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  • James W. McKinnon

(b Trier, c340; d Milan, 397). Saint, bishop and Doctor of the Church. He was the son of the Roman prefect of Gaul, and embarked upon a successful political career, being named consular governor of Liguria and Aemilia in about 370. While yet unbaptized he was elected Bishop of Milan by popular acclaim on 7 December 374. Together with Augustine and Jerome he is acknowledged as one of the three great Latin Church Fathers of the 4th and 5th centuries. He was primarily a public figure, however, unlike Augustine, the philosopher, or Jerome, the scholar; he consolidated the position of the Church against the powerful Arian heresy and the counter-attacks of paganism.

Tradition has assigned him a musical significance exceeding that of any other early Christian leader. This purported achievement can be summarized under four headings: (1) the co-authorship with Augustine of the Te Deum; (2) an involvement in the composition and organization of the Milanese or Ambrosian chant comparable to that formerly attributed to Gregory for the Gregorian chant; (3) the introduction of antiphonal psalmody into the Latin Church; and (4) the composition of a large repertory of liturgical hymns. By the late 19th century Dreves had already rejected the first two of these as largely the product of medieval legend; the two last have continued to find favour with many 20th-century historians but are nevertheless in need of substantial qualification.

Ambrose may well have been an innovator as regards the psalmodic practices of the Latin Church, but this did not, in the view of the present author, simply involve the introduction of antiphonal psalmody, or, as Leeb's countering position would have it, the introduction of responsorial psalmody. At issue is an incident in the year 386. The Milanese faithful were being held under guard in Ambrose's cathedral by troops loyal to the Arian empress Justina, and they spent the entire night in prayer and song. It is a phrase in Augustine's description of the event – ‘at that time it was instituted that hymns and psalms (hymni et psalmi) be sung according to the custom of the Eastern church’ – that has caused scholars to think of antiphonal psalmody; singing ‘according to the custom of the Eastern church’, presumably, could refer only to antiphonal psalmody. But a review of all the evidence, both the specific patristic passages referring to this incident (from Augustine, Paulinus and Ambrose himself) and the larger historical context, points to a more basic sort of innovation than a detail of musical performing practice. Ambrose's innovation was in all probability that of the psalmodic vigil itself, a quasi-liturgical event in which the congregation spent the night in prayer and psalmody; such vigils were received enthusiastically and became popular as they were taken up by different congregations in the latter decades of the 4th century in a broad trend moving from East to West.

That Ambrose was an innovator as regards the composition of sacred hymns is entirely true and a matter of considerable importance in the history of early Christian music. He was not the first ecclesiastical figure to create metrical Latin hymns, Hilary had done so a few decades before, but there is no evidence that Hilary's excessively sophisticated poems were ever sung in the liturgy. The Ambrosian type of hymn, however, with its attractive language set in simple iambic tetrameters, became a regular part of the Western monastic Office in the 6th century and eventually the secular Office. Benedict referred to these hymns in his Regula as ‘ambrosiana’. The key question about Ambrosian hymns is how many of those attributed to Ambrose in medieval sources are authentic. Certainly the four cited by Augustine are – Aeterne rerum conditor, Deus creator omnium, Iam surgit hora tertia and Intende qui regis Israel – and perhaps some ten others as well. Dreves argued strongly that Ambrose was also responsible for the tunes to which his texts were set in medieval sources, but most scholars now consider this to be unlikely.


  • G.M. Dreves: Aurelius Ambrosius, ‘Der Vater des Kirchengesanges': eine hymnologische Studie (Freiburg, 1893/R)
  • F.H. Dudden: The Life and Times of St Ambrose (Oxford, 1935)
  • H. Leeb: Die Psalmodie bei Ambrosius (Vienna, 1967)
  • J. McKinnon: Music in Early Christian Literature (Cambridge, 1987)
  • M-H. Jullien: ‘Les sources de la tradition ancienne des quatorze hymnes attribuées à Saint Ambroise de Milan’, Revue d'histoire des textes, 19 (1989), 57–189
  • J. Fontaine and others, ed.: Ambroise de Milan: hymnes (Paris, 1992)
  • J. McKinnon: ‘Desert Monasticism and the Psalmodic Movement of the Later Fourth Century’, ML, 75 (1994), 505–21
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