The Origins: St. Ambrose
Milan is the only diocese in the world to preserve its own liturgical rite.
The Milanese rite, which together with others – the Gallican, the Hispanic, and the Roman – derived from the eastern liturgies that flourished immediately following the Edict of Constantine (313 A.D.), received its initial and most important impetus from Sant’Ambrogio – St. Ambrose – and precisely for this reason it later developed into the “Ambrosian” rite.
Not only do we speak of Ambrosian liturgy, but also of Ambrosian song. In fact, the first evidence of Western Christian music can be traced back to Milan. There is no doubt that the eager and learned Bishop had already found a body that was dedicated to singing in the Cathedral – subdivided into two churches, Santa Maria Maggiore in the place where the Duomo now stands, and Santa Tecla, which occupied what is now Piazza Duomo – with a repertoire whose gem was the Laus Magna Angelorum, from which the Gloria later resulted. Nonetheless, Ambrose, a man of vast culture, which included music, added new ways of singing and new compositions: from psalms sung with alternating choruses, to the antiphonal songs in which the verses alternate with a brief musical phrase, i.e. the antiphon.
Yet what truly consecrated Ambrose to fame in the field of music throughout the centuries was the invention of the hymn, constructed using a metric scheme and melody that could be immediately understood and learned.
The stimulus given by Ambrose yielded its fruits during the centuries. In fact, as the liturgical system broadened, the musical repertoire, too, was enriched and later collected in special volumes called antiphonaries, hymnals, procession hymnals, psalteries or choir books, depending on their contents.
This wealth was preserved by the Schola Cantorum – the school of music – that was flourishing in the cathedral, and continued later in the nascent Musical Chapel.
The First Choirmaster: Matteo da Perugia
On September 3, 1402, the representatives of the Fabbrica del Duomo appointed the first Musical Chapel Choirmaster: the composer Matteo da Perugia – from the city that was still under the rule of the Visconti family – who was most likely recommended by Pietro Filargo da Candia, named Archbishop of Milan just a few months earlier.
The figure of the choirmaster became necessary with the introduction of polyphony – i.e. the simultaneous singing of two or more melodies. However, we must bear in mind that, at this time, polyphonic singing was done by four or five professional musicians, while the Schola sang only a single part.
Matteo had therefore been hired to both direct a choir then formed by few elements and honor, on holidays, the celebrations of the divine offices “with his sweet and mellifluous songs and two-voice songs,” together with the clergymen and the choir. In addition, in a public school open to whomever wished to attend, he had to teach the art of singing – a specific task that the Fabbrica will always require of the Choirmaster throughout the centuries – to three young boys chosen by the members of the Fabbrica, destined, of course, to become treble voices.
The new master had a tense relationship with the Fabbrica Council due to his many absences. However, the backing of Cardinal Filargo kept him safe from drastic decisions until 1407, when the relationship was interrupted for the first time. The Chapel was then assigned to two priests, whose names are unknown, who were succeeded, in 1411, by another priest, Ambrosino da Pessano, as acting maestro. But in 1414, Matteo da Perugia returned and remained until August 1416, the month in which, suddenly and without a clear reason, he was again removed together with the organist, Monti da Prato, who had been assigned the task before the arrival of Matteo.
By the time Matteo da Perugia had completed his term, the choir had been completely reorganized: choirmaster, organist, vice-master, adult and young choristers.
The 1400s: The First Walk-Out
With the removal of Matteo da Perugia in 1416 began a time of artistic and cultural adjustment for the Musical Chapel.
The veritable link of this period was Ambrogio da Pessano who, from 1411 to 1459, worked alongside the choirmasters, directing the choir in the interim between one choirmaster and another. It was in fact Ambrogio da Pessano, who had already co-operated with Matteo da Perugia starting in 1414, who took charge of the choir from 1416 to 1425, before the Fabbrica entrusted it to Bertrando Ferraguto (Bertrand Feragut) of Avignon.
