Christus Vincit! Music for the feast of 
Christ the King (Part 2 of 2)

Guest Article by Thomas Neal

In Part 1, I examined how the texts of the Proper of the Mass on the newly instituted feast of Christ the King were incorporated into the Gregorian repertory. In the second part, I would like to explore how this comparatively modern feast has provided a new context for an ancient chant: the Laudes Regiae (‘Royal Praises’). While readers may have encountered these well-known acclamations in processions, pilgrimages, and other devotions throughout the liturgical year, the words of the refrain— Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat! (“Christ conquers! Christ reigns! Christ commands!”)—make it especially appropriate for the feast of Christ the King.

Both the text and chant melody of the Laudes regiae have a long and complex history. The oldest version of the text is found in a Frankish manuscript dating from around 796–800. The text comprises the now-famous refrain alongside various titles and acclamations for the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, each introduced with the words Exaudi Christe (‘Hear, O Christ!’). After the named dignitary follows a list of saints, with the response tu illum adjuva (‘to him [the Pope, Emperor, etc.] give help’). A series of petitions addressed to Our Lord as ‘King of Kings’, each followed with the Christus Vincit refrain. The text finishes with a series of salutations including the ancient imperial acclamation multos annos (‘many years!’ or ‘long life!’). It seems likely that the original Laudes Regiae were destined for Charlemagne (748–814) and that the texts were subsequently adapted for kings, bishops, and popes. We can only speculate as to the original performance context, but some early manuscripts suggest it may have been sung on important feast days including Easter and Pentecost.

The earliest notated sources of the melody (or versions of it) can be found in tenth-century manuscripts, including some of the earliest sources of Western liturgical chant. (The earliest surviving source of any Western chant is thought to be the Graduale of Laon, which dates from the 930s.) As with most of the chant repertory, it can be safely assumed that the melody had been known and transmitted for many centuries before the invention of musical notation enabled transcription. But the musical characteristics of the earliest notated version make it difficult to place: stylistically, it does not fit easily within Roman chant (although there are some similarities with the lection tones), so it may be the result of a Frankish adaption of a chant or tone from another tradition—either Gallican, Visigoth, or even Byzantine.

Here is a performance of the Laudes Regiae using both the chant melody and a variety of organum techniques.

Despite its antiquity and cultural significance, the Laudes Regiae has received little attention from composers. Among the vast corpus of Renaissance polyphony, only Jean Mouton (c.1459-1522) and Mathieu Gascogne (d.1529) are known to have composed settings of the Laudes Regiae. Both motets are thought to have connections to regal patronage: Mouton composed his setting to commemorate the election of Pope Leo X in 1513, while Gascogne’s appears to have been created for the coronation of King Francis I of France in 1515. In the early sixteenth century, then, the text retained a close association with worldly authority.

At least two settings of the text were composed in France during the nineteenth century. The first was by the priest-composer Auguste Chérion (1854-1904) which was published posthumously in 1931. The second is a far more impressive setting, composed in 1886 by the great organiste titulaire of La Trinité in Paris, Alexandre Guilmant (1937–1911). A copy of the first edition can be downloaded here. Guilmant composed his Laudes Regiae on a grand scale: it is scored for large chorus, symphony orchestra, and organ—although it can easily be performed as a work for choir and organ, and is easily accessible to good amateur choirs. The first performance took place in Rouen Cathedral on 1 June 1886, during a solemn feast in honour of St. Joan of Arc.

Two twentieth-century settings deserve special mention. The first is for solo organ: the fifth and final movement of the Suite Médiévale of 1947 by Jean Langlais (1907–1991). The work is a set of free variations on motifs from the chant melody, particularly the refrain, and makes for an extremely effective recessional or postlude after the festal Mass.


The second twentieth-century setting comes from the U.K.’s foremost living Catholic composer, Sir James MacMillan (b.1959), and was composed in 1994 for St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, London. Paul Spicer wrote of the work: “The anthem starts from the sopranos and works its way to the basses in plainsong-like phrases that are punctuated by moments of silence–or time for a period of reverberation to subside. 

MacMillan’s love of the vocal cadenza with its melismatic freedom and characteristic ornamentation is here given to a soprano (or treble) solo. The final Alleluias are wonderfully rich, linearly interacting between the voices, and giving way to the soprano solo who culminates twice on high Bs (piano!), left floating magically in space.”

With so few settings of the Laudes Regiae in the repertoire, it would be wonderful to see more contemporary composers take up the challenge of setting this fascinating and important text.

In the third and final part of this series, I will explore other polyphonic works suitable for the Mass of Christ the King.


If you would like to read about the Laudes regiae in more detail, I would recommend the three sources which I used for this short article: E.J. Cowdrey, ‘The Anglo-Norman Laudes regiae,’ Viator 12 (1981), pp. 37–78.

E. H. Kantorowicz, Laudes regiae: a study in medieval ruler worship and liturgical acclamations (Berkeley, 1946)

Richard L. Crocker, ‘Laudes regiae,’ Grove Music Online.

Thomas Neal took his BA and MPhil degrees in Music from Clare College, Cambridge, where he was John Stewart of Rannoch Scholar in Sacred Music. He has since developed a career in education and in 2018 was appointed Director of Music at New College School, Oxford. Thomas has researched and written widely on music and culture in sixteenth-century Rome, with a particular interest in the life and works of Giovanni Pierluigi 'da Palestrina'; he is currently researching a biography of the composer and compiling a new catalogue raisonné. Thomas is also active as a conductor and keyboardist. He lives in Oxford with his wife and son.

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