Milan is the only diocese in the world to preserve its liturgical rite.

The Milanese liturgy, which derived from the eastern liturgies flourished just after the Constantine’s edict (313 a. C.), like some others such as the Gallican, the Hispanic, and the Celtic one, had its first and important impulse thanks to St Ambrogio. For this reason it was later called “ambrosian”.

However, we can’t only talk about ambrosian liturgy, but also about ambrosian chant. The first historically dated evidences of the western Christian music go back to Milan. Certainly the scrupulous and well-educated Bishop found an organism which was already taking care of the chant of the Cathedral – divided into two churches, St Maria Maggiore – which was on the same site where the Cathedral is situated today – and St Tecla, which occupied the present Duomo’s square – with the Laus magna angelorum, from whom later the Gloria originated, as its repertoire’s gem. Ambrogio, a man with a great cultural and musical education, added new ways of singing and new compositions: from the singed psalms with alternate choruses to the antiphony, in which the vesicles alternate with a short musical sentence, the antiphon.

Ambrogio became well known in the musical field thanks to the hymns’ invention, built according to a metric system and with an easily learning and understanding melody.

Ambrogio gave an impulse which brought results in the course of the centuries. With the enlargement and the settling of the liturgy’s system, the musical repertoire, which was collected in volumes called antiphonaries, hymnals, processionals, psalteries, or chorales depending on their content, was enriched.

The schola cantorum, which was flourishing in the Cathedral and which was later incorporated in the forming Musical Chapel, took care of this heritage.

On September 3, 1402, the Fabbrica’s deputies appointed the first cantor biscantator and choirmaster of the Musical Chapel: the musichus Matteo da Perugia (Perugia was at that time under the Visconti’s rule). His name was perhaps suggested by Pietro Filargo da Candia, appointed as Milan’s Archbishop just a few months before.

The presence of a choirmaster became necessary after the introduction of the polyphony – the simultaneous singing of two or more melodies – in the Cathedral. It is important to notice that, during that period, 4 or 5 professional musicians only performed the polyphonic chant, while the rest of the chorus – or better the schola – performed the one-voice plainsong parts.

Matteo was not employed then to conduct a few persons’ chorus, but mostly to honour the holydays celebrations of the divine offices “ with his sweet and honeyed chants” together with the clerics and the Chapter. Besides, he had to teach music in a public school opened to everyone and to educate in the chant’s art – a job that would be required by the Fabbrica to the choirmaster more and more often in times to come – three children selected by the vestrymen, clearly destined to be treble voices in the chorus.

The new master had strained relations with the Fabbrica’s Council because of his numerous absences, but the Cardinal Filargo’s support kept him safe from extreme decisions until 1407, when the relationship with the Council broke off for the first time. After that break off, the Chapel was put under the control of two unknown priests, followed in 1411 by the priest Ambrosino da Pessano as regent. In 1414 Matteo da Perugia went back to his office but he was dismissed soon, in August 1416, together with the organist Monti da Prato, who was organist since long time before Matteo da Perugia’s arrival.

At the end of Matteo da Perugia’s mandate the Chapel had its organization completed: a master, an organist, a vice-master, an adult and a young cantors.

With the resignation of Matteo da Perugia in 1416 a variable period started, made of good and bad things, which took to the first real artistic-cultural settling of the Musical Chapel.

The real trait d’union of this period was Ambrogio da Pessano, who helped the choirmasters and run the chapel during the transition from one master to another between 1411 and 1459. It was the same Ambrogio da Pessano, already Matteo da Perugia’s assistant from 1414, who run the Chapel between 1416 and 1425, before the Fabbrica chose Bertrando Ferraguto di Avignone (Bertrand Feragut) as successor of Matteo Da Perugia.

The fact that a foreign musician chose to become musichus in ecclesia maiori Mediolani in 1425, after only 23 years from the Musical Chapel constitution, shows that the Chapel was becoming increasingly popular at international level. Milan and its Duomo were clearly recognised as important cultural and artistic places.

On the one hand, the presence of foreign masters and cantors showed the importance of the Chapel internationally, but on the other hand it caused instability. As a matter of fact, the same Bertand Feragut resigned in 1430 without a clear reason, and in 1461 the cantors refused to go and sing the Vespers in Sant’Ambrogio’s church. Even worse, they refused to take part in the Mass on Sant’Ambrogio’s day. Only an organism composed mainly by foreigners could give such an offence to the patron saint of Milan! Despite all the cantors were fined, the next year the same thing happened again. The Fabbrica’s deputies then took an extreme decision. They dismissed all the cantors and they rebuilt the Chapel ex-novo.