The fact that already in 1425, just 23 years after the establishment of the Musical Chapel, a foreign musician would choose to become musichus in ecclesia maiori Mediolani, proves how famous the Chapel was becoming and that the importance of the Duomo and of Milan as a cultural an artistic center was being acknowledged.
If on one hand the introduction of foreign masters and choristers proves the importance of the Chapel on the international level, on the other it was cause of instability: in fact the same Bertrand Feragut abandoned his position in 1430, without any apparent reason, and in 1461 the choristers, mostly foreign, refused en masse to go and sing the Vespers in the Church of St. Ambrose and participate in the Mass on the Saint’s day. Despite the fine imposed on all the choristers, the following year the episode was identically repeated. The representatives of the Fabbrica then made the drastic decision to dismiss all the choristers and re-form the choir from scratch.
The delicate task was entrusted to Santino Taverna, appointed simply “prior of the biscantori.” The crisis of 1461-62 led to the formulation of the first regulations, interesting also for knowing which songs were performed by the choir. They were required to part sing the accession, the mass confractory and transitory, and the lucernary (opening song of the Vespers, as the lights are being lit).
Two Great Figures: Des Prez and Gaffurio
The presence of foreign choristers was not the only source trouble. Under the shelter of the Cathedral, a gem was already rising to musical stardom: the Fleming, Josquin des Prez. The most appreciated and melodious musician of the 1400s was in fact a chorister of the Musical Chapel from 1459 to 1473, and it was thanks to his experience in the Duomo that he owed the training and involvement in Italian music that so greatly contributed to his mastery. It is no surprise that his contemporaries spoke of him in terms of deep admiration (Martin Luther said of him: “God has preached the gospel through music, as may be seen in Josquin des Prez”). But what surprises is that, still in 1711, Andrea Adami described him as “the most important light in this great science, from whom all composers who succeeded him had to learn” adding that there was no doubt that Josquin was a man of enormous talent, whose fame would last forever.
The 15th century came to an end with the assignment to Choirmaster, in 1484, of a young priest from Lodi: 30-year old Franchino Gaffurio. It was this Italian priest who brought to the Musical Chapel the splendor and glory that would continue throughout the centuries, aggrandized day after day during the thirty-eight years that he headed the Chapel, with the “bona prudentia ac solicitudo” – the skill and care – that the documents housed in the Duomo Archives remember step by step.
The first task he took upon himself was the reorganization of the schola dei pueri according to very strict foundations, as the children would be the source from which future choristers would be drawn. At the same time, he dedicated all his efforts to a vigorous reform of the Chapel, having not found it as efficient as he would have wanted at the moment of his assignment, and established the presence of only Italian choristers. He was also a remarkable composer and the first Italian musician to appear, after more than half a century of undisputed command of the Flemish, in the field of the learned musical genre, i.e. sacred music.
His music, in which there flows an entirely new and typically Italian taste for fluency of melody and full chord sonority, is collected, together with that of other highly important musicians of the time, in four large volumes wanted and compiled by the master himself.
Franchino Gaffurio, born in Lodi on January 14th, 1451, was the first true great maestro of the Musical Chapel. Born into a noble family, he studied Latin literature and music in the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter and was a cantor in the Duomo of Lodi. Ordained priest in 1473 or in 1474, he was called to the Gonzaga court in Mantua, where he began his career as a writer of treatises – for which he is remembered in music history books – and as a music teacher. After having gone to Genoa, Naples and Bergamo and being choirmaster in Santa Maria Maggiore, on January 22nd, 1484, he became choirmaster of the Musical Chapel of the Duomo of Milan, a position he will hold until the day of his death on June 25th, 1522.
In addition to this assignment, Gaffurio worked together with the Flemish choristers of the Sforza family as music professor at the Gymnasium established in Milan by Ludovico Sforza, and, from 1494 to 1499, his name appeared on the payroll of the University of Pavia as music lector. He was friends with Leonardo da Vinci, who portrayed him in a painting that is now housed in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana.
