Tom Kelly: Ambrosian Chant

In this episode of Houghton75 we speak with Thomas Kelly, Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music about his experiences researching and teaching chant using Houghton collections. We examine the music of Ambrosian chant, the only competing tradition to Gregorian chant which still survives to this day in the area of Milan, Italy.

Ambrosian chants from
Antifonale Ambrosiano (LIM, Lucca), directed by Giovanni Scomparin

Podcast Transcript and Music Notes

[Title sequence background music: Fireworks, Igor Stravinsky, performed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra]

Alex Csiszar: Houghton is just this amazing place.
Deidre Lynch: It’s fascinating.
Stephen Greenblatt: It’s yours for the asking, and that is incredible!
Stephanie Sandler: Plus it’s cool.

James Capobianco (JC): Welcome to Houghton75. I’m James Capobianco.

Hannah Ferello (HF): And I’m Hannah Ferello.

[end music]

JC: Houghton Library opened its doors at Harvard in 1942. Throughout 2017, we’re celebrating the library’s world-class collections, and support of research and teaching over the last 75 years.

HF: This podcast is only one of the ways to participate in our year-long program of events that promises a unique glimpse of some of Houghton’s most treasured holdings and the way they inspire scholars and students. Visit for more information.

[background music: Sanctus ‘De perpetuo Numine.’ Performed by Cappella musicale di Sant’Ambrogio, Giovanni Scomparin, director. From the CDs accompanying the book Antifonale Ambrosiano by Ferruccio Ferrari (LIM, 2011). CD 1, track 26.]

JC: When we think of “chant music,” we most often default to thinking about Gregorian chant, the monastic musical tradition associated with Saint Gregory. However, before the widespread adoption of Gregorian chant, musical traditions varied between monastic communities. Only one of these early traditions survives: Ambrosian chant.

HF: We spoke with Thomas Kelly, Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music here at Harvard, about his experiences researching and teaching Ambrosian chant using Houghton collections. But first things first – what is Ambrosian chant?

[end music]

Thomas Kelly (TK): Now Ambrosian chant is like Gregorian chant and maybe other kinds of chant, too, in that it’s one note at a time. So it’s monophonic music. And it’s in Latin, and most of the texts come from the Bible, so in that way they’re all alike. But this Ambrosian chant is unique because it was the only one that survived the adoption of Gregorian chant everywhere in Europe under the pressure from Charlemagne and other political things. In Milan and in the area of Milan, they said “No, we have our music that descends from the great Saint Ambrose, you have your music that descends from the great Saint Gregory. Happy for you! Thank you very much. We’re gonna keep singing our own stuff.” And they still do it to this day in Milan Cathedral and a couple of other places like the Basilica of Saint Ambrose. So all the manuscripts that record this music come from that area. We are very lucky to have what I think is the biggest collection of Ambrosian chant in the Western hemisphere, three really interesting manuscripts here in the Houghton Library.

HF: One of these three manuscripts of Ambrosian chant was studied by Professor Kelly and his students in a past seminar. It eventually led them on a quest to Milan, where they made some unexpected discoveries and unearthed many more questions.

TK: Our third manuscript has been in the collection for quite some time, and has been in a recent exhibition at the Houghton Library. It has a beautiful initial letter of Saint Mauritius who is a military saint, and it’s only 20 folios long. Most manuscripts of Ambrosian chant are much longer than 20 folios. As it turns out, these 20 folios are part of a larger manuscript, most of the rest of which is in a church in a town called Gallarate, about a 15 minute train ride north of Milan.

We figured that out by going to Milan and looking at all the microfilms to see if any of the others had a unique quality that this one has. Hard to explain, but this one acts like it was a Gregorian chant manuscript in that it has nocturnes and readings the way Benedictines do. But no other manuscript has this except, one scholar said, there is a manuscript that looks sort of like a Benedictine manuscript with Ambrosian chant. So we started looking at that other one, and as it turns out, there’s only one manuscript. The Gallarate manuscript and this manuscript are actually only one manuscript.