The difficult task was given to Santino Taverna, who didn’t get the choirmaster title but the one of “prior of biscantori”. The crisis between 1461 and 1462 took to the formulation of the first regulation, listing which chants the Chapel had to perform. It had to part sing the ingressa, the confrattorio, the transitorio of the Mass and the lucernario (the starting chant of the Vesper when the lights go on).

The presence of foreign cantors was not entirely a source of troubles. In the shade of the Cathedral a gem of the musical firmament was growing up: the Josquin des Près. The Flemish musician – the most talented and melodious musician of the fifteenth century – was a cantor in the Musical Chapel from 1459 to 1473. Thanks to his experience in the Duomo he developed his musical skills and his knowledge of the Italian music, which will contribute a lot to his mastery. It is not strange that his contemporaries talked about him with the greatest admiration (“God has preached the Gospel in music trough des Près,” Luther said about him). What is surprising is that still in 1711 Andrea Adami was considering him like “the greatest representative of this big science, from whom all the contrapuntists who came after learned” and that “there is no doubt that Josquin was a man of great talent. His reputation speaks and will always speak about him,” he added.

The fifteenth century ended with the appointment as choirmaster of a young priest from Lodi in 1484: Franchino Gaffurio. At that time he was 30 years old. This Italian priest, with no illustrious protectors and unpopular with the most powerful people in the city, gave to the Musical Chapel a fame and a glory that haven’t died in the course of the centuries. Fame and glory were built day by day during the 38 years in which he run the Chapel with that “bona prudentia ac solicitudo” that all the documents in the Duomo’s Archive often recall.

First of all he rearranged the “schola dei pueri” to ground it on strict rules, because children were the future cantors. At the same time, he reformed the Chapel actively, since it was not as efficient as he expected when he was appointed. Most of all, only Italian cantors will be admitted. He was also a great composer, basically the first Italian musician after more than half a century of unopposed Flemish supremacy regarding the erudite music, the sacred music.

His music, characterised by a new, typical Italian preference for a fluent melody and for full tuned sonorities, is included, together with the music of other very important musicians of that time, in four big volumes wanted and written by the Master himself.

Born in Lodi on January 14, 1451, Franchino Gaffurio was the truly first great master of the Musical Chapel. A member of an aristocratic family, he studied Latin literature and music in the Benedictine monastery of St Pietro and he was a cantor in the Lodi Duomo. After having been ordained priest in 1473 or 1474, he went to the Gonzaga’s Court in Mantova, where he started his career as a writer of treatises – he is named in music and history books for this – and as a music teacher. He went to Genoa, Naples and Bergamo, and then became masters of the Chapel of the Milan Duomo on January 22, 1484.

He held this office until his death on June 25, 1522.

Besides this position, Gaffurio cooperated with the Flemish cantors’ chapel of the Sforza’s Court. He was also music professor at the Gymnasium (high school) founded by Ludovico Sforza. From 1494 to 1499 his name was on the payment list of the Pavia University as a music reader in Milan. He was a friend of Leonardo Da Vinci, who painted a portrait of him which is kept in the Ambrosian Library at present.

Besides his theoretical endowments, Gaffurio was also a notable composer of masses, motets and anthems. He was the first to collect them in books, the “Gaffurian codes”, which included the music of other contemporary composers. These books formed the first nucleus of the Fabbrica’s Musical Archive, which would later be used to collect all the compositions of choirmasters and organists.

He was also a clever organizer: he re-founded the school of young cantors with the aim of giving them not only a musical education but also a basic education under the guidance of a magister. He reformed the Chapel on cultural and disciplinary principles, unusual for that time. For instance, he introduced a reward for children who deserved it, in addition to the one for adult cantors; the obligation of wearing a white surcoat on a long robe; a constant and diligent attendance with fines for those people who were undisciplined; the presence of Italian cantors only.

Up until today, every time it has been necessary to restore order and discipline in the Chapel, it has been enough to refer to the Gaffurian dispositions to create immediately the right conditions for the best performance.

