Ensemble for Medieval Music. Benjamin Bagby, Director

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Charlemagne: Emperor and Saint

Benjamin Bagby voice, harp
Norbert Rodenkirchen flutes, cithara
Wolodymyr Smishkewych voice, organistrum
Justin Bonnet voice
Vincent Pislar voice
Michael Loughlin Smith voice


Charlemagne, the Frankish king who was crowned Emperor in 800 and died in Aachen in 814, ruled over a vast territory which included most of what is today Western Europe. He surrounded himself with some of the most brilliant minds of his time; his court – renowned for its focus on learning and poetry, the making of liturgical books and the study of ancient texts – was the the centre of a phenomenon we now call ‘the Carolingian Renaissance’. In spite of the fracture of his empire after his death, Charlemagne remained a potent figure in the formation of the identity of Europe as a ‘Holy Roman Empire’, with a geography we still recognize today. In fact, his figure remained so powerful that more than 350 years after his death, the Hohenstaufen Friedrich Barbarossa – together with his powerful chancellor, the Kölner archbishop Rainald von Dassel –  had Charlemagne declared a saint (1165). The reasons for this were largely a political and symbolic, but we see once again through this event how the image of Carolingian power and authenticity was both useful and necessary for later rulers. As dynastic politics evolved in Germany during the later Middle Ages, the cult of Saint Charlemagne was reduced to local importance.

Our programme presents music from two sides of this important and fascinating personality: liturgical chant from the 12th-century office for Saint Charlemagne, Regali natus, as well as a selection of Latin songs from the imperial court and devotional music from the time of his successors (8th – 10th centuries).

The liturgy for Saint Charlemagne

The complete rhymed office known as Regali natus was probably created in Aachen sometime around the declaration of Charlemagne’s sainthood in 1165. It contains antiphons and responsories, as well as the famous sequence Urbs Aquensis urbs regalis (still performed regularly today) and the hymn O rex orbis triumphator, all meant to be sung on 28 January, the saint’s feast-day. We also perform a sequence, In Karoli magni laude, created for the feast of the translation of the saint’s relics, which was first celebrated in Aachen in the presence of the emperor Friedrich II in 1215. Although rarely heard today, these chants were copied in dozens of manuscripts and widely disseminated in Europe.

The texts serve to underline the role of the German emperor as Rex mundi triumphator: protector of the faith, supporter of laws, and heir to Roman imperial glory. The chants often mention episodes from a Vita of Charlemagne which had been created for this purpose, and indeed, many of the images in the chants can be found illustrated in the magnificent Karlsschrein (ca. 1183) still visible in Aachen today. He is praised as a valiant crusader in wars against ‘heathen’ peoples (Saxons and Frisians in the north, Muslims in Spain) and in his efforts to subdue the Lombards in northern Italy.

Sources: Aachen, Domarchiv, HS G13 and HS G20.

Thanks to Prof. Dr. Eric Rice University of Connecticut/Storrs, USA) and Prof. Dr. Michael McGrade (Brandeis University, USA) for kind permission to use their transcriptions and translations.

Courtly songs and devotional canticles

Summi regis archangele Michahel is identified in several manuscripts with the rubric: sequentia quam Alcuinus composuit Karolo Imperatori (a sequence which Alcuin composed for the emperor Charlemagne), and is one of the most widely-known sequences of the Middle Ages. In its dedication to Charlemagne, attributed to the English monk, Alcuin, the emperor is compared to the archangel Michael, who defeated the dragon for the redemption of mankind. If this is indeed an original sequence by Alcuin (who was active among the literati at the court of Charlemagne until 796), it would be the earliest surviving sequence by a known author.

Source: Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek Codex 121 (10th c.) / Transcription: N. Rodenkirchen

Surge meo domno surge fac is part of a longer panegyric devoted to the royal family, written by the Carolingian court poet Angilbertus in ca. 795. As we know from many sources, the literary men around the king gave themselves fanciful names: Charlemagne was of course ‘David’, Angilbertus was ‘Homer’, and the old master Alcuin was ‘Flaccus’ (= Horace). Here, in an elaborate mantra-like text about David’s (Charlemagne’s) supposed love and patronage of poetry and poets (Angilbertus’s wishful thinking?) we hear the kind of praise-song which both flatters and exhorts, at once playfully familiar and yet pious.

Reconstruction: B. Bagby

The earliest surviving text in the French language, this ‘Canticle of Eulalia,’ Buona pulcella fut Eulalia, tells the story of a beautiful and determined Christian girl who refuses to renounce her faith and is murdered by a pagan king – a theme to be visited again in the legend of Saint Ursula and her companions, murdered by the Huns in pre-Christian Köln. The survival of this text bears witness to the incipient ‘romance’ language in the empire of the Franks.

