Cenni storici

Historical Notes

The origins: St. Ambrose

Milan is the only diocese in the world to have its own liturgical rite. Created after the edict of Milan, it received its first, important impulse 
 as a result of the work of St. Ambrose, which is why it is known as the “Ambrosian” rite.
The first examples of Western Christian music were also found in Milan. The conscientious and learned Bishop certainly found an existing organism responsible for singing in the cathedral, with a repertoire that featured the Laus magna angelorum, which later evolved into the Gloria. Ambrose, whose vast culture extended to music, added new forms of song and new compositions: from salms sung by alternate choirs to antiphonal singing in which the verses alternate with short musical phrases, the antiphon. 
However, what made Ambrose famous over the centuries where music is concerned, was the invention of hymns, created with a metrical system and a melody that could be understood and learned immediately.
 Ambrose’s impulse gave its fruits over the centuries. As the liturgy was gradually established and evolved, the musical repertoire was also enriched, and was collected in special books known as antiphonaries, hymnals, processionals, psalters and choruses, depending on their content.
This heritage was conserved by the Schola cantorum, which evolved into the new Cathedral Choir.

The First Choir Master: Matteo da Perugia

On September 3, 1402 representatives of the Fabbrica del Duomo appointed the first director of music of the Cathedral Choir: he was ‘musichus’ Matteo da Perugia (a city then governed by the Visconti family), whose name was probably suggested by Pietro Filargo da Candia, who had become Archbishop of Milan a few months earlier.
The figure of the choir master was made necessary by the introduction of polyphony – the singing of two or more melodies simultaneously. Matteo was appointed both to direct a choir which only comprised a small number of singers, and to enrich the celebration of the liturgy on holy days “with his soft, mellifluous songs and melodies”, together with the clergy and the Chapter; he also had to teach music in a public school that was open to all, and to train three young boys chosen by the members of the Fabbrica and destined to sing in the treble choir. By the end of Matteo da Perugia’s term of office, the Music department was fully organised: choir master, organist, assistant choir master, adult choristers and young choristers.

The 15th century: the first strike

When Matteo da Perugia was suddenly dismissed in 1416, the Cathedral Choir entered a period of artistic and cultural readjustment.
The real lynchpin in this period was Ambrogio da Pessano, who worked with the choir masters between 1411 and 1459, guiding the Choir in the interval between one master and another. Ambrogio da Pessano, who was already working alongside Matteo da Perugia in 1414, took charge of the Choir from 1416 to 1425, before the Fabbrica entrusted it to Bertrand Feragut from Avignon. The inclusion of foreign choir masters and choristers did reflect the Chapel’s international importance but it was also a cause of instability: Bertrand Feragut left his post in 1430, for no apparent reason, and in 1461 the choristers, who were mainly foreigners, refused to sing Vespers in the church of S. Ambrogio or to take part in the Mass on St. Ambrose’s Day. In spite of the fine imposed on all the choristers, the following year exactly the same scene was repeated. The representatives of the Fabbrica then took the drastic decision to dismiss all the choristers and to rebuild the Cathedral Choir from scratch.
This delicate task was entrusted to Santino Taverna, who was only appointed “prior of the biscantori”. The crisis of 1461-62 led to the formulation of the first set of regulations.

Two important figures: des Près and Gaffurio

The presence of foreign choristers did not only cause problems. A jewel of the musical firmament was developing in the shadow of the cathedral: the Flemish Josquin des Près. The most talented and gifted 15th century musician was a member of the Cathedral Choir from 1459 to 1473 and his development and involvement with Italian music, which contributed so much to his artistry, owe a great deal to his experience in Milan. 
The 15th century closed with the appointment as choirmaster of Franchino Gaffurio, a young priest from Lodi, in 1484, at the age of thirty-three. This Italian priest was to bring the Cathedral Choir a splendour and glory that survived through the centuries, built up day after day in the thirty-eight years that he was in charge of Music at the Cathedral.
e reorganised the Schola dei Pueri on very strict bases, undertook an energetic reform of the Choir and established that all choristers had to be Italian. He was also an excellent composer and the first Italian musician to make a name for himself in the field of learned music, in other words church music, after more than half a century of undisputed domination by the Flemish.

The Sixteenth century

After Gaffurio’s death in 1522, forty years were to pass before another outstanding choir master emerged, in the person of Vincenzo Ruffo, choirmaster from 1563 to 1573. Although there is no certain proof, we cannot exclude the possibility that St. Carlo Borromeo played a part in his appointment; The Archbishop was certainly in close contact with Ruffo whom he asked to contribute to the implementation of the reform of liturgical music decided by the Council of Trent. The Choir benefited positively from the interest shown by the great saint, which extended from attention to discipline to increased wages, books for the choristers, which were acquired at his expense, and the education of the young choristers. The choir’s patron also played a decisive part in the appointment of Ruffo’s successors, particularly Gabussi. After being accompanied by Borromeo himself from Bologna to Milano, Giulio Cesare Gabussi took charge of the choir in 1583 and remained there until his death in 1611.
Gabussi ran the Choir with great authority and discipline, and brought talented new elements into the group, helped by Borromeo’s successors, Archbishop Gaspare Visconti and, from 1594, Federico Borromeo. During Gabussi’s tenure the Duomo adopted new styles of composition that were then in fashion: the use of more than one choir and the concertato style, in which the organ does not only accompany the choir but also performs “solo” passages.