After Gaffurio’s death in 1522, it took forty years to find again a choirmaster of a certain importance. Vincenzo Ruffo, choirmaster from 1563 to 1573, entered the Duomo’s Chapel with a considerable wealth of experience and fame. It is possible, even though there is no evidence, that St Carlo Borromeo interceded for his appointment; in any case, the archbishop was in close contact with Vincenzo Ruffo and he asked him to contribute to the liturgical music’s reform according to the regulations of the Council of Trento. Since then, the Verona’s musician was the most involved person in the liturgical music’s reforming tendencies.

The Chapel felt the positive effects of the concern of St Carlo Borromeo. His concern was about the attention for the discipline, for the payments’ increase, for the children’s education and for the books of the chorus, which he bought personally. His concern about all these aspects is mentioned in the 1572’s regulations, which clearly refers to him even though they don’t bear his signature. The interest of the patron saint of Milan was crucial also for the selection of the successor of Vincenzo Ruffo, mostly for Gabussi’s appointment. Taken directly from Bologna to Milan by the same archbishop Borromeo, Giulio Cesare Gabussi assumed office as choirmaster in 1583 and he remained until his death in 1611: twenty-nine continuous years of work with one only relevant change, the one year (1601-1602) stay at the Court of Poland.

During his long direction, Gabussi was really appreciated, at the point that the Chapter allowed him favours and a payment’s increase. He run the Chapel with great authority and discipline and he consolidated the Chapel’s organic with valuable persons, helped in this task by St Carlo’s successors, the Archbishop Gaspare Visconti and, from 1594, by Federigo Borromeo. This man, not only did bring with him two great cantors, but he also made possible that the Fabbrica had good care of the most loyal and deserving persons, giving them a “pension” after 15 years of work.

It was under Gabussi’s direction that new and at that time popular compositional styles entered the Cathedral: the several choruses style and the concerted style, in which the organ was present not only to accompany the chorus but also with pieces performed in “solo”.

After Gabussi’s death, Vincenzo Pellegrini from Pesaro was appointed choirmaster in 1612 but he proved not to be a great director. Therefore, in 1625, Claudio Monteverdi was asked to become the new master. The negotiation with him came to an end soon probably because the payment was considered inadequate, even though the Fabbrica’s proposal was the highest payment in its history for a choirmaster. After the plague in 1629 – the one referred to by Manzoni – Ignazio Donati was appointed choirmaster in 1631. With this master, the “golden age” of the Musical Chapel started. During this period a series of masters, whose activity is representative of our musical seventeenth century, followed one another. Interestingly enough, the documents of that century do not talk about any crisis during this period, unlike the ones in other centuries.

Donati arrived at the Duomo at a mature age, after having served several churches and institutions in the northern part of Italy. He left manuscripts, kept in the Fabbrica’s Archive, a good number of vespers, psalms, hymns and masses, in which he made abundant use of the polychorality, that is to say the use of several choruses; he wrote pieces from sixteen to twenty-one voices, thus for four or five choruses simultaneously.

Antonio Maria Turati was the first master who was born in Milan and grown up in the Chapel, in which he performed as a young cantor. This appointment and the following one of Michelangelo Grancini, already organist in the Cathedral, show the fact that the “internal” appointment, that is to say the appointment of persons which knew the Chapel’s environment, was the best and the easiest option. That’s why there is no relevant note about it in the Fabbrica’s documents.

Both Turati and Grancini enriched the musical archive with a lot of pieces of work, most of which were interesting and still to discover. Grancini’s successor was Giovanni Antonio Grossi, who had already been choirmaster in different cathedrals in Lombardy, a region in Northern Italy.

Grossi composed sacred music only and he was extraordinary prolific in this field: his pieces of work kept in the Fabbrica’s Archive are several hundreds!

The historians’ opinions on the musical production of the Musical Chapel’s masters in the eighteenth century are conflicting. The musical attitude of the different masters was surely restricted by the observance of the “ancient style”, that is to say the observance of the vocal polyphony in its different dimensions, from the 4-5 voices piece to the most magnificent double chorus structure with or without organ. In the other Milanese churches instead, the “concerted” style was ruling already. It was a style in which pieces for soloists were often present, together with profane infiltrations.

