Charlemagne’s Empire and His Music

Karl the Great was an enthusiastic lover of Church music and he sometimes acted as choir master in his own chapel. He founded schools of music in France and throughout Germany at Metz, Fulda, Mayence, Treves, Reichenau and elsewhere. He sent for trained singers from the famous Rome choirs to manage the institutions. Some scholars set music to the works of classical poets such as Horace, Virgil and others. The ancient Germans had unwritten poetry consisting of hymns in honor of gods and the deeds of heroes, sung in chorus on solemn occasions accompanied by dancing or sung by minstrels for nobles.

Of all national epics, the Nibelungen saga, where in legend Siegfried’s death combined with the Hun invasion and destruction of the Burgundians, became the most famous and spread to all Germanic tribes. Almost none of this pagan poetry has survived and Charlemagne’s collection vanished. The Merseburger Zaubersprüche, two songs of enchantment preserved in a manuscript of the tenth century, and the Hildebrandslied are all that remains. The Merseburger Zaubersprüche is in several forms, having been popular through the centuries.

Die Merseburger Zaubersprüche are two High German medieval incantations or spells, and the only preserved examples of written pre-Christian Germanic pagan belief. Georg Waitz discovered them in a 9th or 10th century theological manuscript in Fulda in 1841. It is in two parts: a foreword telling the story and the actual spell itself in its magical form: “just as it was before... so shall it also be now.” The end rhymes developed into a Christian verse of the 9th century. The Grimm brothers published them in 1842. They wrote: “Lying between Leipzig, Halle and Jena, the extensive library of the Cathedral Chapter of Merseburg has often been visited and made use of by scholars. All have passed over a codex which, if they chanced to take it up, appeared to offer only well-known church items, but which now, valued according to its entire content, offers a treasure such that the most famous libraries have nothing to set beside it...”

The first spell is a blessing of release. It describes a number of Valkyrie women being told to free from their shackles the warriors caught during battle. The last two lines contain the magic words “Leap forth from the fetters, escape from the foes” that are intended to release the warriors.

In the second spell, Phol (Balder) is with Odin when Balder’s horse dislocates its foot while riding through the forest. Odin says: “Bone to bone, blood to blood, limb to limb, as if they were glued.” Images from the 5th-6th century show Odin healing a horse.

1. Once the Idisi set forth, to this place and that. Some fastened fetters, Some hindered the horde, Some loosed the bonds from the brave: Leap forth from the fetters, escape from the foes.

2. Phol and Odin rode into the woods. There Balder’s foal sprained its foot. It was charmed by Sinthgunt, her sister Sunna. It was charmed by Frija, her sister Volla.

It was charmed by Odin, as he well knew how: Bone-sprain, like blood-sprain, Like limb-sprain: Bone to bone, blood to blood, Limb to limb, As though they were glued.

Das Hildebrandslied

Discovered around 1715 by Johan Georg von Eckert and assumed to have derived from the monastery of Fulda, the illuminated Das Hildebrandslied is the oldest heroic poem in German literature and tells the story of Hildebrand, a warrior hero, and a tragic tale of an encounter in battle between a son and his father who he does not recognize. It is the only surviving example in German of its genre, and it was written on two leaves of parchment, the first and last in a theological codex. The codex itself was written in the first quarter of the 9th century, with the text of the Hildebrandslied added on the two other leaves.

I have heard tell, that two chosen warriors,
Hildebrand and Hadubrand,
met one another, between two armies.
Father and son, the champions examined their gear,
prepared their armor, and buckled their swords
over their chain mail, before riding out to battle.
Hildebrand, the older and more experienced man,
spoke first, asking, with few words who his father was
and from which family he came.
“Tell me the one, young man, and I’ll know the other,
for I know all great people in this kingdom.”
Hadubrand, the son of Hildebrand, replied:
“Old and wise people who lived long ago
told me that my father’s name was Hildebrand.
My name is Hadubrand.
Long ago he road off into the East with Dietrich,
and his many warriors, fleeing Otacher’s wrath.

He rode off into the East, leaving his wife at home
with a small child, deprived of his inheritance.
Dietrich, a man with but few friends,
came to rely upon my father.
His feud with Otacher grew more intense,
and my father became his best-loved warrior.
He was at the front of every battle,
wanting to be in every duel.
Brave men knew him well.

“With Almighty God in Heaven for a witness,
may you never go to battle against your next of kin.”
And he took from his arm a band of rings,
braided from the emperor’s gold,
which the King of the Huns had given to him.
“I give you this in friendship.”

Hadubrand, the son of Hildebrand, replied:
“A gift should be received with a spear,
point against point.
You are a cunning old Hun,
leading me into a trap with your words,
only to throw your spear at me.
You have grown old by practicing such treachery.
Sailors traveling westward across the Mediterranean Sea
told me that he fell in battle.
Hildebrand, the son of Heribrand, is dead.”
Hildebrand, the son of Heribrand, replied:
“I see from your battle gear
that you have a good master at home,
and that you have never been banished by your prince.

Alas, Lord God, fate has struck.
Sixty times I have seen summer turn to winter
and winter to summer in a foreign land.
I was always placed on the front lines;
I was never killed while storming a fortress,
and now my own child should strike me with his sword
and hit me with his ax, if I don’t kill him first.
But if you have the courage, you can easily
win the armor from an old man like me,
and take away the spoils, if you have any right to them.

Not even the worst of the men from the East
would turn down the chance to fight with you,
with your desire to duel. Cost what it may,
let us see who will boast of this gear
and who will lay claim to these two suits of chain mail.”
Then they let sail their ashen spears,
Sharp showers, sticking in their shields.
They came closer on foot, splitting each other’s bright boards,
striking fiercely until their weapons shattered their shields...

Note: The codex went missing in 1945, looted by a US army officer and sold to a rare book dealer. Once discovered in California, it was returned to Germany in 1955, but greatly damaged. The first sheet, which had been cut out and disfigured to avoid identification, wasn’t found until 1972 in Philadelphia. The manuscript is now home, in the Murhardsche Bibliothek in Kassel.