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Ambrosian chant


In addition to textual and structural differences from the Roman rite, the Milanese Church also developed a special repertory of chants, commonly called Ambrosian chant.

Except for some fragments in chironomic notation, the first written examples of this chant came from the 12th century, the chief witnesses being British Museum Add. 34209, for the winter season (published in facsimile and transcription Paléographie musicale v. 5, 6) and Bedero Val Travaglia, S. Vittore, for the summer season. Numerous later MSS exist and attest to a highly stable musical tradition. Some literary testimony and the existence of numerous manuals prior to the notated sources show that much of the 12th-century repertory must go back to the Carolingian period, if not earlier.

Many scholars of the 19th century too easily assumed that Gregorian chant and Ambrosian chant came from a common stem, since lost, while others, such as Dom Germain Morin, postulated the priority of the Ambrosian chant, from which the Gregorian evolved. More recent trends among scholars tend to differentiate between borrowed chants inserted much later into the Ambrosian chant from the Gregorian and a primitive Ambrosian nucleus that must be pre-Carolingian. This latter shows a kind of music-making similar to Gregorian chant but less rigid, less polished, and less systematic. That this nucleus goes back to the time of St. Ambrose cannot possibly be proved. It is clear, however, that by the Carolingian period the Ambrosian musical practice differed from the Gregorian and that further developments of it were made mostly by borrowings from the Gregorian and adaptations of older chants. The 12thcentury MSS thus show a complete but heterogeneous repertory. The fact that the Milanese never developed a musical theory to explain their chants also helps to account for its diversified nature.

Among the chants of the Mass the Ingressa (i.e., Introit) and Offertorium show the most borrowings from Gregorian chant and were thus the last to be stabilized. No verses were found with the Ingressa, showing that it did not function as a processional chant. Several borrowings from post-Carolingian Byzantine chants are also found. The Psalmellus (i.e., Gradual) is distinctly Ambrosian, highly ornate and soloistic in nature. The same can be said of the Ambrosian ALLELUIA . The chants sung after the Gospel, during the breaking of the bread (Confractorium), and after Communion (Transitorium) are related to Office chants and are simpler. They too, however, lack any traces of psalmody. Only the Gloria (with the addition of three Kyries), the Creed, and the Sanctus form the Ambrosian ordinary and a simple and solemn version of each of these was sufficient.

Antiphons, responsories, and hymns form the largest categories of musical compositions in the Office. Because of the late date of the Ambrosian MSS with musical notation, it is difficult to establish the age of the melodies of the Ambrosian hymns. That the melodies of the hymns composed by St. Ambrose also came from the 4th century is possible but cannot be proved. The melodies of the hymns for the feasts of saints have similar features that seem more primitive. Later hymns are certainly adaptations of these earlier melodies. The 40 liturgical hymns are thus adapted to about 28 different melodies. Another feature pointing to the antiquity of these melodies is their avoidance of the tritus modes.

The antiphons of the Office are divided into the following categories: Psalter antiphons used for the recitation of the Psalms, processional antiphons (psallenda and psallentium), antiphonae ad crucem, and antiphonae in choro. The Psalter antiphons are the most numerous, about 775 in all, and are generally simple. Many of them can be classified according to melodic types or formulas, even more rigorous in their structure than the Gregorian types. The psalmody that accompanies these antiphons is also of an unornate kind and shows little consistency in the MS tradition. Since no modal theory was worked out by the Ambrosian cantors, no set system of psalmody was developed, the only criterion being that a smooth connection between the end of the Psalm and the repetition of the antiphon was desired. No mediant cadence is found in the psalmody.

The processional antiphons are more varied in style but frequently use psalter antiphons to augment their number. Their use is more frequent in the Ambrosian rite than in the Roman. The famous procession with the cross gave birth to the elaborate antiphonae ad crucem with their more elaborate psalmody. They seem more closely connected with Eastern than Western practice. The antiphonae in choro show some remnants of psalmody but are peculiarly Ambrosian in style and origin. The responsories are frequent in the Ambrosian rite, not only at Matins but at the other hours as well. On larger feasts they tend to be extremely ornate in character. A series of long melismas with names to identify them is sung with the responsories on the greater feasts. They tend to be soloistic in nature and contrast with the simplicity of the antiphons.

In sum, Ambrosian chant is less rigid in its modal implications and more heterogeneous than Gregorian chant. On the other hand, its primitive core may thus be preserved in a manner that represents an earlier period than the Gregorian. The late date of its musical MSS is unfortunate, but the uniformity of the tradition and the tenacious attempts to maintain it attest to an older practice.

Bibliography: P. BORELLA, ‘‘Influssi carolingi e monastici sul messale ambrosiano,’’ Miscellanea liturgica in honorem L. Cunibert, 2 v. (Rome 1948–49) 1:73–115. P. CAGIN, ‘‘Antiphonaire ambrosien,’’ Paléographie musicale 5 (1896). A. GATARD, ‘‘Ambrosien (chant),’’ Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. F. CABROL, H. LECLERCQ, and H. I. MARROU, 15 v. (Paris 1907–53) 1:1353–73. B. STÄBLEIN, ‘‘Ambrosianisch-Gregorianisch,’’ Compte rendu de l’International Musicological Society, 4th, 1949 (Basel 1951) 185–89. G. SUÑOL, ‘‘La restaurazione ambrosiana,’’ Ambrosius 14 (1938) 145–50, 174–77, 196–200, 296–304; 15 (1939) 113–16. Antiphonale missarum juxta ritum sanctae ecclesiae mediolanensis, ed. G. N. SUÑOL (Rome 1935); Liber vesperalis juxta ritum sanctae ecclesiae mediolanensis (Rome 1939). M. HUGLO, Fonti e paleografia del canto ambrosiano (Milan 1956). R. JESSON, W. APEL, Gregorian Chant (Bloomington, Ind. 1958) 465–83. E. CATTANEO, Note storiche sul canto ambrosiano (Milan 1950). T. BAILEY and P. MERKLEY, The Antiphons of the Ambrosian Office (Ottawa 1989). A. PAREDI, Storia del rito ambrosiano (Milan 1990). T. BAILEY, Antiphon and Psalm in the Ambrosian Office (Ottawa 1994). T. BAILEY, ‘‘Ambrosian Double Antiphons,’’ Laborare fratres in unum: Festschrift Láászlóó Dobszay zum 60. Gerburtstag, ed. J. SZENDREI and D. HILEY (Hildesheim 1995) 11–24. T. BAILEY, ‘‘Antiphon Classification and the Development of the Ambrosian Sanctorale,’’ The Divine Office in the Latin Middle Ages: Methodology and Source Studies, Regional Developments, Hagiography, ed. M. FASSLER and R. A. BALTZER (New York 2000). V. A. LENTI, ‘‘The Revised Ambrosian Divine Office,’’ Studia Liturgica 29 (1999) 116–26. V. A. LENTI, ‘‘Liturgical Reform and the Ambrosian and Mozarabic Rites,’’ Worship 68 (1994) 417–26. N. A. MÁRQUEZ, ‘‘Music at the Crossroads of Empire: Ambrose and Milanese Chant,’’ Pastoral Music 25:4 (April-May 2001) 34–37.


New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2003. Vol. 1. P. 340-342.  

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