Rhymed offices, such as the Karlsoffizium »Regali natus« are poetic-musical artworks for liturgy. In rhythm and rhyme, they contain composed antiphons, responsories and hymns of the Divine Office, the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours, without the already established psalms and cantica sung with their traditional tones. The Divine Office (Latin officium = the duty (for Church's prayer for clerics and members of religious orders)) on high feasts usually consists of the following fixed liturgical hours of the day or night: 1st Vespers, Compline, Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, 2nd Vespers, Compline. Rhymed offices emerge between the 9th and 16th centuries, enjoying their artistic heyday in the 13th century. The liturgical use of rhymed offices is abolished with the introduction of the »Breviarium Romanum« (Roman Breviary) following the Council of Trent (1545-1563) in 1570.
In relation to the Karlsoffizium »Regali natus«, this regulation does not affect Aachen because the Feast of Charlemagne is not registered in the liturgical Roman Calendar of Saints. The city is an early centre of the rhymed office art form. The oldest example of the rhymed office created to venerate Charlemagne after his canonisation (1165) including the Karlshymnus (Charlemagne Hymn) »O rex, orbis triumphator« is to be found in the so-called »Antiphonary of Franco« (Ms. G 20), which is now in the Aachen Cathedral archives. An antiphonary (or antiphonal) contains the chants of the Divine Office. The precious manuscript dates back to the second half of the 13th century and is probably donated by Magister Franco, who according to a book of the dead from the Aachen Church of St. Mary died on 10th May 1318. The manuscript presents the liturgical music of Aachen in »Hufnagel«-notation with elaborate initials and characters. The »Hufnagel«-notation is named after the stylised horseshoe nail-shaped notes or neums that develop when annotating the Gregorian Chant – particularly in the Netherlands and Germany during the Gothic period. The manuscript is a magnificent witness to the flourishing culture of what is incorrectly denoted as the »dark« Middle Ages.
How musical criteria show, the Karlsoffizium »Regali natus« is created in the final quarter of the 12th century in Aachen. The creators of the text and music are unknown. In terms of its language and music, it may be counted as one of the artistically most important examples of rhymed office. As it is a biographical office, it can also be characterised as a »Historia rhythmica«: the first and second Vespers form the framework depicting Charlemagne’s path through life. His character and deeds are the theme of the intermediate liturgical hours, justifying his presence as a saint in heaven. The Karlsoffizium draws its strength from the hagiography written anonymously probably in Aachen relating to the canonisation of Charlemagne with the title »De sanctitate meritorum et gloria miraculorum beati Karoli magni ad honorem et laudem nominis Dei« - »On the holiness of the merits and the glory of the miracles of St. Charlemagne for the honour and praise of the name of God«. The legends and miracles woven around the person of Charlemagne described here are depicted on the roof relief of the 1215 Shrine of Charlemagne in Aachen Cathedral in great detail.
The Karlsoffizium is sung at that time in Aachen at all feasts of the Münster, at the church consecration and at Feasts of St. Mary’s. Its dissemination coincides with the area of Charlemagne’s veneration. In Aachen, it is identified in an antiphonary of the Münster as late as 1778. It only fell into disuse in the era of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). Other important areas of the veneration of Charlemagne were or are the following dioceses and locations: Basle, Bremen, Bruges, Frankfurt am Main, Halberstadt, Hildesheim, Cologne, Carniola, Liège, Mainz, Metz, Minden, Münster, Osnabrück, Paderborn and Tournai. Apart from Aachen, manuscripts containing both the Karlsoffizium and the Karlsmesse (together with the Karlssequenz) are to be found in Andernach, Basle, Brno, Brussels, Charleville, Einsiedeln, Frankfurt am Main, Gars, Gerona, Halle, Cologne, Lübeck, Maastricht, Metten, Minden, Münster, Passau, Sion, Zurich and elsewhere. Although a centre to venerate Charlemagne develops in Saint-Denis near Paris from as early as the 11th century, the dissemination of the Karlsoffizium in France did not occur until much later. There King Louis XI (1423-1483) introduces the veneration of Charlemagne in the 15th century. From then until the French Revolution, the 28th January was a feast day. In the Spanish city of Gerona, the Karlsoffizium is sung since 1345 and remains in use there until the Council of Trent. Cistercian and Benedictine monks also hand down the Karlsoffizium.
Text: © Dr. Michael Tunger 2013
Photo: © Michael McGrade, Hudson MA: Aachen, Domarchiv, Handschrift G 20, f. 25r: Karlsoffizium »Regali natus«