In spite of the tendency not to abandon the “ancient style”, valuable masters followed one another at the Musical Chapel in the course of the century. The main character of the century was Gianandrea Fioroni, choirmaster from 1747 to 1778. He grew up in Naples and he became soon a considerable character in Milan, even though he was only interested in the sacred genre and not in the operatic one which was predominant at that time. He was a clever musician; his compositions aroused the interest of foreign experts and some of them spread abroad, like some handwritten copies of his pieces kept in Austrian, German and French libraries certify. The English man Charles Burney, during his “Musical journey to Italy”, once in Milan not only did go to the Duomo to listen to the Chapel, but he also went to the master Fioroni’s home. He praised his compositions and encouraged him to publish them “with the aim of convincing the entire world that in Italy, besides the theatrical and the church styles coincided, […] the ancient solemn style was not entirely lost.”

Fioroni’s organist was Bach’s son, Johann Christian, who stayed at the Milan’s Duomo from 1760 to 1763. His contract was the one usually agreed at that time: ha had no salary because his predecessor Michelangelo Caselli asked the Fabbrica for the “pensioning off”, that is to say the retirement with the maintenance of emoluments and salary: a real joy!

Fioroni’s successor was another famous musician, an operatic field expert: Giuseppe Sarti. He run the Chapel only for five years but he worked hard and he composed quite a lot of music. The style of his sacred compositions was consistent with the rite, passing over the operatic influence. The documents kept in the Fabbrica’s Archive and recently reintroduced discredit the rumour that “he brought the theatre into the church”.

The last choirmaster of the century was Carlo Monza, Fioroni’s student, already organist of the Ducal Chapel from 1767 and director of the same from 1775, but also master of 12 Milanese churches around 1783; a real record not only for that time but generally. Under Monza’s direction the Chapel’s decline started, because the contrapuntal technique became poor and the ecclesiastic style gave way to external influences.

Under the Austrian rule, the Imperial Royal Government reduced the Fabbrica’s autonomy concerning the Musical Chapel, taking upon itself the choice of the master from a list of three proposed by the Fabbrica.

In 1824, Benedetto Neri was appointed choirmaster, but he resigned in 1841, after ha had been reproached several times because he did not care about the education of the children. In the reform wanted by the Government in 1824 and made official in the 1846’s Regulation, the use of eunuchs was finally suppressed and the Chapel’s organic was set in sopranos, contraltos, tenors and basses, giving the acute voices to the “schola dei pueri” and charging the master with the composition of masses and vespers to hand over to the Archive.

The huge amount of pieces of work composed by Neri and his successor Raimondo Boucheron (1847-1876) shows for sure a good technique and musical sensibility, but it is often so steeped in vocalist taste and in operatic modes that on the one hand it is pleasant but on the other hand it doesn’t really suit the religious spirit.

The reign of Italy kept the same rules of the Austrian Government. Guglielmo Quarenghi (1877-1881), Pietro Platania (1881-1883) and Giuseppe Gallignani (1884-1891) were appointed choirmasters, following one another. A group of musicians, including the same Gallignani and later the well-known Lorenzo Perosi, laid the foundations of the “cecilian reform” in Milan and with it the sacred music’s revival, thanks to the activity of the Santa Cecilia Association and to the combative magazine “Musica Sacra”.

After the appointment of Salvatore Gallotti (1892-1928) as choirmaster and thanks to his production of great dignity and sometimes of excellence – a production which was independent from the cecilian reform but following the same seriousness and nobility for the musical conception – the Duomo’s Chapel was a meritorious workshop promoting the liturgical renewal of the music and of the chant. Gallotti performed his duty of musical and human educator’s of children with great diligence and wisdom.

The children, thanks to their ability, were asked to sing at La Scala Theatre and in London’s plays.

Gallotti promoted also a school of ambrosian chant, he rehabilitated the classic polyphony and the performance of the music transcribed from the scores kept in the Archive.

The long direction of Gallotti brought the history of the Chapel into the twentieth century, giving energy and prestige to the organization once again.

The Second World War broke into two parts the century which had started with the positive recovery of the Chapel. After Gallotti, in 1930, the Fabbrica nominated Marziano Perosi – brother of the well-known Lorenzo – master of the Sistine Chapel. His compositions were respectable but not innovative; the activities of the Chapel felt the effects of the difficult years that resulted tragically in the devastating conflict.

