The biggest selling album in the history of Christian music has quite staggeringly turned out to be a double CD of Gregorian Chant. John Irvine carries out a comprehensive survey of the ancient musical and spiritual tradition.

If this time last year I had predicted that the biggest classical music hit of 1994 would be a hit big enough to reach the UK top 10, a 20-year-old record of Latin plainchant, you would have thought me mad. Well it happened: 'Canto Gregoriano' on EMI records has become the biggest and most unexpected Christian music hit ever. Having led a blamelessly low profile life for over 1,000 years, Gregorian Chant is now the flavour of the month and seemingly no social gathering is complete without monks chanting quietly in the background. Shops can't stock it quickly enough and record companies are falling over themselves to repackage and remarket decades old recordings to an unsuspecting but eager new audience.

EMI's 'Canto Gregoriano' craze began with a TV marketing campaign in Spain aimed at younger people (particularly between 18 and 25) and people in the crossover market: those who are willing to listen to classical music as something new if given the chance, and willing to buy what they hear, if they like it. Packaged as a remedy to stress and materialism, over 300,000 copies were rapidly sold and the disc went to No 1 in the Spanish pop charts. Success was repeated elsewhere: it was a smash in the USA while in the UK the album's entrance into the pop charts gained it coverage in national newspapers and the BBC Six O'clock News. In the last few months over 100,000 copies have been sold here. The disc has only left the top spot in the classical charts (as I write) because of the release of the second Three Tenors' disc.

To sell this many discs of ancient Latin chant this quickly requires some investigation. Lying behind the success of 'Canto Gregoriano' is a series of factors which have been emerging over the last few years.

There has been a large increase in the number of ordinary people getting into classical music: Nigel Kennedy's smash hit recording of Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons' proved that there were a large number of people who would appreciate classical music and be prepared to buy it - if only the snobbery and exclusiveness of the world of classical music could be overcome. Things have been changing: magazines such as Classic CD and BBC Music Magazine are written with the non-specialist in mind, and since these magazines have cover-mounted discs, people are able to hear before they buy and this has been a major factor in the explosion of interest in contemporary 'spiritual' classical music - Tavener, Part and Gorecki have all been heavily promoted through Classic CD. In addition, Classic FM continually goes from strength to strength introducing classical music to wider audiences and acting as a vehicle for promoting new discs, such as 'Canto Gregoriano'.

Classic FM and the magazines are reaching a new audience for classical music - people in their 20s and 30s who are simply tired of the rock music they grew up with and who want something fresh and exciting and more challenging than a three chord trick. Starting with the well-known classic 'pops' and the works of the modern composers Nyman, Glass, Tavener, Gorecki and Part, they are always on the lookout for something 'new' and interesting. 'Canto Gregoriano' appears to fit the bill.

As this level of interest has grown, so have the levels of and sophistication of the advertising and marketing of classical music to exploit and sustain this new market. A disc no longer sells merely on merit (did it ever?); it has to be plugged, promoted, advertised, hyped, just like any pop artist. Clever marketing - including sending every Radio 1 DJ a copy - helped Gorecki's Third Symphony' become such a big success in 1993. Similar tactics have been used to sell 'Canto Gregoriano' in this country.

It must not be forgotten that in introducing a new generation to Gregorian Chant, the way was paved in 1992 by Enigma's chart success with "Sadeness" and "Mea Culpa" which used sampled Gregorian Chant as the background to a very danceable tune. It's a fair assumption that the age group which has bought 'Canto Gregoriano' was aware of what it sounded like. The trick was to get them to buy the pure and holy original rather than the corrupted and sensual dance beat version.

Another startling change in classical music in the 80s and 90s has been the growing desire of composers to tackle religious themes in their music, and a growing acceptance by critics and audiences of this type of music. The key composer in this regard is Britain's John Tavener who has introduced religion to the secular concert hall, notably in his work for cello and strings "The Protecting Veil". Since this was recorded and released in 1992, a mini-industry, almost a sub market for classical spiritual music, has sprung up. This year alone saw seven new Tavener CDs released within the space of a few months; previously he had not had this much music released in seven years.

Music which is spiritual and other worldly, transcendent, beautiful, simple, pure, even 'holy', is immensely marketable at present, whether such music's origins lie in Christianity or in the New Age. The materialistic 1980s did not satisfy the soul; people who'd benefited materially still felt empty inside and yearned for greater meaning in their life. They wanted music which was relaxing, timeless, ancient yet relevant to today, spiritually uplifting with no condemnation or challenge, beautiful, melodic and simple. Such music had to be understandable and accessible. Despite the religious associations of the music, religious affiliation was not necessarily on the cards.

It would be nice to think of the increased interest in 'spiritual' music as indicative of a spiritual hunger and quest for God - and perhaps it is. However, there is a 'flavour of the month' feeling about it all - it's a fad and a fashion, perhaps. Unfortunately, most listeners can't tell the difference between the Christian traditions in the music of Tavener and Part and the New Age aspirations of Philip Glass and Michael Nyman.

Keeping all of the above in mind, with regard to the success of 'Canto Gregoriano', we can point out the following:

1. Enigma did the groundwork in exposing a new generation to the sound of chanting monks;
2. A clever marketing campaign has sold chant as the next big thing and as a stress reliever. Gregorian Chant is currently a fashion accessory!
3. Gregorian Chant fulfils the criteria for spiritual, other worldly music noted above. Its simplicity, beauty and timelessness are highly attractive.
4. To a large number of people buying the disc, this sort of music is excitingly new and a pleasant change to Phil Collins and Madonna.

The success of 'Canto Gregoriano' is essentially a once-off affair; no other recording of chant has sold or is likely to sell as much as this disc has done. Having said that, as I write a rumour has come to me that EMI are planning a 'Canto Noel' for Christmas...

A Brief History Of Plainchant (from the dawn of time to round about now!)