Carmina Burana: The Big Mac of Classical Music?

By Friesen, Eric | Queen's Quarterly, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Carmina Burana: The Big Mac of Classical Music?


Friesen, Eric, Queen's Quarterly


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... love, lust, the pleasures of drinking and the heightened moods evoked by springtime. These primitive and persistently relevant themes are nicely camouflaged by the Latin and old German texts, so the listener can actually feign ignorance while listening to virtually X-rated lyrics. (Veni Veni Venias! Come, come, come now!)

MARIN ALSOP, Music Director, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

ONE of the most deliciously subversive pieces of classical music l know is Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, and my mind often turns to it as our Canadian winter finally breaks off into a hesitant spring. Carmina is, among other things, a raucously joyful, lusty celebration of spring, and for years I would highlight the best of the rhythmically ecstatic spring choruses on my radio programs. But my most memorable personal experience with this piece goes back to an evening in April 1993, when I hosted a live national broadcast of Carmina on NPR stations across the US, with the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minnesota Chorale conducted by Edo de Waart.

Before I tell that story, however, a brief primer on Carmina. It's a setting of medieval poems known as Carmina Burana, Latin for Songs from Beuern, from a collection found in the Benedictine monastery of Benediktbeuern, near Munich. The poems were written in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by students and clergy known as Goliards, who satirized and mocked the Catholic Church, mostly in Medieval Latin, but also in Middle High German and Provencal French. In the mid 1930s the German composer Carl Orff selected 24 poems from the larger collection of 254 and set them to music. The work had its premiere in Iune 1937, at the Frankfurt Opera, and despite some early criticisms by Nazi authorities (one review in the Volkischer Beobachter described it as "bayerische Niggermusik") the regime ultimately conceded Carmina's immense popularity and gave it and Orff official support.

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Carmina is not without controversy. Anything that was popular in Hitler's Germany comes under suspicion, and both Orff and his work certainly have. While Orff was never a party member, he was also not a resister to the regime (despite his efforts to cast himself as such after the war) and benefited from its blessing. He is best described as one of those whose response to totalitarian regimes is in Primo Levi's "grey zone," a zone between resistance and compromise, one who got along with the authorities. (For more on Orff during the Nazi period, read Canadian historian Michael H. Kater's Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits.)

Despite the shadier aspects of Orff's character and actions, none of it has detracted from the ongoing popularity of Carmina. The music is instantly appealing: powerful, pulsating rhythms; huge forces (a chorus of 200, an orchestra of 100, and 3 soloists); inspired melodies; theatrical in effect; full of send-up humour; and a simple, direct musical language. There are parallels with early Stravinsky (Carmina is most like Stravinsky's ballet cantata Les Noces), but Orff's music is less complex and more approachable. Above all, it is a gas to sing, to play, and to conduct, and audiences love it. I count at least 50 interpretations of Carmina still available on CD.

ORFF called his work a "scenic cantata," bur given its hour length and scope, it's probably closer to oratorio. Carmina opens and closes with its most famous chorus, "O Fortuna" ("O Fortune" an ominous warning about the fickleness of Fate ("... like the moon you are changeable, ever waxing and waning"), a chorus that has been used endlessly in movies and TV commercials. In between comes the celebration, in three parts. Part One, "Primo vere--Uf dem Anger" ("Springtime--On the Green"), begins with a hushed dawning-of-spring chorus, followed by several more including my favourite, "Floret silva nobilis" ("The noble woods are burgeoning"). The focus shifts from a young woman on the make ("Shopkeeper, give me colour to make my cheeks red so that I can make the young men love me against their will") to a young man pining for those "sweet rose-red lips to come and make me better," and a fantasy about bedding the Queen of England. …

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