Don't talk to the guys at St. Michael's Abbey about the old standards. Don't bring up the Cole Porter chestnuts or the Irving Berlin ditties or the Gershwin tunes if you want to impress them with your knowledge of music in the old days. It won't work.
To the priests and seminarians at the abbey, Mozart might as well have been a rapper. They deal each day in music that was new when the Chinese were using printing presses for the first time: Gregorian chant.
They sing unto the Lord an old song.
They belong to the small Roman Catholic community of priests known as Norbertines, an order founded in France in 1121 by St. Norbert and that flourished in later centuries in Hungary. St. Michael's is the headquarters of one of only three Norbertine communities in the United States, and it is the only Catholic seminary in Orange County.
It is also one of the few places you can hear the Mass sung not only in Latin, but in Gregorian chant. The performance of chant as part of the liturgy is the cornerstone of the Norbertine order.
The priests of the abbey teach at St. Michael's Prep School (which is on the grounds of the abbey north of El Toro), as well as at Santa Margarita and Mater Dei high schools, and they work at various Orange County parishes on weekends. But "our main purpose is to sing the liturgy--what we call the divine office," said Father Philip Smith, the abbey's music director.
"The liturgy is the focal point of our lives, and Christmas is the personification of that because we have a beautiful midnight Mass preceded by Christmas carols and midnight Matins."
Word gets around. The abbey's church routinely is filled to capacity for the midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. People from throughout the county come to hear the choir of 20 seminarians sing the ancient unison songs developed by Pope Gregory I in the 6th Century. For most of the seminarians, that night is about as close to show business as they'll get.
"There is a bit of show biz," said Darrin Merlino, a postulant, or begining seminary student, from Huntington Beach. "For some reason, we always seem to sound better when there's a group out there watching us. But overall, it's pointed toward Christ.
"I never really did anything musically before I came here, and it's exciting being an active member and singing rather than just listening. You really get a feel for the music and you become part of it."
Although all Norbertines sing, few have had formal musical training, Smith said. Seminarians may never have sung in a choir or learned to read music before coming to St. Michael's, "but we give them plenty of experience once they get here," he added.
At the abbey, not only do they learn to read music, but they master the complexities of the ancient "square notation" used in Gregorian chant, in which the musical note heads are square-shaped rather than oval and have no stems to indicate rhythm.
"I was mostly used to guitar Masses before coming here, and that just didn't appeal to me," said Frater Justin Ramos (the designation is Latin for brother ), a seminarian from Los Angeles. "When I first heard Gregorian chant, it really stirred me. I had learned the notation, and when I came here that was made alive for me. That drew me. They place such a great emphasis on it here. It really inspired me to want to learn it more."
Romy Kirchhoefer, a postulant from Salt Lake City, said he came to the abbey for a Palm Sunday Mass before entering St. Michael's Prep School, "and they were playing the Gregorian chant through the speakers outside. That was the first time I'd heard it, really, outside of maybe an old movie somewhere.
"It was really a powerful factor in my wanting to join the community because I thought that it was really beautiful. I liked the way people were wearing the white habit and that they were in a religious community, but I think the Gregorian chant was really the determinant for me."
Kirchhoefer, Ramos and a handful of other seminarians have learned enough of the chant and of the more familiar polyphonic music--which employs harmony--to qualify for the abbey's polyphonic schola. This is a smaller choir that sings four-part pieces daily in rehearsal and performs traditional Christmas carols in parts beginning on Christmas Eve.
"They're the cream of the musical crop at St. Michael's," said Smith, who has a bachelor's degree in music education from Cal State Fullerton.
The sound produced by both choirs was striking enough to get the attention of John and Deborah Traylor, record producers from Huntington Beach. They arranged for the choirs to record a compact disc of Christmas songs and chants last December. The disc was released in Southern California in October.
The songs and chants on the recording don't show the polish of a professional choir, but they weren't meant to, Smith noted.