The earliest accounts of a Milanese rite date from the 4th and 5th centuries. Some of the earliest chants date from as early as the 5th century. Various theories exist concerning the origins of the repertory. By now it is recognized that (as with all chant) these origins were many and varied. 1) from the East: via the Aryans in the 4th century; via Western bishops long resident in the Orient; via early pilgrimages to the Holy Land; from the period of the Eastern Gothic and Byzantine reigns; via the influence of the more Greek orthodox-oriented cities such as Aquileia and Ravenna. 2) from the West via Rome.
We know that the Milanese rite was the first of the Western rites to change from Greek to Latin, in the 4th century. From here it spread to Rome. Saint Ambrose (c.340–397) is largely responsible for the popularity of the hymn genre in the Ambrosian rite. Although Saint Augustus remained wary of the influence of too much chant on the believer, upon the occasion of his own baptism in 387 by Bishop Ambrose he declared himself to be 'overpowered by the music '.
What we do know for certain is that a sizeable number of the oldest extant Ambrosian chants exhibit characteristics which were later expunged from or modified by the Gregorian repertory. These include: the most extensive melismatic (i.e. originally improvised ornamental passages) in all of Western chant; chant forms which were radically shortened and codified by the Franconians; the most extensive Alleluia formulae; chant formulae which predate the Franconian octoechos (8-mode) system and defy classification; ranges which far exceed the normal Gregorian chant range; melodic patterns which are much more diatonic rather than pentatonic and which can easily be sung to an ison or pedal tone; the distinctively Italianate preference for the iambic (long-short) rhythmic organization.
In fact the Ambrosian/Milanese chant repertory is most closely related to the Gallican and the Mozarabic chant traditions, both of which were sooner (Gallican) or later (Mozarabic) wiped out by the more powerful Gregorian rite. At the present time even the Milanese usage is being threatened by a combination of the Gregorian domination from Rome and, far worse, by the intrusion of popular music and liturgies in the Italian language
The exact subject of this Project Week is being determined with the help of the most prominent Ambrosian chant expert, Professor Giacomo Baroffio, with whom we have worked earlier. The Week will be either devoted to one specific rite (e.g. Dedicazione della Cattedrale) or to the oldest extant chants with connections to older chants, be they Eastern or Western.
Teachers: Rebecca Stewart, Mami Irisawa and Bram Verheijen, all of whom are familiar with the clearly Italianate 'peculiarities' of this decidedly non-Gregorian tradition, including its brilliance. As will be understood by those who may follow the entire series of Italian Project Weeks, these characteristics form the very basis of the later traditions. Anyone who can sing Ambrosian chant need only to modify them to fit the changing styles.