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That time Yo-Yo Ma played the Benedictine Ultima with dozens of monks

Yo-Yo Ma with cello in concert

T photography | Shutterstock

J-P Mauro - published on 02/16/23

After an evening of the finest cello performance, Yo-Yo Ma invited the Benedictine Monks of St. Vincent to join him in a closing hymn.

There are few things as impressive as a trained, professional musician. They can take their craft anywhere and pick up and play with just about anyone. This was the case with Yo-Yo Ma, the world renowned cellist, when he played at the St. Vincent Archabbey, a Benedictine monastery in Pennsylvania, in 2014.

Yo-Yo Ma was secured to perform at St. Vincent’s Basilica Parish for the Fred Rogers Legacy Award event. After putting on the show, he invited the religious community to surround him for a closing rendition of “The Benedictine Ultima.” Unfortunately the only video recordings of the song were taken by phone, but the sound comes in crystal clear on the unfocused images. 

A second recording, taken from a slightly different angle, gives a better idea of how many monks were singing with Ma. Although the monks nearly number 40, they never overpower the cello, keeping their tones soft and tender as they move through the ancient melody of the “Ultima.” 

On the St. Vincent Archabbey Vocation blog, the monks explain that “The Benedictine Ultima” is a centuries-old hymn that has been sung at the Archabbey for generations. It is a prayer for intercession from the Blessed Mother for a happy death. This Benedictine community in particular sings it on festive occasions, at the conclusion of each day’s Night Prayers, and at the conclusion of funerals. 

In 2008, the monks of St. Vincent’s noted that they had frequently been asked by the faithful for a copy of the hymn to incorporate into their prayer life. To this, they happily acquiesced, making the music for this touching hymn available in English, German, and Latin on their website. The English translation of the lyrics is: 

When death’s hour is then upon us,
To your Son pray that he grant us,
Death, both holy and serene,
Virgin Mary, Mother, Queen.

Catholic MusicHymnMonksVirgin Mary
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