THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY
The organ history of Bergamo during the XVth century reflects names and circumstances which are present in the most important towns of such a period in the north of Italy: Milan, Ferrara, Verona, Padova, Venice. After the Venetian conquest of Bergamo (in the year 1428), which led our town under the domination of Venice after almost a century of Viscontea rule, the notes about the organ activity get more and more frequent and though fragmentary, they denote a wide presence of organs in the churches and an evident inclination of the inhabitants of Bergamo to appreciate this instrument.
Trumpet sounds and bells for the new organs in Santa Maria Maggiore's
The first information goes back to 1402 when on March 25th "for the first time the organs were put in Santa Maria Maggiore's church… with every magnificent solemnity of trumpets, and sounds and bells". The organs were built by Fra Martino de' Stremiti belonging to the Umiliati Order of Milan, where he was well-known as builder of a great organ for the Duomo, built in 1395.
In Bergamo, town with municipal traditions, the town centre with the greatest musical experience was the Civic Chapel of S. Maria Maggiore. In the north of Italy it would become one of the most open, stimulating centres of the musical culture of such a period, thanks to the wise organizational structure that governed it. Many organ information have come out from the holdings of the archives, with enough names and circumstances to give us a general idea about this activity in Bergamo in the 15th century.
The purchasers from Bergamo were very exacting: they asked for the most known organ builders and did not hesitate to reject the whole work if it was not as requested. Many names of renowned artists come out, coming from different places who worked in Venetian and Po zones and who contributed to the development of such a very noble art: Tommaso Ingegneri from Verona who in 1455 put a new organ, a "German Bernardo" who in 1483 restored that organ; Bartolomeo Antegnati from Lumesane (1450-1501), founder of the celebrated organ builder family coming from Brescia who in 1496 and 1498 built two organs, one of them was rejected by the purchaser, and many others again.
The organ builders in the territory of Bergamo moved from a place to another: after taking the required equipment, they settled for long period during their work, sometimes setting up small branches or shops (at the moment we haven't got any information about local steady artisans) and they put their works not only in the town (S. Alessandro's Duomo,1486), but even in far away towns of the valleys and of the plains.
Organs are documented in the following towns: Gandino, in S. Maria's church (1455); Martinengo, in S. Agata's (1473) which had "organa cum mantici et banchali"; S. Giovanni Bianco (before 1490); Alzano Maggiore (before 1490), Albino, in S. Giuliano's church (1497).
Finally, interesting is the information that the "chirurgicum" and chemist Giovanni Battista Cucchi from Martinengo, friend of the famous painter Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556) and organist in S. Maria Maggiore, in 1490 renewed the old organ of S. Giovanni Bianco, deserting a public praise by that small mountain community.
This anecdote is very indicative of a stimulating hypothesis: the increasing number of organs gave life to small local artisans in order to face their ordinary maintenance, as support to the always in demand famous foreign organ builders, fertile field to a local organ tradition.
The medieval organ
At the moment, we haven't any documents describing technical, sonorous and constructive features of the medieval organ present in Bergamo.
Here's some essential information about the kind of organ spread at that time in the Lombard area, which can also be extended to Bergamo.
It is usually of an average size, with five or six ranks of pipes, whose number is usual and prevalent in Italy in those times; it hasn't got independent ranks, but only a single block of ranks of inseparable pipes, so that several pipes play for each note; pipes are tuned up to the unison for every key, according to the various fifth and eighth sounding pipes, with the Pythagorean system used since the ancient times. This system was excellent for monodic music like the chant called "Gregorian", however, during the last decades of the century, the "meantone" tuning system took place, it ousted the Pythagorean system and allowed euphonious major chords all over the notes practiced by the polyphony of that time.
The liturgic function of the organ was that prevailing of the alternation with the choir, that's to say that in a chant with an antiphonic structure, the organ answered to the choir by the elaboration of the melody; in the middle of the century new musical forms started to develop with character of improvisation working as prelude to the chants.