Carmina Burana

I first fell in love with Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in the spring of 2001. I was taking a seminar on medieval German literature, and our professor brought in a CD player one day. Without saying a word, he pressed play, and out blasted “O, Fortuna!” It was thrilling, and at the end he beamed around the room and said, “Aren’t you ready to go fight something now?” We all yelled “Yeah!” (or perhaps, “ja!”)

Most of you would probably recognize “O Fortuna” when you heard it, whether you knew that’s what it is or not; it is often used in commercials and movie soundtracks and is one of the most dramatic choral passages I know of. Unlike most choral works I am familiar with, though, Carmina Burana was not written as a mass or other form of sacred music. No, this is one of the bawdiest pieces of classical music out there, but since no one can understand the words it usually passes muster without anyone batting an eyelash.

The words Orff used come from a series of writings by medieval monks about to enter the monastery who wrote about all the worldly pleasures they were about to give up: drinking, gambling, lust, love and romance. The piece begins with a section bemoaning and berating fickle fortune, then a section celebrating spring, followed by the rowdiest section, called In Taberna (In the Tavern). This is followed by the Cours d’amours (Court of Love), about lust and romance, and then the piece comes full circle back to fickle fortune, repeating the first movement (a little bit louder and a little bit worse….)

Despite the medieval text, Orff was actually a twentieth century composer, and Carmina Burana was first staged in Frankfurt in 1937. The premiere was a huge success, prompting Orff to write to his publishers: “Everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately, printed, can be destroyed. With Carmina Burana my collected works begin.”

It is impossible to stage Carmina Burana without the stage looking (and being) crowded. I once saw a performance in London where the stage was so packed with orchestra, tympani, two pianos, choir, children’s choir and soloists, that there was no room for the tenor – he emerged from a little door midway up the back of the stage, sang his piece, and disappeared again.

Ever since that first hearing of “O Fortuna” I have wanted to sing this piece, and last week my dream finally came true with the Southern Illinois Choral Union and Wind Ensemble. It was not a perfect performance, but they never are, are they? Rehearsals were mostly a lot of fun. It’s the first piece I’ve sung in awhile where most of the notes weren’t too hard to find, but the words are almost impossible to spit out correctly, so we got a lot of diction lectures. In the end, I suspect we were probably more loud than accurate, but we couldn’t hear ourselves over the trumpets, so it’s hard to say. I found the performance particularly exciting since I got to stand directly behind the tympani, which was the best seat in the house as far as I was concerned.

I’m not entirely sure what the point of this post is, other than to share something that has consumed much of the last several months of my life. But next time you need a rousing call to arms (even if that’s not actually what the words are about) you know where to go.

–Posted by Ann

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3 Responses to Carmina Burana

  1. TheGnat says:

    “No, this is one of the bawdiest pieces of classical music out there, but since no one can understand the words it usually passes muster without anyone batting an eyelash.”

    I know two people who in elementary school sang Carmina Burana as part of their school choir. Admittedly, their school was http://www.willowwind.org/ , one of those effective but kinda nutty private schools.

  2. akdmyers says:

    Parts of Carmina Burana were actually written specifically for children’s choir; I guess it’s a good thing that kids these days don’t learn Latin?

  3. TheGnat says:

    Oh no, the kids at Willowind learn latin….but their parents don’t! 😄

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