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Easter and music at the Duomo: the Archives tell the story of a magnificent performance

Document of the month: March 2018

This coming 28 March, on occasion of the traditional Easter concert, the notes of the Passio secundum Joannem by J. S. Bach will reverberate within the Duomo.

This great piece of music, closely connected to the most important of the liturgical solemnities, has long been a characteristic of the Duomo and of the beauty which the Veneranda Fabbrica has overseen for centuries, whether it be of an architectural and artistic nature, or a musical one.

Numerous are the documents in the Archives that attest to this: of these, this month we present one in particular.

For the solemn Easter celebration of 1890, choir director Giuseppe Gallignani offered a performance of the Missa Papae Marcelli by Pierluigi Palestrina. The board's records from that time include this program and provisions for the distribution of reserved seats: "Arrangements shall be made for the upcoming Easter celebration. With a performance of Palestrina's mass and a temporary stage set up for the choir, positioned behind the chapter choir, and in expectation of extraordinary public attendance, it has been decided that the left half of the senatorial choir will be reserved for the Board of Directors and the right side for the Chapter."

This short note provides us readers of today with some interesting details. The first has to do with the choice of music, which, the following year, was remembered for its innovative nature in La Civiltà Cattolica (XLII, 1891, pg. 250): "Maestro Gallignani, on Easter day of last year, broke the ice for the first time with his execution of the “Missa Papae Marcelli” in Milan's cathedral. We "for the first time", both because Gallignani was the first to present this music with only voices on such a solemn occasion and in one of Italy's most venerated temples, and because he was the first to set an example "in a public church" of how one should artfully interpret classic polyphony, with finesse and expression in every vocal part".

Another aspect has to do with the experimental nature of the staging. In fact, it mentions a temporary stage for the chancel, which other documents show was positioned immediately behind the chapter choir, between the two central pillars that, looking at it from the presbytery, frame the window in the apse.

The same Maestro Gallignani, in a long report from May 1890 [AD, Musical Chapel, cart. 19 fasc. 2), mentions how the recent performance of the "Missa Papae Marcelli convinced him that the temporary solution for the chancel on Easter should be perfected and made permanent. Remembering that performance, which was so successful thanks to this arrangement, Gallignani wrote: "This past Easter was the first time that I came down from the chancel with the personal conviction (please pardon my vanity!) of having created something truly artful".

Over a century later, the Veneranda Fabbrica continues to play a leading role in Milan's cultural landscape.