Carolingian Music

The Carolingian Empire came into being during the reign of the Frankish ruler Charlemagne. Charlemagne ascended to the Frankish throne in late 8th century and launched a long campaign to expand his kingdom’s frontiers, forging a vast Empire by 800.

It was during his reign that the Carolingian Empire experience a Renaissance in terms of literacy, musical development and access to classical literature. Charlemagne himself directly patronised the development of different arts and was very keen on establishing standards for church music throughout his Empire.

It was largely thanks to his efforts that music began a permanent part of church service throughout Western Europe. Since the Carolingian era was the early period of musical development in Western Europe following the Roman decline, music produced in the period was solely religious in nature and associated with the Church.

Patronisation of Church Music

Charlemagne’s predecessors had ascended the Frankish throne with the direct support of the Church and Charlemagne continued to actively support the Church throughout his reign. In 774, Charlemagne visited the Pope in Rome and requested two papal singers who were to impart the knowledge of ecclesiastical singing in different monasteries across the Carolingian Empire.

Charlemagne’s father, Pepin, abolished the Gallican chant while Charlemagne strove to abolish the Ambrosian chant in Italian regions, aiming to establish the standardised Roman chant across all of Western Europe. He was successful in establishing the Cantus Romanus as the chief chant throughout most of his Empire through imperial decrees.

Important Facts about Carolingian Music:

  • Carolingian music was produced from the second half of the 8th century until the second half of the 9th century.
  • Carolingian ruler, Charlemagne, was a great patron of church music. He helped in standardising religious chants across the churches of Western Europe.
  • Charlemagne also played an important role in the preservation of early medieval and pre-medieval manuscripts about music.
  • Roman chant, later called Gregorian chant, was established as the standard religious chant throughout Western Europe during the Carolingian reign.
  • Charlemagne borrowed singers from the Papacy in Rome to enable his own singers to learn from them.

Music Theory

Texts of significant importance and technical knowledge about music had already been penned down in early medieval period by church elders. Charlemagne sought to revive this knowledge alongside the classical literature. Through royal decrees, he made it incumbent upon the sons of the noblemen in his Empire to educate their sons in a wide range of subjects including music theory.

He also supported monasteries extensively, encouraging them to copy and preserve the valuable treatises on music theory from the preceding centuries. A rudimentary form of music notation also developed during Charlemagne’s era when he asked the church musicians in Metz to preserve the singing style of Roman singers. Charlemagne’s efforts shaped the course of musical developments not only in his Empire but in the Christendom for a millennium to come.

Music Manuscripts in Carolingian Empire

It was during the Carolingian Empire, since the fall of the Western Roman Empire, that a serious effort was launched to preserve manuscripts about music written in the past. By the time of Charlemagne’s reign, valuable treatises on music had already been penned such as the “Arithmetica and Musica” by Boethius and “Ars Grammatica” by Donatus.

Monks in the monasteries established through the Carolingian Empire diligently set to make copies of these important manuscripts. The manuscripts were then used for teaching music theory and practice not only in church schools but also in public schools and schools associated with the monasteries. During this period, Carolingian teachers of music also penned down a number of commentaries to complement the original text of the manuscripts. The purpose of these commentaries was to make music literature accessible and understandable to the students.

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