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Milanese Chant

Milanese chant is commonly known as Ambrosian chant, since it is attributed to St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan from 374 to 397, a time when the Western Roman emperor made it his capital. Hence it is sometimes called the oldest Western chant. This is ingenuous, for this makes a comparison of Ambrosian history with the oldest surviving manuscripts of other types of chant. Comprehensive Milanese chant manuscripts are no older than the twelfth century (some partial sources date from the preceding century). Mass and office chants occur continuously in the manuscripts, with separate books for winter and summer.

Yet St. Ambrose is credited with composing hymns, presumably texts and chants, for his people to sing while Arians were besieging them in their cathedral in 386. St. Augustine names four of these hymns that are still extant: Aeterne rerum conditor, Deus creator omnium, Jam surgit hora tertia, and Veni redemptor gentium. These all use the same meter, and later hymns of the same meter are called Ambrosian, and are sometimes attributed to St. Ambrose. Many of these have long been used in Gregorian as well as Milanese liturgical books.

Despite these early origins, Milanese chant is generally identified with the Lombard kingdom, founded in 569. Charlemagne became king of Lombardy by conquest in 774, and Carolingian kings of Italy ruled until 962. But the Carolingian insistence on Roman (that is, Gregorian) chant was ineffective in Lombardy. At the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, the many local variants of the Roman rite were standardized, but Milan (and the part of northern Italy that formed its archdiocese) was allowed to retain its rite because of its antiquity. Modern editions of Mass chants in 1935 and Vespers in 1939 (no morning office was published) vary from the medieval sources.

The sung proper parts of the mass (with corresponding Gregorian terms noted) are ingressa (introit), psalmellus (gradual), alleluia, a chant after the gospel, offertorium (offertory), confractorium (in place of the ordinary Agnus Dei) and transitorium (communion).


Fr. Jerome F. Weber