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When a Bach entered the Duomo

“I’ve been made organist in Milan”, wrote Johann Christian in 1760

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28 February Feb 2019 1633 28 February 2019

Among the majestic naves of Milan Cathedral, where the harmony of the architecture forms a whole with prayer, the sound of the organ has accompanied the passing of the centuries right from the beginning of construction of the Cathedral. The current instrument, built in 1938 and consisting of five bodies and 15,800 pipes, the tallest of which measures over nine metres while the smallest measures only a few centimetres, is second in Europe in terms of the number of pipes and registers (the first is the organ of Passau Cathedral, in Germany) and is listed in the roll of honour of the fifteen biggest organs in the world.

In over six centuries of existence, Milan Cathedral has seen many organists come and go, but today we’d like to tell you the story of Johann Christian: when a Bach entered the Cathedral. Traces of his presence can still be seen today among the precious documents of the Veneranda Fabbrica Archives.

Born in Leipzig in 1735, the youngest son of Johann Sebastian, musically educated in the family by his father and his brother Carl Philip Emanuel, Johann Christian Bach studied in Berlin, coming into contact with the Italian style at the local opera house; he fell in love with it and came to Italy, first to Bologna and then to Milan. It was here, thanks to his friendship with Count Agostino Litta who appreciated his musical gifts, that Bach obtained the post of second organist at the Duomo, succeeding Michele Caselli.

Bach was appointed in 1760,
coinciding with the success of some of his theatrical works. On 27th June of the same year, he wrote in a letter to father Martini of Bologna: «I inform you that I have been made organist of the Duomo here in Milan, the post will yield me 800 lire a year and will cost me very little effort». Bach thus came into contact with the extraordinary beauty of the Cathedral and the richness of the Ambrosian rite.

However, this collaboration was destined to last only a few years. With the success of his first compositions, Bach decided to ask the Fabbrica permission to move to England for a year to compose two works «with a very good wage and great advantages». In December 1763, he finally gave up his post.

In Milan, Johann Christian wrote two Masses, a Requiem, a Te Deum and other works.