Together with his qualities as a theoretician, Gaffurio was also a remarkable composer of masses, motets and hymns, and the first to collect them in large volumes, known as the “Gaffuriani Codes,” together with the music of other contemporary composers, thus establishing the first nucleus of the Fabbrica’s Musical Archives, where later all the compositions of the choirmasters and organists would be preserved to present day.
He was also an able organizer: he re-instituted the school for young choristers with the intention of imparting not only musical education but also classical studies entrusted to a magister. He therefore reformed the Chapel on the basis of unusual cultural and disciplinary principles for that time, thus establishing, for example, wages for the deserving children and, for the adult choristers, the obligation to wear the white surplice over the long garment as well as mandatory attendance, accompanied by fines for the more undisciplined and tolerating only the presence of Italian singers. Since then, each time it becomes necessary to restore order and discipline in the Chapel, it is enough to refer to Gaffurio’s rules in order to immediately recreate the proper conditions for achieving the best results.
After the death of Gaffurio in 1522, forty years passed before a maestro who truly measured up to the task was found again. That was Vincenzo Ruffo from Verona, choirmaster from 1563 to 1573. Though there is no absolute proof of it, the intervention of St. Carlo Borromeo in his appointment cannot be ruled out. It is certain, however, that the archbishop was in close contact with Ruffo, whom he asked to contribute to the implementation of the church music reform according to the Council of Trent, making him one of the most involved protagonists.
The Musical Chapel also felt the positive effects of the good offices of the great Saint, which spanned from the attention for the discipline to an increase in pay, books for the choir – provided at his own expense – and focus on the education of the children. Proof of all this is found in the regulations of 1572 which, though not signed personally by the cardinal, are clearly his work.
The interest of the Milanese joint patron saint was crucial even in choosing Ruffo’s successors, especially with the appointment of Gabussi. Led personally by Borromeo himself from Bologna to Milan, Giulio Cesare Gabussi became director of the Chapel in 1583 and remained there until his death in 1611. Twenty-nine years of service interrupted only by a brief yet significant diversion: a one-year stay (1601-1602) at the Court of Poland.
During his long experience as a director, Gabussi was so highly regarded that the Chapter bestowed favors and pay raises upon him. He headed the Chapel with great authority and discipline and strengthened its personnel with extremely valuable individuals, also with the help of St. Carlo’s successor, the Archbishop Gaspare Visconti and, from 1594, Federico Borromeo. The latter, in addition to bringing valid choristers with him, saw to it that the Fabbrica treated well the most worthy and loyal, to whom, after 15 years of service, a “pension” was to be given.
It was under the direction of Gabussi that the Cathedral welcomed new compositional styles, in vogue at the time: the polychoral style and the concerted style, where the organ is present not only to accompany the choir but also to perform its own solo parts.
The 1600s: The “Golden Age”
Upon the death of Gabussi, in 1612, Vincenzo Pellegrini of Pesaro received the appointment. However, he did not measure up to the responsibility and by 1625 the search for a new choirmaster ended with the great Claudio Monteverdi. Nonetheless, negotiations with Monteverdi soon reached a deadlock, perhaps due to the salary, despite the fact that the Fabbrica had offered the highest remuneration ever given for a Milanese Choirmaster. With the passing of the plague of 1629 – the one described by Alessandro Manzoni – in 1631 Ignazio Donati was chosen for the task. It was with this musician that the so-called “golden age” of the Musical Chapel began, and in which a series of maestros followed each other with works that, overall, were deservingly representative of Milan’s musical 17th century. It should also be underlined how in the documents of the time there was never any mention of crisis, contrary to what was said about other historical eras.