What you’ve gotta wonder is how did these 20 folios get separated from the Gallarate manuscript? How did they get extracted from the manuscript? How did they get assembled into these 20 pages as though they were a separate manuscript. This beautiful initial of Mauritius was put on the front. It’s not actually the leading page of this, but it’s the most beautiful page. And if you are a bookseller trying to make a buck, you would probably assemble the leaves you have into something that looks like a manuscript and put your best foot forward, your most beautiful miniature at the front. That’s why this book comes to us in this form.

[background music: Te laudamus. Performed by Cappella musicale di Sant’Ambrogio, Giovanni Scomparin, director. From the CDs accompanying the book Antifonale Ambrosiano by Ferruccio Ferrari (LIM, 2011). CD 1, track 41.]

JC: Historically speaking, chant was an oral tradition. Each generation of monks passed the melodies down to the next. But eventually, the chants were written down. What factors led to this transition? Were the reasons for recording Ambrosian chant different from the reasons for recording Gregorian chant?

[end music]

TK: It’s not clear ever why people start writing down their chant. Gregorian chant was first written down, as far as we can tell, in the 9th century and the first complete books of it come from the 10th century. That is books with musical notation. We have books with words from before that. So it may be that Gregorian chant began to be written down because it was somehow new. All of the earliest Gregorian chant sources we have are not from Rome as you might expect since the chant is supposed to have come from Rome and Saint Gregory the Great and all. They’re all from Frankish areas, from the cultural area around Charlemagne. And Charlemagne’s the guy that said “Hmm, I’ve got this big polyglot kingdom. They’re all barbarians. They all speak different languages. We’re going to invent a new kind of writing that people will call after my name. We’re going to have schools. We’re going to have monasteries. And we’re going to adopt Rome as the unifying thing for our kingdom.” So he has himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor on the model of the Roman Empire, and he appeals to the authority of the Pope and of Rome for religious unity in his kingdom. He says, “From now on, we’re all going to sing the Roman chant.” He sends for books from Rome, they make books of chant and send them out everywhere. So it may be the fact that whatever this music was, whether it really came from Rome or not we’re not sure, probably the reason for writing it down was in order to disseminate it and in order to teach it to people who may not have known it. So that’s a good reason for writing it down.

Why the Ambrosians began to write down their music I don’t know. There’s every reason to think that in some form it’s at least as old as Gregorian chant, but there are lots of traditions that pass on their music orally without any need to write it down. So that’s a really interesting question – why one day you don’t feel you need to write it down and the next day you feel you do need to write it down. Is it because people were forgetting? I doubt that. Is it because it’s sort of under threat? Is it because there’s Gregorian chant all around us and we want to look as authoritative and important, and we want to make sure that things don’t change? I think that might have something to do with the reason for writing down Ambrosian chant, but they didn’t do it until the 12th century. So Ambrosian chant has a much longer period of oral transmission than Gregorian chant does, and that’s really interesting because the wiggly, kind of ornamental sound of Ambrosian chant almost sounds like somebody making it up as he goes along. It may be a kind of frozen improvisation that then stops once you write it down. But we might, with enough study, learn something about how music changes in oral transmission since we’ve got one kind that stops being oral in the 9th century and another kind that stops being oral in the 12th century.

HF: Now that we have an idea of why chant was written down, we have to ask – how was it written? What does Medieval chant notation look like in comparison to modern music?

TK: It works the way musical notation works for us! You draw a series of lines. In this case the series of lines are inscribed in the parchment with a sharp point with no ink. A dry point line. One of the lines is colored red to show you where the note “F” is, and sometimes at the beginning of the line you’ll see a little letter, very often a “C.” That’s what we call a clef. We use a G-clef and an F-clef now, but they used F-clefs and C-clefs, and occasionally others. And you put the notes either in a space or on a line, just the way we do it now. They usually used just three lines, sometimes four. You don’t need more than three lines usually. If you think about it, three lines gives you seven notes from below the bottom line to above the top line. And seven notes doesn’t usually exceed the range of one of the vocal pieces. If it does, instead of going up higher what they tend to do is change the clef, just bring the whole thing down because you don’t have room up above to go way high because you have the words of the line up above that. So you’ve gotta keep it all in the space. And it also preserves parchment. This is a lot of dead animals and so, to the extent that the writing and the music can be compact, to that extent you need fewer sheep.

