Charlemagne – Emperor and Confessor – Patron of the city of Aachen



Charlemagne, »Pater Europae« - »Father of Europe«, as he is called in his own lifetime, is a descendant of the Frankish Carolingian Dynasty and is born on 2nd April 748 as a son of King Pippin the Younger and grandson of the Mayor of the Palace, Karl Martell. Although his place of birth is unknown, several indications suggest Heristal in the area of Liège. In 768 together with his brother Carloman, he assumes power in the Frankish Empire. Following the death of Carloman in 771, he becomes the sole ruler of the Frankish Empire and works indefatigably for the establishment and expansion of the Church. The borders of this empire stretch from Spain to beyond the river Elbe and as far as Hungary, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean coast of modern-day France, through Northern Italy up to the gates of Rome. At Christmas in 800, Charlemagne is crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III (795 to 816). He dies on 28th January 814 in his favourite palace in Aachen and is laid to rest there on the same day in the Church of St. Mary (Palatine Chapel, Münster; today: Aachen Cathedral, the »Dom«) that he built himself, which in the Middle Ages enjoyed great fame as the coronation church of German kings and as the pilgrimage church of the Aachen Pilgrimage (»Aachenfahrt«).

Charlemagne and Alcuin (ca. 730-804) constitute the beginning of the choir school and choral tradition at the Palatine Chapel in Aachen. Alcuin is born around 730 into a noble family in Northumbria. He is a pupil and later head of the Cathedral and Monastery School in York, an institution that enjoyed great prestige extending well beyond the borders of the British Isles. Charlemagne meets Deacon Alcuin – he is considered the most scholarly man of his time – in 781 in Parma, where he requests him to come to Aachen to become Head of the »Schola Palatina«. Alcuin takes up this office in 782 and becomes Charlemagne’s most influential advisor and teacher to the Frankish elite. He dies as Abbot of St. Martin in Tours, probably in 804.

From the very beginning, not only trivium (grammar, rhetoric, dialectic) and quadrivium (music, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy) is taught at the »Schola Palatina« in Aachen, but also the art of liturgical chant and the »Ars musica« as an essential component of scholarly education in an exemplary fashion. In 754, King Pippin the Younger decrees the introduction of Roman liturgy in the Frankish Empire. It is clear that Charlemagne, who holds the renewal of the Roman Empire in a Christian character very much to heart, is a whole-hearted advocate for Roman liturgy. His political concept of the permanent »unity of the Christian Empire« is based on the unity of the religion (»Admonitio generalis«), the economy (»Capitulare de villis«), the script (»Carolingian minuscule«), the money (»Carolingian denar«), but also particularly to the unity of liturgy and its music. Charlemagne requests trained singers from Pope Hadrian I (772-795), who bring an antiphonary with Gregorian Chant from Rome to the Frankish Empire. Gregorian Chant, named after Pope St. Gregory the Great (596-604), is the monodic liturgical chant of the Roman Catholic Church. Charlemagne’s objective is the creation and preservation of uniform singing in the Christian spirit based on the model of Rome. In this manner, the music of the Roman-Hellenistic cultural circle meets the Franks in the liturgy borne by the »Schola Palatina« of the Palatine Chapel in Aachen, where it is fused with Germanic tradition and becomes the starting point of European music culture. Despite his daily political activities, Charlemagne is frequently to be found in his singing school, supporting the teachers through his authority as well as participating in the solemnly sung Divine Office in the Palatine Chapel. His biographer Einhard (ca. 770-840) reports: »He gives the greatest attention to the improvement of liturgical reading and psalmody: he himself was well versed in both, even though he never read aloud in public and only sang quietly in the choir.« (Vita Karoli Magni 26)

Under Charlemagne, Aachen becomes the centre of »Carolingian renaissance«. Without the circle of scholars and artists that he gathered around him at his court school, the »Schola Palatina«, it is not possible to imagine the rise of the occidental world. Here is the spiritual source of a culture consisting of a synthesis of antique tradition and the message of Christianity, which is crucial for the permanent survival of Europe. The Shrine of Charlemagne, completed in 1215 and in which the mortal remains of the Emperor in the Aachen Cathedral lie, represents the verse, work and impact of Charlemagne pregnantly summarised: »Thou wert the light and jewel of the Church of Christ, Charles, Thou flower of kings, Thou ornament of the world, Thou arbiter of law«.

Text: © Dr. Michael Tunger 2013
Photo: © Helmut Buchen, Köln: Aachen, Domschatz, Karlsreliquiar: Aachen Mitte 14. Jh., Detail: Karl der Große mit dem Münstermodell