Arts & Culture

Manuscript discovery brings medieval music to life

4 min read

Medieval history comes to life at Harvard University on Oct. 18, when students and guest musicians collaborate in the North American premiere of an 800-year-old chant repertory from Harvard’s Houghton Library.

One of the chants that will be performed was recently discovered by Thomas Kelly, Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music at Harvard, in a collection bequeathed by Philip Hofer, founding curator of the Houghton Library Department of Printing and Graphic Arts.

“I was looking through several stacks of manuscripts to explore which would be good subjects of study for a graduate seminar, when I opened one and said, ‘Wait a minute…’” Kelly explains.

It’s a good thing he did. The manuscript turned out to be a book of Ambrosian chant, dating from the 14th century. Kelly estimates that there are only 100 complete manuscripts of Ambrosian music still in existence.

Ambrosian music is a style of liturgical chant that was practiced in Milan for centuries. The chant is named for St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. Although Gregorian chant is more familiar today, Ambrosian chant remained an important part of the medieval cultural scene well into the 15th century.

“We misrepresent medieval chant if we say it was all Gregorian,” Kelly says. “Ambrosian chant survived the spread of Gregorian chant, so it has a larger significance in understanding how music spread throughout the medieval world.”

According to Kelly, Ambrosian chant survived because of strong local authority and tradition.

“No one in Milan could be convinced that the authority of Pope Gregory was greater than the authority of St. Ambrose,” Kelly says. “But the myth of Gregory the Great enabled Gregorian chant to spread widely elsewhere.”

Thrilled by his discovery of the manuscript, Kelly encouraged Houghton Library to acquire two additional, older manuscripts of Ambrosian chant. With the help of William Stoneman, Florence Fearrington Librarian of Houghton Library, Harvard was able to acquire, preserve, and digitize what has become a significant collection of Ambrosiana.

The collection now spans the 12th to the 15th centuries, which will allow Kelly and others to study the development of the repertory over time.

“We are excited that the acquisition of these manuscripts will provide deeper understanding of the topic and encourage scholarly discourse,” says Stoneman. “Our goal is to acquire material which supports the teaching and research of the Harvard community.”

For Kelly, the most exciting part of the manuscript discovery is the opportunity it provides for live performance and music-making.

“It is incredible to sing from an 800-year-old object,” he says. “These manuscripts come to life only when you sing from them. Through performance you can create a connection with a human being who, centuries ago, held this same text in his hand.”

Ambrosian chant will once again ring out on Oct. 18 when Kelly and the maestro di cappella of the Basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan lead vespers services at St. Paul Catholic Church in Cambridge. Performers from the Basilica of St. Ambrose and music students from Harvard University will sing from the Harvard manuscripts in what is likely their first American performance.

“Ambrosian music is still sung in two places in Milan,” Kelly says, “but we don’t know that it is used anywhere else in the world.”

The vespers will include all the ceremonial rites of a traditional Ambrosian service.

“All are equally welcome, whether they think of it in religious or academic terms,” Kelly says.

The service kicks off a weekend conference focused on the Ambrosian manuscripts, titled “Ambrosiana at Harvard: New Sources of Milanese Chant.”

“We are especially pleased that these acquisitions have created this occasion,” says Stoneman.

The conference is funded by Houghton Library through a gift in honor of Zeph Stewart, Andrew M. Mellon Professor of the Humanities, Emeritus; the Committee for the Provostial Fund in the Arts and Humanities; the Harvard Divinity School; the Committee on Medieval Studies at Harvard; the Harvard Department of Music; and the Barker Center for the Humanities.

The three Houghton manuscripts, an additional manuscript from a private collection, and photographs of other Ambrosian material are currently on display at Houghton Library.