere" by Allegri, and I just - it just swept me away. And I heard it and I knew there was a heaven, and I just - I fell in love with this way of adoring God. And I had a wonderful job. I bought a house. I had everything. But he just, through, I think, this means of sacred music, drew me to him.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "MISERE MEI, DEUS (PSALM 51)")
CECILIA: I'm so happy. I've had peace ever since I left the world, so to speak, and great tranquility and great joy because I know that I'm doing what he has wanted me to do.
HOBSON: The most of the CD is music that's been composed by others, but I do want to listen to one. It's called "A Rose Unpettaled," which was actually written by the Benedictines of Mary. Let's take a quick listen to that.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "A ROSE UNPETTALED")
HOBSON: How does this all feel? I mean, your CD has topped, as we said, Billboard's traditional classical charts. That must be just amazing.
CECILIA: It's neat. You know, the sisters don't really know about it. I'm the only one who has any contact.
CECILIA: And - yeah. It's - I mean, they know we're selling CDs, but they don't know that we're on the top of the charts or anything like that. And that's the way we want to keep it because, I mean, the thing is these CDs are absolutely non-essential to our life, our life of prayer. And if we hadn't recorded or if we don't record again, it really wouldn't have any bearing or any affect on our life. It's nice. It brings joy to hear stories of how it touches souls out in the world. And, for instance, many parents of autistic children write and tell us how it calms their children and nothing else will.
HOBSON: Well, keep making music.
CECILIA: We'll see.
HOBSON: Mother Cecilia is the prioress of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. Their latest CD is "Angels and Saints at Ephesus." Mother Cecilia, thank you so much.
CECILIA: Thank you for having me. God bless you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "JESU CORONA VIRGINUM")
HOBSON: And you can hear full songs or find more information about "Angels and Saints at Ephesus" at hereandnow.org.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
So we come to the end of an hour, something we've been doing here at HERE & NOW for years. But today, Jeremy, we have many new listeners.
HOBSON: Indeed, we do. And you, if you're a new listener or an old listener, you can reach out to us at hereandnow.org. or at facebook.com/hereandnowradio.
YOUNG: We really appreciate you being there, and we'd love your feedback on Twitter, @hereandnowrobin.
HOBSON: Or @jeremyhobson.
YOUNG: This is HERE & NOW from NPR and WBUR Boston. I'm Robin Young.
HOBSON: And I'm Jeremy Hobson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.