Inktroductions: Carmina Burana

by Adrian Tan with Ng Yeuk Fan with additional contributions from Isaak Koh & Chia Han-Leon
plus the moral support and gratitude of the Editor.

If I could begin this article the way Carl Orff began his Carmina Burana, I would certainly get your attention.

The famous opening chorus – ‘O Fortuna’ – is surely one the most dramatic and powerful passages of music ever written. Those new to this work will almost certainly react to it with a knowing “Oh! So this is where that loud chanting thing with the huge explosion at the end comes from!”. Frequently used in advertisements, most self-declared couch-potatoes, followers of Arthurian legend and millions of Michael Jackson fans would have heard it before. Despite its instant familiarity, even amongst those less exposed to classical music, this opening sequence prefaces many more musical gems (and falling meteors!) that deserves as much, or maybe even more attention.

“Carmina Burana” translates into “Songs from Benediktbeuern” or more often, but less accurately as “Songs of Beuren”. These secular songs – Cantiones profanae – celebrate “Spring, Tavern-life and love”. The text of these 25 songs are drawn from a manuscript collection containing 200 Medieval poems and songs dating from between 1220 and 1250 in the ancient Styria or South Tyrol. They were found during the 1803 secularisation of the library of the ancient abbey of Beneditbeuern in Upper Bavaria near Munich, where Orff was born.

The poets “called themselves ‘goliards’ (defrocked monks and minstrels). Traditionally they have been identified as ‘vagantes’ (vagrant students, vagabond monks and minor clerics), said to have been ‘better known for their rioting, gambling and intemperance than for their scholarship'” (from Charles Cave’s Carmina Burana page). The expressive concerns of the poetry range from tender love to explicit and highly sensual sexual eroticism, from praising the beauty of nature to the earth shattering assertions of human mortality and the power of fate. The dark humour in the moaning of the Roasted Swan is both chilling and absurdly funny, the irreverance in the lustful “If all the world were mine…I would give it up to have the Queen of England lying in my arms” and Mea mecum ludit virginitas (“my virginity makes me frisky”) highly evocative; these exuberant and uninhibited words find a perfect setting in Carmina Burana.

It is said that around 1847, the court librarian Johann Andreas Schmeller of Munich published an edition based on this writings and this latter version – the Schmeller’s Edition – was the one that Carl Orff came into possession on Maundy Thursday morning of 1934.

The original book was a collection arranged thematically and written in Medieval Latin and High Middle German – comprising diverse themes, it covered religious plays alongside attacks on the decline in moral standards, coupled with songs singing about the sensual, the joys of eating, drinking, gambling, and love. This material so moved the Bavarian Orff – who admitted to having been stirred by the “infectious rhythms and vividness of these poems”, started to set some of these songs to music. So inspired was Orff that within a matter of weeks, the work: Carmina Burana: Secular Songs for soloist and chorus with Accompanying Instruments and Magic Tableux , was playable. It wasn’t however, until much later that it received its first performance on 8th June 1937, at the Frankfurt Opera.

Carl Orff (right) described his music as “total theatre” and in an inscription writes that these are “secular songs for soloists and choruses, accompanied by instruments and magic images”. In that, the dramatic power and theatricality of the music must certainly be a prime consideration in any interpretation. Carmina Burana is in the form of a scenic oratorio or cantata, which is a narrative employing arias, recitatives, choruses and orchestral music. Though it is often presented unstaged in the concert hall (rather like an oratorio), the work was originally intended to be semi-theatrical, complete with dance sequences: hence Orff’s instruction of “Magic Tableux”. (In this way, it is quite similar to Sibelius’ music for Karelia). In recent years, many have choreographed ballets and movement pieces to Orff’s music, giving new life to a piece of antiquity that Orff himself through his music, breathed new life into. Carmina Burana forms the first part of the trilogy Trionfi, the other two (much less often recorded) being Catulli Carmina (“Songs of Catullus”, 1943) and Trionfo di Afrodite (“The Triumph of Aphrodite”, 1951).

Orff’s simple melodies and distinctive pulsing rhythms are often puctuated with points of raw barbaric power. The choral emphasis and melodic invention is sometimes reminiscent of Gregorian plainchant, not surprising considering that Orff was himself a Roman Catholic, though the “pagan” and “blasphemous” lyrics must have shocked many in his faith. The novel orchestration and the massive technical demands gives the work its force and energy. At times, Orff relaxes into beautiful tone paintings which he evocatively sets besides thunderous climaxes. This is certainly a 20th-century masterpiece in a simple “tonal”, “old-fashioned” way that yet manages to break new ground for 20th century music, reminiscent of Stravinsky’s own achievements in Les Noces and Oedipus Rex (though it is probably unfair to compare the two, so vastly different). Amongst other works like Der Mond (“The Moon”, 1937-8) and Der Kluge (“The Clever Girl”, 1941-2), Carmina Burana is the best representative of Orff’s distinctive style. The success of this work certainly made his name in the canon of classical music: “With Carmina Burana, my collected works begin.”

Left: The Wheel of Fortune from the Medieval Scapini Tarot, by Luigi Scapini.

These 24 songs are framed by a monumental appeal underlined by blazing wind, keening strings and booming percussion – the famous chorus ‘O Fortuna’, to the goddess of fate and fortune. This invocation to Fortuna (Fortune, i.e. Lady Luck) conjures up images of the Wheel of Fate dictating that our fortunes are “ever changing as the moon”. This could be seen as a representation of mortality and man’s inability to control destiny, and in the true Bacchaic spirit, mortals should indulge in the many gifts that nature has given mankind.

The secular songs are divided into three sections, revolving about the thematic complexes of Spring, Tavern Life and Love. Each segment is explored in based on songs or themes taken from the collection that fits into the spirit of the thematic complex.

The songs in Part I begin with man’s encounter with nature or the awakening of spring. This section is filled with beautiful pastoral imagery and how nature brings love. The second part, “On the meadow” takes things one step further by introducing a less noble picture of love, that which is more passionate and unrestrained (“Look at me, young men! Let me please you!”). Aptly beginning with a dance in odd metre, the frolicking of lovers is most pituresquely portrayed.

Part II deals with yet another of nature’s gift to mankind – wine, most appropriatelty set “In the Tavern”. The rowdy atmosphere is immediately conjured by a drunk baritone extolling the virtues of the bottle in a personal salute. The “Abbot of Cucany” curses fate in drunken stupor for dealing him an evil hand in stealing away the joys of his life. Gambling and drinking prevail in this Dionysic chaos, ending with a triumphal exclamation to “Let those who disparage us be confounded, and their names be not inscribed with those of the just”, the just being those who indulge in the joys which nature has kindly bestowed on them.

Part III of Carmina Burana centres on the “Court of Love”, which could be read as an exposition of the love affairs of the nobility but surely, the explicit eroticism in the context urges that the sexual passions of man (and woman) should be allowed to be expressed freely (“But I choose what I see…to the sweet yoke I submit”). The section rounds up in praise of Blanzifor and Helena, and to noble Venus, in the glory of love. The Wheel comes full circle, as the work closes with its opening “O Fortuna”, a pertinent reminder of the fickleness of fate and how Beauty, Love, Wine, Nature and Passion are stil ultimately at the mercy of the eternal laws of change.

As one can see clearly, man is portrayed “in an unsentimental light, as the plaything of inscrutable, mysterious forces”. This anti-Romantic attitude characterises the work with an ancient belief that seems to have found new relevance in recent times.

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