Donati arrived at the Duomo at a mature age, after having served many churches and institutions around northern Italy. He left manuscripts, preserved in the Fabbrica del Duomo Archives, a good number of vespers, psalms, hymns and masses in which he makes extensive use of polychoral style, i.e. for more than one choir, writing multiple choir pieces for sixteen to twenty-one voices, hence for four or five choirs simultaneously.
Antonio Maria Turati was, on the other hand, the first choirmaster born in Milan and trained in the Chapel where he sang as a young chorister. This and later the appointment of Michelangelo Grancini, formerly the Cathedral organist, show how choosing people within and who were already very familiar with the Chapel world, proved to be a successful and confident move. In fact, both Turati and Grancini enriched the music archives with numerous pieces, many of which quite interesting and still to be discovered.
Grancini’s successor was Giovanni Antonio Grossi, who had already been Choirmaster in many cathedrals around Lombardy and composed exclusively church music, a field in which he proved to be extraordinarily prolific: his handwritten works preserved in the Fabbrica Archives amount to several hundred.
The 1700s: A Controversial Century
Historians have contrasting views regarding the musical production of the Musical Chapel during the 18th century. Surely, the observance of the “old style” – i.e. vocal polyphony in its various versions, from the 4-5 voice piece to the grander double choir structure, with or without the organ – limited the musical spirit of the many masters. In other Milanese churches, the so-called “concerted” style already reigned and often featured pieces for soloists where secular influences were already quite vast. Despite this, fine maestros followed one another throughout the entire century. The main figure of this time was Gianandrea Fioroni, master from 1747 to 1778. Formed in Naples, he soon became a key figure in Milan, though cultivating exclusively the sacred genre and not opera, which was already prevailing.
An able musician, his compositions stirred the interest of foreign scholars and were also popular abroad, as proven by the handwritten copies of his pieces preserved in Austrian, German and French libraries. The Englishman Charles Burney, in his “The Present State of Music in France and Italy,” once in Milan went not only to the Duomo to listen to the Chapel Choir but also to the home of maestro Fioroni, whose composition work he praised, inviting him to publish it “in order to convince the world, that, though the theatrical style and that of the church are now much the same, in Italy [...] yet the ancient grave style is not wholly lost.” Fioroni had as an organist the son of Bach, Johann Christian, who remained at the Duomo of Milan from 1760 to 1763 under a contract that was very curious yet typical for those times: without pay, being that his predecessor, Michelangelo Caselli, asked the Fabbrica for “superannuation,” i.e. retirement while continuing to receive compensation and a salary.
Fioroni’s successor was another famous musician, expert however in the field of opera: Giuseppe Sarti. He headed the Chapel for only five years but worked extensively composing copious amounts of music. His style, in sacred compositions, was in keeping with the rite, setting aside any opera influences. The documents housed in the Fabbrica Archives, and recently brought back to light, discredited the rumor that he brought the theater to the church.
The last master of the century was a student of Fioroni, Carlo Monzaformer, organist at the Ducal Chapel from 1768 and later director of the same from 1775, as well as maestro, around 1783, in an astounding twelve Milanese churches, a true record non only for those times but perhaps ever. It is with Monza that the decline of the Duomo Chapel began, due to the impoverishment of the counterpoint technique and the surrendering of the ecclesiastical style to external influences.
With the advent of Austrian rule, the Royal Imperial Government reduced the autonomy of the Fabbrica in matters of the Musical Chapel, taking it upon itself to choose the maestro from among three candidates suggested by the Fabbrica.
So, in 1824, the appointment fell upon Benedetto Neri, reprimanded many times for having neglected the education of the children, and who later resigned from his post in 1841. The reform wanted by the Government and made official in the new Regulations of 1846 finally suppressed the use of the castrati, determined that the Choir was to consist of sopranos, altos, tenors and bases, entrusting the high voices to the children of the school, and required the Choirmaster to annually compose masses and vespers to present to the Archives.
Neri’s vast production, as well as that of his successor Raimondo Boucheron (1847-1876), stands out for its good technical abilities and musical sensitivity, often, however, so steeped in vocalistic taste and opera modes that, albeit quite pleasant, was little suitable for the religious spirit.