The Seventeenth century: the best period

Ignazio Donati became Musical Director in 1631, and a “golden period” began for the Choir, under the guidance of a succession of choirmasters whose work is well represented in the 17th century Italian music scene. Antonio Maria Turati was the first choirmaster to be born in Milan and to have trained at the Cathedral where he sang as a Puer. This and the subsequent appointment of Michelangelo Grancini, a former organist at the cathedral, underlined the fact that the appointments of individuals who were already familiar with the Cathedral environment were the most successful. Both Turati and Grancini enriched the musical archive with a vast number of works, many of which are interesting and still to be discovered.
Grancini was succeeded by Giovanni Antonio Grossi, who had already been Choir master in several cathedrals in Lombardy. He wrote exclusively church music, producing a vast output: several hundred of his handwritten compositions are stored in the Fabbrica Archives.


The Eighteenth century: a controversial century

Historians have very conflicting opinions about the musical output of the Milan Cathedral choirmasters in the 18th century. The adoption of the “stile antico”, in other words vocal polyphony in various forms, limited the musical freedom of the various choirmasters. The so-called “concertato” style had already taken hold in other churches in Milan, which often included pieces for soloists, and the secular influence was already widespread. In spite of this, there were numerous excellent choirmasters throughout the century. The most outstanding figure in this period was Gianandrea Fioroni, who held the post from 1747 to 1778. Fioroni invited Johann Christian Bach to Milan as the Duomo organist, and he remained there from 1760 to 1763 with a contract that was very singular but typical of the day: without a salary because his predecessor, Michelangelo Caselli, had asked the Fabbrica for “giubilazione”, in other words, to be retired without relinquishing his emoluments and salary.
Fioroni’s successor was another famous musician, but one who was an expert in opera composition: Giuseppe Sarti. He only managed the Chapel for five years, but worked hard and composed a great deal of music. The last choirmaster in the century was Carlo Monza, who was a student of Fioroni’s. We could say that the decline of the Duomo Choir began under Monza, because the counterpoint technique lost ground and the ecclesiastical style gave way to external influences.

Nineteenth century

With the advent of Austrian domination, the Royal Imperial Government limited the Fabbrica’s autonomy where the Choir was concerned, taking upon itself to choose the choirmaster from three names proposed by the Fabbrica.
Benedetto Neri was appointed in 1824, but had to be reprimanded several times for having ignored the education of the young choristers; he resigned in 1841. The reforms introduced by the Government in 1824 and ratified in the new Regulations of 1846, finally abolished the use of ‘castrati’, and the Choir was divided into sopranos, contraltos, tenors and bases, giving the higher parts to the Pueri from the Choir School; the choirmaster was also obliged to compose masses and vespers every year to be filed in the Archive.
Neri’s vast output, and that of his successor Raimondo Boucheron (1847-1876), revealed a good technical capability and musical sensitivity, but was often so imbued with vocalist elements and opera technique that it was little suited to religious uses. 
The Kingdom of Italy maintained the rights acquired by the Austrian Government. The subsequent choirmasters were Guglielmo Quarenghi (1877-1881), Pietro Platania (1881-1883) and Giuseppe Gallignani (1884-1891). We must thank a group of musicians that included Gallignani himself and, some years later, the well-known Lorenzo Perosi, if the foundations for the so-called “Cecilian reform” were laid in Milan, resulting in a revival of church music, sustained by the work of the Santa Cecilia Association and the pioneering magazine “Musica Sacra”.
When Salvatore Gallotti was appointed choir master (1892-1928), the Cathedral Choir became a workshop for the liturgical rebirth of music and singing. Gallotti approached the musical and human education of the young choristers with commitment and common sense, founding a school of Ambrosian chant and bringing back classic polyphony and the performance of music transcribed from the scores in the Archives.

The Twentieth century

The second world war split the 20th century, which had begun with the successful revival of the Cathedral choir. In 1930 the Fabbrica appointed a new acting Choir master, Marziano Perosi, the brother of the better known Lorenzo, choirmaster of the Sistine Chapel. His compositions were good enough but not innovative and the Choir also felt the effects of the difficult period that evolved, tragically, into the devastating world war.
The only significant operation that involved the Cathedral Music department between the wars was the reorganisation and enlargement of the cathedral organ in 1938, and the construction of new large choir stalls, a solution already proposed and experimented by Gallotti. In 1949, after the worst war damage to the Duomo had been repaired, Pietro Dentella, a prolific composer of good church music, was appointed as acting Choir master.
Dentella resigned in 1957, and the second half of the century seemed to herald a new golden period like that under Gaffurio: a new choir master was appointed, don Luciano Migliavacca, a young priest with a classical-literary training, who was an extremely creative musician.
His first concern, which was shared by the then Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Montini, the future Pope Paul Vi, was to reorganise the Schola dei Pueri, expanding it to forty choristers, and the Fabbrica created a purpose-built centre for the cultural and musical education of the choristers. Migliavacca’s output was copious and of a high quality; after the reforms of the 2nd Vatican Council his Italian compositions were taken as examples and performed all over Italy; his efforts to recover the musical heritage stored in the Archives of the Veneranda Fabbrica were also significant.
In 1986, as part of the liturgical changes to the presbytery of the Duomo, the organ elements that were located in different parts of the apse were removed and grouped in two new cases positioned next to the old cases, but this still did not solve the problem of creating an appropriate position for the choir.
In 1998, after 41 years in the job, mons. Migliavacca retired and was replaced by the current director, Claudio Riva, a former assistant organist and his predecessor’s assistant since 1983. He held the position until 2004. From 2005 the Choir was managed jointly by Claudio Riva and Gian Luigi Rusconi.
In 2007 the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo appointed a new Choir master, don Claudio Burgio, a young priest from the diocese of Milan, a former chorister in the Duomo, who had trained under mons. Migliavacca. He became the new Choir master, combining musical and composition skills and educational qualities.
The Choir approaches the new millennium with a sense of continuity and regeneration, sustained by its tradition and a constant commitment of service to Milan Cathedral and to the Church.