The only relevant changes applied to the Chapel between the two wars occurred in 1938. They were the reform and the strengthening of the organ corpus and the construction of a new big choir, following the solution planned and previously tested by Gallotti. That was not a good choice for the acoustic, but an any case better than the previous one in which the cantors were crowded on the organs’ ancient choirs.

In 1949, after the repairing of the most visible damages suffered by the Duomo as a consequence of the war, Pietro Dentella, vice-director already from 1924 and prolific composer of good sacred music, was appointed director of the Chapel.

After Dentella’s resignation (1957), the second half of the century started with a period that seemed to propose the Gaffurian golden age again. Father Luciano Migliavacca – a young priest with a classic-literary education and a musician of original creativity – was appointed choirmaster.

His first concern, shared with the Cardinal Montini – Arcbishop of Milan at that time and future Pope Paul VI – was the restoration of the “schola dei fanciulli” (children’s school). The number of cantors was increased to forty. Between 1958 and 1960, the Fabbrica built a proper and equipped place for these children, for their cultural and musical education. The activity of the master is abundant and of high quality; his compositions in Italian became an example and they spread in all the country after the reform of the Vatican II. The changes he made for the rehabilitation of the musical heritage kept in the Archive of the Veneranda Fabbrica are also notable.

In 1986, after the liturgical adaptation of the Duomo’s presbytery, the organ’s parts that were situated in different places of the apse were removed and gathered in two new bodies besides the ancient ones. The change still left the problem of a proper distribution of the choir still unsolved.

The year 1998 marks the last page of this history: Monsignor Migliavacca left his office after 41 years of direction. Claudio Riva – the present director, already vice-organist, and Monsignor Migliavacca’s assistant since 1983 – was appointed regent choirmaster.

The place for the educational and musical preparation and for the human and Christian forming of the pueri cantors is the building situated in Viale Gorizia 5, head office of the “Franchino Gaffurio” school.

A musical chapel is not simply a chorus, it is something more than a vocal group which expresses itself in artistic and cultural events. It is more than a “schola cantorum” teaching sacred music and other programmes, more pretentious but still limited to an “already made” music.

The Musical Chapel is a blend of different elements combined all together: the antiquity; the continuity of traditions and activities; the connection with a cathedral, a basilica or a sanctuary; its own and others’ musical heritage with a great and remarkable artistic and historic value; the enrichment of this heritage thanks to the new music of its masters; the acute voices of the vocal group assigned – for historical, artistic and timbres reasons – to the children gathered in a school where they are culturally and musically educated.

These are the constitutive elements of the Musical Chapel of the Duomo. If you are wondering which is the origin of the word “chapel”, it comes from “cape”, the cloak of Saint Martino, Bishop of Tours. It is kept in the private church – the “chapel” – of the Merovingian kings’ palace and is given in charge of the ecclesiastics, called chaplains because they had to take care of it and because they wore the “cape” as a distinguishing and honorary mark. The chaplains were also in charge of the chant. Since the chant was merely vocal without the use of any instrument, singing “a cappella” meant the musical vocal performance without instruments.

The word “chapel” was later used for every place and group where this kind of chant was performed and even – from the written figures of the notes used for the chant – for the way of interpreting the value: “a cappella” time.

In the building, situated in the ancient marble workers’ yard and overlooking the Porta Ticinese’s wet dock, there are the five rooms for the elementary and secondary school, the special ones for the musical education and for the chorus training, the room for the organ learning, the ones for piano’s studies, the chapel, the gym, the secretariat-direction, the canteen, the kitchen and a big courtyard for the pupil’s recreation time.

The 40-45 children cantors, divided into five classes each composed by eight-ten pupils, attend the fourth and the fifth year of elementary school or the secondary school at the Franchino Gaffurio school, which is a branch of the public comprehensive “Thouar- Gonzaga” Institute situated in via Brunicci.

The Chapel has to perform at the Duomo every Sunday and all the religious feasts, sometimes also during the solemn vespers in the afternoon. It is then easy to understand the dedication and the sacrifice that students and their family have to face.

You also have to consider that every presence involve a dedication like the one requested for a concert (transcription or composition of new music, preparation, training, performance); this demanding weekly appointment and the continuous presence at the Cathedral force the Chapel to refuse reluctantly a lot of concerts’ demands from different parts of Italy and abroad. Nevertheless, in the last five years it has performed 23 concerts and it has recorded two CDs.

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