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ClassicsOnline Home » ORFF: Carmina Burana
With its mixture of funny, bawdy and hedonistic texts taken from anonymous poets of the Middle Ages, twentieth century German composer Carl Orff created in Carmina Burana a choral work of powerful pagan sensuality and direct physical excitement. The pulsating rhythms, colourful orchestration and dynamic choruses, contrasted with moments of sensuous innocence, have taken Carmina Burana into the world of ‘pop classics’. The work has also provided the backdrop for countless international television adverts, and for the films Excalibur, Natural Born Killers and Badlands.
By Chris Waddington
The Times-Picayune (Nola.com)
By Jonathan Woolf
Carl Orff (1895–1982)
Carl Orff was born in 1895 in Munich, where he studied at the Academy of Music, later occupying positions as director of music at the Munich Kammerspiele, the Mannheim Nationaltheater and the Landestheater at Darmstadt. In 1919 he returned to Munich and five years later established with Dorothee Günther the Güntherschule for gymnastics, music and dance. The result was his influential Schulwerk, which has had a marked effect on the teaching of music, with the use of tuned percussion instruments, ostinato rhythms and creative aims, associated with physical movement.
It was Orff's work as conductor of the Munich Bach Society from 1930 to 1935 that led to the composition of his best known work, Carmina Burana, a setting of secular medieval Latin, French and Middle High German poems from a manuscript preserved originally in the Bavarian Abbey of Benediktbeuren. Intended as a stage cantata, the work marked a new beginning for Orff as a composer, and his later compositions explored still further this very characteristic form of Gesamtkunstwerk, drawing on a variety of sources, from ancient Greece to medieval Europe.
The texts that Orff chose to set in Carmina Burana were drawn from a manuscript now dated to the late thirteenth century, one of the most extensive and remarkable collections of medieval Latin poems, mingled with French and German (this last group in Bavarian dialect) confirming their local origin. Perhaps copied at the Abbey itself, the ordered collection is of variable literary merit and scribal accuracy, but always of considerable interest in its reflection of the tastes of the time, particularly in the tendency towards the secular. The power that lies behind the music of Carmina Burana is primitive, even barbarous. Insistent rhythms, ostinato repetitions and a complete avoidance of chromatic or atonal musical idioms, make the work compelling, unforgettable and physically attractive in its simple energy and strength. It was first staged in Frankfurt am Main in 1937.
Framed by a prologue and epilogue, the portentous setting of O Fortuna, a poem that conventionally laments the fickleness of Fortune and the wheel that turns, taking kings to beggary, Orff's Carmina Burana is divided into three principal sections. The first of these celebrates the joys of spring, the second is in the tavern, with drinking and dicing, and the third is devoted to love. The orchestra used has a large percussion section, including five timpani, three glockenspiel, xylophone, castanets, ratchet, sleigh bells, triangle, small cymbals, four cymbals, including a suspended cymbal, tamtam, three bells, tubular bells, tambourine, two side-drums and bass drum, with a celesta and two pianos. The principal soloists are a soprano, tenor and baritone with a chorus, semi-chorus and boys' chorus. String parts are often percussive in character and the compelling rhythms are notated in such a way as to give the impression of considerable freedom.
The scene is set for spring, with the semi-chorus Veris leta facies in characteristic rhythm, accompanied by sustained notes from the upper woodwind and celesta and followed by the baritone welcome to the warmth of the sun, accompanied by sustained notes and harmonics from the strings. Bells and glockenspiel usher in the full chorus in further celebration. The second part of the section devoted to spring, Uf dem anger (On the Green), starts with a vigorous dance in asymmetrical rhythm, the burden of which passes from the strings to the wind. There is contrast between chorus and semi-chorus in the setting of Floret silva nobilis. The sopranos of the latter introduce the words of the first German poem, Mary Magdalene's song, with the full chorus adding intervening passages that are hummed. Muted strings introduce a Round Dance, followed by the plucked notes of the violins that start Swaz hie gat umbe, with the semi-chorus adding its seductive Chume, chum, geselle min, before the first verse returns. Trumpets and trombones lead to the final Were diu werlt alle min.
Insistent dotted rhythms in the repeated pattern of the string accompaniment support the baritone solo that opens the tavern scene, while the ironic lament of the roasted swan, introduced by a bassoon, allows the tenor, shadowed by a muted trumpet, to ascend to the highest register. Ego sum abbas gives the baritone initial freedom, his song punctuated by muted brass and percussion. The chorus ends the section with In taberna quando sumus, continuing the common topic of such verses, the predictable effects of gambling, as the gambler loses the shirt off his back. The drinkers' litany starts in music-hall style, ending in a final shout.
Cours d'amour opens tenderly, with the voices of children leading to the mock innocence of the soprano solo. Syncopated string writing introduces the following baritone solo, Dies, nox et omnia, with its interpolated French words allowing more extravagant ornamentation in a higher register. Stetit puella is entrusted to the soprano soloist and the rhythm changes for the baritone Circa mea pectora, echoed by the chorus, before the energetic Mandaliet. Male voices alone, in an Allegro buffo, offer Si puer cum puellula in a six-part texture. This is followed by a double-chorus setting of Veni, veni, venias, accompanied by the two pianos and percussion. A measure of serenity is restored for the soprano In trutina, marked molto amoroso and echoed gently by two flutes. Joy is unconfined in the vigorous choral Tempus est iocundum, with its use of contrasting solo verses and verses for boys' voices. The following soprano Dulcissime, accompanied by a sustained note on muted lower strings, is delivered with complete and appropriate abandon and the section ends with the monumental hymn-like praise of the heroines Blanchefleur and Helen. This leads without a pause to the ominous return of O Fortuna, with which the work had begun.
Sung texts with English translations are available at www.naxos.com/libretti/570033.htm
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ORFF: Carmina Burana