[background music: Jam surgit hora tertia. Performed by Cappella musicale di Sant’Ambrogio, Giovanni Scomparin, director. From the CDs accompanying the book Antifonale Ambrosiano by Ferruccio Ferrari (LIM, 2011). CD 1, track 16.]

JC: Although the method of notation is similar, Gregorian and Ambrosian chant manuscripts are bound differently into books. Each tradition divides the liturgical music in a way that reflects their worship practices. However, they both use two volumes for one year of music.

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TK: The basic idea is that you have two kinds of music. You have music for the Mass and you have music for the Office, those 8 times a day when monks or clergy in cathedrals and collegiate churches go to church and pray. And you have different music all along the course of the year, so not for every day but for every week and for every feast day you have a new set of music. If you copied down all the music for the Mass and the Office in a single book, you couldn’t do it. The book would be so huge that you couldn’t carry it around and no binder could bind it. So you’ve got to figure out what are you going to do. In the Roman tradition, the Gregorian tradition, what you do is you write all the music for the Mass in one book (We call that the Gradual. I’m not sure why.), and all the music for the Office in another book that we call the Antiphoner. And so they divide it half and half.

In the Ambrosian tradition they do it differently. They write all the music, Mass and Office in chronological order through the year up until the Vigil of Easter. And at the Vigil of Easter you stop volume one, you put it away, and you take out a new set of parchment and you start volume two starting on Easter day. So you have what they call the winter portion of the year and the summer portion of the year is the way Ambrosian manuscripts are divided. Interesting is that Milan at the time had two cathedrals, and at the Vigil of Easter they finished their service in the winter cathedral, they went across the street and started services in the summer cathedral. So they divided their year between two churches and their liturgy between two books.

[background music: Gaude et laetare. Performed by Cappella musicale di Sant’Ambrogio, Giovanni Scomparin, director. From the CDs accompanying the book Antifonale Ambrosiano by Ferruccio Ferrari (LIM, 2011). CD 2, track 23.]

JC: Houghton Library’s three manuscripts of Ambrosian chant have inspired international research, student publications, conferences, and more. Professor Kelly believes that this ability to ignite and support student research is one of the most valuable aspects of the unique items held in Houghton Library and establishes a deep connection between the collection and Harvard’s institutional mission.

TK: Part of the point here is that these things, yes they’re beautiful objects, yes it’s great that we have these things, but they’re actually working here to fulfill the mission of Harvard. Teaching and research. If you can get graduate students and undergraduate students and scholars from all around the world working together on something, we can actually add not only to people’s abilities as scholars but also to the sum of human knowledge. The excitement of having the actual object here turns on an awful lot of people who think, “Well, I don’t know about this Medieval music. It’s so long ago and so far away.” And then you stand in front of it and they can sing from it the same music that fellow human beings sang from this same object a thousand years ago. And suddenly it comes to life and becomes real and these are actual fellow human beings you’re just about in physical contact with. And if one day our instruments are good enough, we might be able to hear the sounds of Notre Dame organum sung in 13th century Notre Dame and Paris.

[background music: Vidi aquam / Intonuit. Performed by Cappella musicale di Sant’Ambrogio, Giovanni Scomparin, director. From the CDs accompanying the book Antifonale Ambrosiano by Ferruccio Ferrari (LIM, 2011). CD 1, track 19.]

HF: We’d like to thank Professor Thomas Kelly for joining us and sharing his perspective on Ambrosian chant and the value of the library within the University. It’s our pleasure to serve the Harvard community and the world by bringing history to life through our collections.

JC: Throughout the episode, you’ve heard examples of Ambrosian chant performed by members of the Cappella musicale di Sant’Ambrogio, directed by Giovanni Scomparin. They were recorded as accompaniment for the 2011 book Antifonale Ambrosiano. Our thanks to Director Scomparin and Professor Kelly for providing us with access to these recordings.

HF: To view this manuscript of Ambrosian chant as well as other fascinating items selected by Harvard faculty, go to to visit the online exhibition HIST75H: A Masterclass on Houghton Library.

JC: If you are in the Boston area, you can also come by the library and request to view this manuscript or other material from the collection in our reading room.

HF: For podcast transcripts and detailed music notes, visit Thanks for joining us today, and we hope you will come back next time for another episode of Houghton75.

[music continues to end]