Sep 15, 2003

Magnificent Music in Milan

Online Edition

– Vol. IX, No. 6: September 2003

Magnificent Music in Milan

Cathedral Choir Celebrates Sixth Centenary with Concert Series

Comments by Sandro Magister


In Rome, the world capital of Catholicism, St. Mary Major’s is the only basilica that holds high the great musical and liturgical traditions of Gregorian chant and polyphony. But there are also oases of resistance in other cities and countries. One of the liveliest is Milan’s cathedral choir, the

Cappella Musicale del Duomo.

In 2003 the choir marks the 600th anniversary of its founding. And it celebrated with nine concerts from May 26 to June 6; six in the cathedral and the other two in the Basilicas of St. Ambrose — the patron of the city and the archdiocese — and St. Mary of the Graces — the church that holds Leonardo da Vinci’s

Last Supper


Yet just as with the recently concluded concert season of the Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music in Rome, the nine concerts of the

Cappella del Duomo

in Milan are not simply a musical engagement. They are also and above all an event for the Church, and not only the Church in Milan.

What Maestro Domenico Bartolucci was for Rome’s

Cappella Sistina

choir, appointed to accompany papal liturgies, Maestro Luciano Migliavacca is for Milan’s

Cappella Musicale del Duomo


But while in Rome Bartolucci retired, and with him a centuries-old musical tradition was removed from the papal liturgies, in Milan Migliavacca, now flanked by the younger director Claudio Riva, his disciple, has directed the Cappella uninterruptedly since 1957. And no archbishop has ever revoked his trust in him or silenced him. With Migliavacca, Riva, and their choir — two-thirds of which are

pueri cantores

(boy singers) — great liturgical music is still alive in Milan. Every Sunday in the cathedral, the choir makes solemn Masses and vespers shine with its notes.

Recognition of this was offered by first-class music critic Paolo Isotta in a penetrating commentary that appeared May 25 on the front page of the Milan daily

Corriere della Sera

. Here are some excerpts:

Virtually a Festival of Great Sacred Music in the Duomo

by Paolo Isotta


Cappella Musicale del Duomo

is alive and well after 600 continuous years. And "alive" means that it continues to pass on instruction in Ambrosian chant, as is known the Milan Archdiocese’s counterpart to

cantilena romana

, the precise term for Gregorian chant.

With this instruction and the practice of polyphonic music, the

Cappella Musicale del Duomo

daily performs its liturgical service, which is a particularly delicate task in that it accompanies functions celebrated by the archbishop.

Today’s sacred and liturgical music is a faint echo of what it was and what it should be. We don’t really argue with the Church today over the little songs that have replaced, for the most part, an unparalleled treasure that extended throughout centuries. The very concept of liturgy is understood by modern Catholicism in a very different way than it once was.

The vitality of Milan’s

Cappella Musicale del Duomo

, Europe’s oldest, consists not only in seeking to preserve and transmit something of that treasure: You get an idea of this in how it intends to celebrate its 600th anniversary….

Through the quality of the pieces and musicians that were chosen, the nine concerts’ logical and historical course is in effect a synthesis of the history of sacred music from the 15th through the 20th centuries. Space on the program is given to exponents of the


itself — from the most important, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s friend, Franchino Gafori (Gaffurio); Fioroni; Sarti; up to Migliavacca — as well as to great 16th-century polyphony, with compositions by Palestrina and Carlo Gesualdo, prince of Venosa (two English groups: the choir of Magdalen College at Oxford and the Tallis Scholars) and continues on to more modern surprises.

The most sensational is the performance of Mass and Vespers in honor of St. John Nepomucene that Giovanni Cristiano [Johann Christian] — the last of the sons of Bach (nick-named "the Milanese Bach"), who was then the second organist of the Duomo and guest of the Litta family — wrote and directed in the summer of 1758. It is a monumental and varied work in which you hear very strongly the mark of genius and which, in this writer’s judgment, is, together with the first performance of Mozart’s "Mitridate", the most important Milanese musical event of the entire 18th century….

And then the other surprise: the


of Leonardo Leo, one of the top composers of the Neapolitan School. He was Pugliese by birth and held Scarlatti’s position. Richard Wagner heard him at the Naples Conservatory in 1878, and said that a similar piece could have been compared only to Bach: but he meant the father.


For information on Milan’s

Cappella Musicale

and its concerts:

Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo

Via Arcivescovado, 1

20100 Milano

Telephone +39.0272022656

Fax +39.0272022419


[email protected]


Reprinted by permission of




Paolo Isotta