Even the Kingdom of Italy retained the same rights as the Austrian Government. Appointed in sequence were the masters Guglielmo Quarenghi (1877-1881), Pietro Platan (1881-1883) and Giuseppe Gallignani (1884- 1891). It is thanks to a group of musicians, among whom the same Gallignani and, later, the famous Lorenzo Perosi, if in Milan the foundations were laid for the “Caecilian reform,” and with it the rebirth of sacred music, thanks to the Association of St. Cecilia and the combative journal Sacred Music.
With the appointment of Salvatore Gallotti (1892-1928) and with his greatly dignified and, at times, excellent production – autonomous with respect to the Caecilian reform, with which, however, he shared the earnestness and nobility of the concept of music – the Musical Chapel became the workshop of the liturgical renewal of music and song. Gallotti, who with commitment and wisdom performed his duties as to the musical and human education of the children (who, thanks to their skills, were called to sing at the Scala theater and in London operas), promoted a school of Ambrosian song and brought back the use of classic polyphony and the execution of music transcribed from the scores kept in the Archives.
The long period under the direction of Salvatore Gallotti led the history of the Chapel into the 20th century, restoring vitality and prestige to this institution.
World War II split the 20th century in half, which had begun with the successful revival of the Duomo’s Musical Chapel.
After Gallotti, in 1930, the Fabbrica appointed as acting Master Marziano Perosi, brother of the better known Lorenzo, Choirmaster of the Sistine Chapel. Though dignified, his compositions were in no way innovative. The activity of the Chapel also felt the effects of the difficult years that later tragically led to the world war.
The only prominent action that, between the two wars, touched the Musical Chapel was – in 1938 – the reform and expansion of the organ body and the building of the large choir, according to a plan designed and experimented with by Gallotti. Though acoustically it may not have been the optimal choice, it was surely better than the previous one, which had the choristers crowded on the old organ choirs.
Once the most visible damages suffered by the Duomo had been repaired, in 1949 the new acting Choirmaster was appointed: Pietro Dentella, from 1924 vice-director of the same and prolific composer of quality sacred music.
Following Dentella’s resignation (1957), the second half of the century began with a period that seemed to revive the golden age of Gaffurio: Father Luciano Migliavacca, a young priest with classical-literary training and extremely creative musician, was appointed Choirmaster.
His first concern, shared also by Card. Montini, at that time archbishop of Milan and future Pope Paul VI, was the reorganization of the children’s school, which was raised to forty choristers, for whom the Fabbrica built, between 1958 and 1960, specially equipped premises for the cultural and musical education of the children. The Choirmaster’s production was copious and of high quality and his compositions in Italian, following the Vatican Council II, were raised as examples and spread throughout the peninsula. Also remarkable was his work dedicated to recovering the musical wealth housed in the Veneranda Fabbrica Archives.
In 1986, following the liturgical adaptation of the Duomo’s presbytery, the organ bodies that were placed in different points of the apse, were removed and grouped in two new wind-chests located beside the old ones, leaving however unresolved the problem of an adequate arrangement of the choir.
In 1998, Mons. Migliavacca, after 41 years as director, left his post and in his place director Claudio Riva, former vice-organist and his assistant since 1983, was appointed acting Choirmaster, maintaining this position until 2004. From 2005, the direction of the Musical Chapel was shared by Claudio Riva and Gian Luigi Rusconi.
In 2007, the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo entrusted the direction of the Chapel to a new Maestro. Father Claudio Burgio, a young priest of the Ambrosian diocese, former child chorister of the Duomo trained by Mons. Migliavacca, became the new Choirmaster, combining his musical and compositional qualities with his teaching skills.
So, it is amid continuity and renewal that the Musical Chapel sets off to live the new millennium, strong of its tradition, with the constant commitment to serve the Cathedral of Milan and the Church.