The Liberian Musical Chapel is the direct descendant of the ancient schola cantorum, traditionally attributed to St. Gregory the Great, which underwent modifications due to an encounter with the tradition from the other side of the Alps ascribed to Charles the Great and contact with the papal chapel of Pope Gregory IX who returned to Rome from Avignon (1377).
The Liberian Musical Chapel, fruit of the splendid Renaissance bloom, was formally born in 1545 thanks to the work of the Cardinal Archpriest Guido Ascanio Sforza. It was considered from the beginning to be on the same level as St. Peter’s and St. John’s Chapels, thanks also to the presence of the pueri cantores who received training and lodging on the grounds of the Basilica. This is demonstrated by the fact that in 1561 the Chapel was directed by the same “prince of music,” Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, who from 1537 had himself received his first musical formation as a young boy singer in the Basilica.
The polyphonic style of the great musician, in perfect syntony with the dictates of the Council of Trent, was able to restore the contrapuntist artifices of the Flemish masters to unequal clarity and elegance, such as to allow a greater intelligibility of the sacred text. His pupils and successors such as Giovanni Maria Nanino, Francesco Soriano and Annibale Stabile were inspired by him, and contributed to the formation of what would remain throughout history as the “Roman School”. In fact, even in the 1600s, a period of maximum exuberance for sacred music, due to the magnificence of the polychorality and to the Venetian concert style, Roman masters were able to distinguish themselves. Domenico Allegri and Paolo Quagliati were the great driving force behind the participation of musical instruments in sacred music, but in a distinctive style of monumental effect. Illustrious figures followed this same path, such as Paolo Tarditi, Antonio Maria Abbatini, Orazio Benevoli, Nicola Stamegna and the organist Bernardo Pasquini. Francesco Foggia, chapel-master from 1677 to 1688, who was succeeded by his son Antonio, is considered the last great representative of the properly speaking Roman school.
A new figure, son of the times, made the Basilica of St. Mary Major famous, leaving his mark in just the two years he worked here: he was Alessandro Scarlatti. The renowned opera master of the Neapolitan school, was, in fact, also an excellent composer of sacred music even in the strict Palestrinian style. His teaching was welcomed by Pompeo Cannicciari, Antonio and Domenico Fontemaggi, Giovanni Aldega, Settimio Battaglia and Augusto Moriconi, who in the 18th and 19th centuries, during the highest splendour of musical theatre and beautiful song, knew how to resist the temptation of bringing into the Basilica arias adapted to an “ecclesiastical” style, which were resounding almost everywhere. The Liberian archive is rich in the works composed by the above-mentioned masters from 1600 to the present day, while the ancient Gregorian and polyphonic codes are kept in the Vatican library.