Carmina Burana

Cantiones Profanae, Carl Orff

Carl Orff (1895-1982) was one of the most compelling twentieth century musical educators and composers. In a fit of personal criticism in 1935, he tossed out almost everything he had composed up to that point, and dedicated himself to finding new forms of expression and a new orientation.  The Romantic and Classical period had “run their course” in his mind, and it was time to begin anew.  Orff found his new niche in music which relied heavily on plainchants, repetitive rhythmic forces, blazing orchestration, encapsulated in a wild neo-primitivism. All of these came to roost in Carmina Burana.

Throughout the 10th to 13th centuries groups of vagabond hobo poets, defrocked clergy, and drop-out students   roamed throughout Europe and were known as Goliards or Vagabonds. Compared to the elegant, elevated poetry of troubadours and minnesingers, the vagabonds/goliards spoke in earthy, explicit, language from a cynical, irreverent perspective. Their personal lifestyle was filled with gambling, drinking, vices of many sorts, thievery and begging, social/religious criticism, and commitment to “the free life,” all of which was duly recorded in their writings (verbal and musical).

Carmina Burana (Songs of Beuren) is based on a collection of 13th century Goliardic poems and songs found in a manuscript at the Monastery Benediktbeuren, located approximately 50 miles southwest of Munich) in 1803. (Some believe that the manuscript came from Seckau.) These 250 poems/songs/ and tiny plays addressed corruption of the clergy, fate and its fickle nature, and also included lusty love songs, drinking and gaming songs, written both in Latin and the vernacular.

In 1935 Carl Orff read the collection as compiled by Johann Andrea Schmeller in 1847, and he decided to use the texts in the first section of a contemplated trilogy of cantatas titled Carmina Burana, Catulli Carmina, Trionfo di Afrodite. By 1936 Orff finished the first part, and Carmina Burana premiered in Frankfort Germany on June 8, 1937.  The American premier followed many years later in San Francisco on October 3, 1954.  One of the reviews assessed that the cantata was “one of the most vivid, picturesque, and richly tuneful choral pieces of modern times”; Olin Downs wrote that Carmina Burana was “one of the most fascinating and delightful choral works that this century has produced on either side of the water.”

There are three parts in the cantata.  These are flanked by a large introduction and conclusion dominated by a brutal, controlling ostinato (repeating) figure and a text which speaks of fickle, perpetual, determinative Fate. The three subsequent sections are Springtime (discussing the joys of the season), In the Tavern (discussing the fun of drinking and gambling), and The Court of Love (hedonistic and sensual commentaries on physical love.) Rhythm, expressed through a vastly expanded percussion section (five percussionists are required) rides herd over lyricism and harmony in fierce, hypnotic, pounding structures. Grove’s Dictionary characterizes Carmina Burana as “music of powerful pagan sensuality and direct physical excitement.”

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

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