Ambrosian Music (2)
the earliest music used in the Christian Church of which we have any account, and so named after Ambrose, bishop of Milan (374-398), who introduced it to his diocese about the year 386, during the reign of Constantine. The notions prevailing among musical and other writers respecting the peculiarities of Ambrosian music are based rather on conjecture than knowledge. It maybe considered certain that it was more simple and less varied than the Gregorian music, which, about two centuries later, almost everywhere superseded it. Indeed, it has been doubted whether actual melody at all entered into it, and conjectured that it was only a kind of musical speech-monotone with melodic closes, or accentus ecclesiasticus (q.v.); a kind of music, or mode of musical utterance, which Gregory retained for collects and responses, but which he rejected as too simple for psalms and hymns. On the other hand, it has been argued more plausibly that, to whatever extent the accentus or modus choraliter legendi may have been used in Ambrosian music, an element more distinctly musical entered largely into it; that a decided cantus, as in Gregorian music, was used for the psalms and that something which might even now be called melody was employed for (especially metrical) hymns. That this melody was narrow in compass, and little varied in its intervals, is probable or certain. That neither Augustine nor any contemporary writer has described particularly, or given us any technical account of the music practiced by the Milanese congregations of the end of the 4th century, however much we may regret it, need hardly cause us any surprise. That Ambrosian music, however, was rhythmical is irrefragably attested by the variety of metres employed by Ambrose in his own hymns.
The oldest scales consisted, at the most, of four sounds, which were therefore called tetrachords. This system continued. long, and is the basis of modern tonality. Eventually scales extended in practice to pentachords, hexachords, heptachords, and ultimately to octachords, as with us. The theory and practice of the octachord were familiar to the Greeks, from whose system it is believed Ambrose took the first four octachords or modes, viz. the Dorian, Phrygian, Hypolydian,and Hvpophrygian, called by the first Christian writers on music Protus, Deuterus, Tritus, and Tetrardus. Subsequently the Greek provincial names got to be misapplied, and the Ambrosian system appeared as follows: PROTUS, OR DORIAN. DEUTERUS, OR PHRYGIAN. TRITUS, OR AEOLIAN. TETRARDUS, OR MYXOLYDIAN.
These scales differ essentially from our scales, major or minor. The 1st, 2d, 3d, and 4th Ambrosian scales or tones are not what we now call "keys," but "modes," differing from one another as the modern major and minor modes differ, in the places of their semitones. Melodies, therefore, in this or that Ambrosian "tone "have a variety of character analogous to that which distinguished our major and minor modes so very widely. Thus, one. Ambrosian tone was supposed to be characterized by dignity, another by languor, and so on. The rhythmus of Ambrosian music is thought by some to have consisted only in the adaptation to long and short syllables of long and short notes. "Of what we call time," says Forkel (Gesch. der Muusik, 2, 168) — the proportion between the different divisions of the same melody — "the ancients had no conception." He does not tell us how they contrived to march or to dance to timeless melodies — melodies with two beats in one foot and three in another, or three feet in one phrase and four in another; nor how vast congregations were enabled to sing them; and if anything is certain about Ambrosian song, it is that it was, above all things, congregational.
Whether Ambrose was acquainted with the use of musical characters is uncertain. Probably he was. The system he adopted was Greek, and he could hardly make himself acquainted with Greek music without having acquired some knowledge of Greek notation, which, though intricate in its detail, was simple in its principles. But even the invention, were it needed, of characters capable of representing the comparatively few sounds of Ambrosian melody could have been a matter of no difficulty. Such characters needed only to represent the pitch of these sounds; their duration was dependent on, and sufficiently indicated by, the metre. Copies of Ambrosian music-books are preserved in some libraries, which present indications of what may be, probably are, musical characters. Possibly, however, these are additions by later hands. It is certain that, in the time of Charlemagne, Ambrosian song was finally superseded, except in the Milanese, by Gregorian. The knowledge of the Ambrosian musical alphabet, if it ever existed, may, in such circumstances, and in such an age, have easily been lost, though the melodies themselves were long preserved traditionally.