A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Ambrosian Chant

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AMBROSIAN CHANT. The ecclesiastical mode of saying and singing Divine Service, set in order by St. Ambrose for the cathedral church of Milan about A.D. 384. We have little historical information as to its peculiarities. That it was highly impressive we learn from the well-known passage in St. Augustine's 'Confessions,' book ix. chap. 6.

It has been stated without proof, and repeated by writer after writer on the subject, that St. Ambrose took only the four 'authentic' Greek modes, being the first, third, fifth, and seventh of the eight commonly called the Gregorian Tones, from being all used in the revision of the Roman Antiphonarium by St. Gregory the Great at a subsequent date (A.D. 590). But St. Ambrose's own statement in his letter to his sister St. Marcelina is merely that he wished to take upon himself the task of regulating the tonality and the mode of execution of the hymns, psalms, and antiphons that were sung in the church he had built at Milan. It must be confessed that we really know little or nothing of the system and structure of the Ambrosian melodies, and no existing records show anything essentially different from Gregorian plainsong.

The subject of Byrd's anthem 'Bow Thine ear, Lord,' originally written to the words ' Ne irascaris domine,'

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \key f \major { \cadenzaOn f'1 e' d' f' c'\breve \bar "|" s2 } }

has always been quoted, since Dr. Crotch published his 'Specimens,' as a portion of the plainsong of St. Ambrose. A comparison of the liturgical text and ritual of Milan and Rome shows a different setting of the musical portions of the mass, as well as many variations in rubrics and in the order and appropriation of various portions to the celebrant and assistants, in the two uses. Thus the 'Gloria in excelsis' precedes the Kyrie in the Milan and follows it in the Roman Mass. The setting of the intonation of this, as taken from the missals of the two, may be here given as a specimen of the differences in the plainsong.


{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \clef bass << \relative c { \cadenzaOn c1( d f\breve) f2 f1 e f g e g\breve( f2 e) e1 \bar "||" } \addlyrics { Glo -- ri -- a in ex -- cel -- sis De -- o. } >> }


{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \clef bass << \relative f { \cadenzaOn f\breve( g1) g2 g1 g g( f) f( g a) a( bes a) a( g) g\breve \bar "||" } \addlyrics { Glo -- ri -- a in ex -- cel -- sis De -- o. } >> }

These intonations of the Creed


{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \clef bass << \relative g { \cadenzaOn g1 e f e d g( a) a\breve \bar "|" s1 } \addlyrics { Cre -- do in u -- num De -- um. } >> }


{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \clef bass \relative g { \cadenzaOn g\breve f1 e f g f f\breve \bar "|" s1 } }

will also serve to show the kind of difference still discernible in the two rites.[1]

But the principal boon bestowed on the Church by St. Ambrose was the beautiful rhythmical hymns with which he enriched the musical service of Milan Cathedral. Many hymns are called Ambrosian because written after his manner; but some ten of the ancient hymns are from his own pen, among which may be mentioned 'Veni Redemptor Gentium' and 'Eterna Christi munera' (Hymnal Noted, Nos. 12, 36).

The entire accent and style of chanting, as regulated by St. Ambrose, was undoubtedly an artistic and cultivated improvement on that of preceding church services, such as would naturally result from the rare combination of piety, zeal, intellect, and poetical and musical power by which he was distinguished. The Ambrosian chant was eventually merged, but certainly not lost, in that vast repertory of plainsong, whether then ancient or modern, which we now call Gregorian, from the name of the next great reformer of church music, St. Gregory the Great.

[ T. H. ]

  1. The Roman examples are from a fine quarto Missale Romanum printed at Antwerp in 1598, corresponding with Guidetti's Directorium and the present use. Those for the use of Milan are from a portion of the 'Missale Ambrosianum Curoli Cajetam Cardinalis, novissime impressum, Mediolani,' A.D. 1831, brought from Milan in 1871 by the writer of this article.