Reconstruction: B. Bagby

O mea cella: Alcuin, a brilliant scholar and monk originally from Yorkshire, was invited to Aachen with the express purpose of teaching and organizing intellectual life at the court of Charlemagne; by all accounts he was much beloved by the emperor and everyone at the court. As a reward for his services, he was awarded the position of abbot at the monastery of St. Martin of Tours, and departed from Aachen in 796, shortly after the royal palace had been completed. In this bittersweet and very personal poem, he laments the lost idyll of his teaching years within the palace, and reflects on the temporary nature of all earthly things.

Reconstruction: B. Bagby

Called Planctus cigni (the swan's lament), the sequence Clangam filii may have had its origins in West Frankish cloisters or even in indigenous Frankish song traditions. Its archaic theme of the soul's longing is made poignant through the voice of a swan, the lost wanderer over the dark ocean, seeking nourishment and a safe haven, and finding salvation by the light of dawn.

Transcription: Bruno Stäblein

A solis ortu usque ad occidua is a planctus (death lament) for the Emperor Charlemagne, who died in his palace at Aachen in 814. The Germanic harp used to accompany this lament would have been well-known to the courtly Carolingian poets and singers, in both the palace and the royal chapel.

Source: Paris, BNF, lat. 1154 (10c.) / Transcription/Reconstruction: B. Bagby

The Pieces

From the liturgy for Saint Charlemagne (late 12th century)

  • O rex orbis triumphator (hymnus)

Songs for the Emperor (late 8th century)

  • Summi regis archangele Michahel (sequentia by Alcuinus)
  • Surge meo domno dulces fac (ecloga by Angilbertis)

From the liturgy for Saint Charlemagne (late 12th century)

  • Secularis potentie (responsorium)
  • Fusa prece mentis bone (responsorium)

The Frankish Canticle of Eulalia (9th century)

  • Buona pulcella fut Eulalia (sequentia)
  • instrumental piece (based the sequentia Virgo plorans by Notker)

From the liturgy for Saint Charlemagne (late 12th century)

  • Tota poscente Francia (responsorium)
  • In Karoli magni laude (sequentia)

Frankish songs of departure and exile (9th-10th centuries)

  • O mea cella (cantica by Alcuinus)
  • Clangam filii (sequentia)

From the liturgy for Saint Charlemagne (late 12th century)

  • Gloriose Christi confessor Karole (responsorium)
  • Confessor obsequio Cesare Karole (responsorium)

A lamentation on the death of Charlemagne (Aachen, 814)

  • A solis ortu (planctus Karoli)

From the liturgy for Saint Charlemagne (late 12th century)

  • Urbs Aquensis urbs regalis (sequentia)

Aside from the Germanic harpa, which is well-documented in sources from the 6th-10th centuries, we know that the Carolingians appreciated various fistulae (flutes) and the cithara, an early type of long-necked plectrum instrument. In the paraliturgical songs from the liturgy for Saint Charlemagne, we also make use of the organistrum, a drone instrument widely used in 12th century.

Germanic harp by Rainer Thurau (Wiesbaden, 1997)

Cithara by Olivier Feraud (Nice, 2010)

Wooden flutes by Neidhart Bousset (Berlin, 1998) and Beha & Gibbons (Boston, 1995)

Organistrum by Wolodymyr Smishkewych (Bloomington, 2010)

Upcoming Concerts

13 August 2023
Lviv, Ukraine (Mirror Hall, Opera)
The Wanderer - Medieval songs of travel

15 August 2023
Kyiv, Ukraine (Hall at the Modern Art Research Institute of the National Academy of Art of Ukraine)
The Wanderer - Medieval songs of travel

20 August 2023
Jarosław, Poland
The Wanderer - Medieval songs of travel

See full concert schedule



Benjamin Bagby's teaching activities in 2019

In March 2019, Benjamin will give two weekend courses on the solo songs of Philippe le Chancelier (d. 1236). The courses are being hosted by the Centre de Musique Médiévale de Paris. Dates: 9-10 and 30-31 March.
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After retiring from his teaching position at the University of Paris - Sorbonne, where he taught between 2005 and 2018 in the professional masters program, Benjamin Bagby continues to travel widely in 2019 to teach practical workshops for young professionals:

Folkwang Universität der Künste (Essen-Werden, Germany).
Benjamin has joined the faculty of this renowned masters program for liturgical chant performance and medieval music. The dates of his courses in 2019: 5-7 April; 26-28 April; 17-19 May; 30 May–01 June.
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For the second year in a row, Benjamin will teach an intensive course in the 8th International Course on Medieval Music Performance (Besalú, Spain): Songs of the troubadours (for singers and instrumentalists).
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Amherst Early Music Festival (Connecticut College, New London CT) 21-28 July:
An intensive course on the solo cansos of the Occitan troubadours, with a focus on songs from the great Milan songbook Bibl. Ambr. R71 sup. (for singers and instrumentalists).
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