Deutsche Grammophon announces unique Christian-Jewish collaboration with million-selling monks

Seven years ago the Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz in Austria became the unlikeliest of musical superstars when their album of Gregorian plainsong became a worldwide hit. Now Deutsche Grammophon (Universal Music Company) presents the million-selling monks in a unique collaboration – an historic project uniting the Jewish and Christian faiths through the power of music.

The new album Chant for Peace mixes the Cistercian brothers’ ancient plainchant with Old Testament texts sung by Timna Brauer, a celebrated Jewish singer who has represented Austria in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Pater Karl Wallner, Timna Brauer, Pater Kilian Müller
On the rooftop of Austrian Hospital, Jerusalem
© Stephan Boehme

Stift Heiligenkreuz is the world’s oldest continuously-occupied Cistercian monastery and, with its community of 90 young monks, the biggest in Europe.

A successor to the 2008 multi-platinum-selling Chant – Music for Paradise, the new album combines centuries-old plainsong with Timna Brauer’s hypnotic Hasidic and Yemeni vocals. She is accompanied by the Elias Meiri Ensemble, a chamber orchestra with musicians playing cello, guitar, harpsichord and percussion.

This unique collaboration recreates the historic charity concert staged at the abbey last year, on 9 November (coincidentally, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom against Jews throughout Germany and Austria). The album will be released by Deutsche Grammophon on 8 May – another date of symbolic importance, marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two in Europe.

Pater Karl Wallner, Timna Brauer, Pater Kilian Müller
Judaean Desert (close to St. Georg Monastery)
© Stephan Boehme

The seeds of the project were sown when Timna and Father Karl, the monks’ spokesman, met by chance at an Austrian TV studio, where both were appearing separately on a talk show. “I told Fr Karl about my Voices for Peace project and said I would be interested in performing sacred Jewish music in his church,” explains Timna. Fr Karl takes up the story: “After that meeting I listened to Timna on YouTube and was really impressed, so I invited her to sing with us in the abbey. At first I was very nervous because I didn’t know how the two styles would work together. But as soon as Timna started to sing, all my worries disappeared. I saw just how powerful the combination of these two deep-rooted and compelling traditions could be. My heart was filled with a sense of harmony, happiness and peace that I’d never felt before.”

With 1000 people in the audience, and the same number again having to be turned away, the concert was a huge success. There was complete silence until the end, then the applause was unstoppable. Fr Karl recalls: “I had the same feeling of euphoria as when Pope Benedict visited our monastery in 2007.”

For Timna, the secret to the success of their collaboration is that they are, literally, singing from the same hymn sheet. “The Jewish Yemeni and Hasidic music comes from Old Testament psalms, just like the Gregorian chants,” she explains.

Fr Karl adds: “We made the decision to record the album after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. There is a new kind of anti-semitism spreading around the world, and we have to deal with it. But we don’t open doors by force. We wait until God opens them. That’s how it happened with our first album – which came about as a result of a chance email – and that’s how it happened when I met Timna this time. It wasn’t planned.”

The monks became reluctant superstars after the release of their first album, and Fr Karl admits they struggled to come to terms with their new-found fame. They received many offers to perform around the world, some of which could have made them millionaires, but turned them all down. “We were invited to do concerts at La Scala, in Japan and in America. Arnold Schwarzenegger even offered to fly us to California in his private jet,” says Fr Karl. “That was very tempting because he is Austrian, like us, and I would have liked to go to California. But we’re monks and when we sing, we don’t sing for money. These are our prayers – songs of our love for God – and we never sought this fame or attention.”