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Flashback: Gregorian Chant Dominates the Music World

A surprising number of huge-selling, classic albums came out in March 1994: Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell. But the most perplexing hit, both then and now, arrived 25 years ago today. Chant was an album of Gregorian chants recorded decades earlier by Spain’s Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos.

The record was a fairly straightforward compilation of gentle, soothing, mystical chants in Latin, and somehow it became a sales juggernaut. By May, the record made it up to Number Three on the Billboard 200, and it ultimately spent 53 weeks on the chart. It was also Number One on the Classical Albums chart and Number 17 on the Christian Albums chart. The label that released Chant, Angel Records (of course), made a music video for the track “Alleluia, beatus vir qui suffert” (“Happy is the man who endures”) for MTV, though it appears not to be online. By July, the RIAA certified it double platinum; by contrast The New York Times reported at the time that a typical classical album could expect to sell only about 10,000 copies in its first year.

Maybe most perplexing is the fact that the recordings had come out years earlier, on four separate releases between 1973 and 1982. These were later packaged into a two-disc set, Las Mejores Obras del Canto Gregoriano, which was released in Spain, where it reached Number One in 1993. The Spanish label that put it out marketed it as a stress reliever. This tipped off Angel that it could be a hit, if they could figure out how to sell it.

“We consciously decided to go for the widest possible distribution, the widest possible sales opportunity,” Steven Murphy, Angel’s president, told the Times.

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