Random YouTubery: Carl Orff's Carmina Burana (1935-36)

The last time I posted a symphony YouTubery, several singers started reminiscing in comments about Carmina Burana. This past weekend, the Pittsburgh Symphony performed Carmina Burana with the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, directed by Betsy Burleigh.

We were way up in the gallery at Heinz Hall . That's the best place to be for a choral concert; the sound is amazing and the gallery is filled with student groups from local universities. Carmina Burana is enormously popular and students up in the gallery (some in matching jackets) were actually singing along.

From the program notes by Mark Rohr (with my added hyperlinks):

Carl Orff’s reputation as a composer derives from a mere twelve works. He wrote many more than that, but with Carmina Burana he changed his methods of composition so radically that he disavowed all his previous music. “Everything I have written to date,” he wrote his publisher, “and which you have unfortunately printed, can be destroyed. With Carmina Burana, my collected works begin.”

Actually, Orff’s name would still be known among musicians and music educators even if he had never composed a note. Orff believed that even very young children had latent musical abilities. By the 1930s he had developed a system that combined movement and dance with musical improvisation on simple pitched percussion instruments. His methods were so effective that his ideas still inform early-childhood music education today.

Those ideas seem to have changed his approach to composition, too. He simplified his music greatly, and came to believe that for music to have the maximum impact it must be part of a theatrical presentation including the spoken word, singing, movement, and dance. When he first encountered the poems of Carmina Burana, he saw his chance to put his new theories about composition into effect.

Carmina Burana means “Songs of Beuren,” and refers to a 13th-century manuscript discovered in the Benedictine abbey of Benediktbeuern in 1803 and published in 1847. It is a collection of some 250 poems left by the goliards, itinerant clerics and scholars who rejected what the church had become and concerned themselves instead with earthly delights. Today we might call them college dropouts.

The poems are mostly in Latin, the international language of the day, but some are in medieval German and old French as well. Their subject matter is wide-ranging, with particular emphasis on eating, drinking, gambling, and love-making, all peppered with a lively distrust of authority. The theme that binds them together is fortune, that mysterious force that may lift us to great heights one moment only to dash us to the ground the next.

In fact it was the manuscript’s cover, with its depiction of the goddess Fortuna standing with her wheel of Fate, that inspired Orff to read on and ultimately compose this work. Orff creates a cover to his own book by beginning and ending Carmina Burana with the dramatic chorus “O Fortuna,” a mesmerizing lament on how the “whirling wheel” of Fortune is invariably fickle.

There are a lot of poor-quality Carmina Burana videos on YouTube. That doesn't surprise me, as I saw several amateur cell-phone video producers in Heinz Hall this weekend. I did manage to find a couple of decent excerpts (lyrics for The Roast Swan and O Fortune are below the fold in Latin and English):

Monteverdichor Würzburg singing parts 11-13. Part 12, The Roast Swan, begins around 3:00

Ave Formosissima and O Fortuna (finale) performed by the Carl Orff Orchestra Stadtkapelle Tulln with conductor Hans-Peter Manse

Lyrics for the entire work are available at Classical Net.

12. Cignus ustus cantat (The Roast Swan)

Olim lacus colueram,     Once I lived on lakes,
olim pulcher extiteram,     once I looked beautiful
dum cignus ego fueram.     when I was a swan.
(Male chorus)
Miser, miser!     Misery me!
modo niger     Now black
et ustus fortiter!     and roasting fiercely!
Girat, regirat garcifer;     The servant is turning me on the spit;
me rogus urit fortiter;     I am burning fiercely on the pyre:
propinat me nunc dapifer,     the steward now serves me up.
(Male Chorus)
Miser, miser!     Misery me!
modo niger     Now black
et ustus fortiter!     and roasting fiercely!
Nunc in scutella iaceo,     Now I lie on a plate,
et volitare nequeo     and cannot fly anymore,
dentes frendentes video:     I see bared teeth:
(Male Chorus)
Miser, miser!     Misery me!
modo niger     Now black
et ustus fortiter!     and roasting fiercely!

25. O Fortuna (O Fortune)

O Fortuna,     O Fortune,
velut luna     like the moon
statu variabilis,     you are changeable,
semper crescis     ever waxing
aut decrescis;     and waning;
vita detestabilis     hateful life
nunc obdurat     first oppresses
et tunc curat     and then soothes
ludo mentis aciem,     as fancy takes it;
egestatem,     poverty
potestatem     and power
dissolvit ut glaciem.     it melts them like ice.

Sors immanis     Fate - monstrous
et inanis,     and empty,
rota tu volubilis,     you whirling wheel,
status malus,     you are malevolent,
vana salus     well-being is in vain
semper dissolubilis,     and always fades to nothing,
obumbrata     shadowed
et velata     and veiled
michi quoque niteris;     you plague me too;
nunc per ludum     now through the game
dorsum nudum     I bring my bare back
fero tui sceleris.     to your villainy.

Sors salutis     Fate is against me
et virtutis     in health
michi nunc contraria,     and virtue,
est affectus     driven on
et defectus     and weighted down,
semper in angaria.     always enslaved.
Hac in hora     So at this hour
sine mora     without delay
corde pulsum tangite;     pluck the vibrating strings;
quod per sortem     since Fate
sternit fortem,     strikes down the strong man,
mecum omnes plangite!     everybody weep with me!

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