O Fortuna! The crashing opening chords of Carmina Burana are enough to make a listener tremble in their seat. DiscMuseum takes you beyond the worldwide success of this monumental work, uncovering the secrets of a musical sensation that is more mysterious than it appears. Let’s reveal the hidden face of a unique and fascinating work.
A 700-year-old manuscript
Carmina Burana is above all a story of love at first sight, namely German composer Carl Orff’s instant infatuation with a collection of medieval poems that he chanced upon in an antiquary in 1934. They were most certainly written by goliards: young and impoverished clergy who travelled around Europe writing drinking songs, romantic ballads satirical songs about the Church and exhortations. Their output was extensive and mostly anonymous, and flourished throughout the 18th century; the ‘Songs from Beuern’ themselves were written in Latin, High German and Old French, between 1220 and 1250.
Of the 315 profane songs contained in the Codex Buranus, Orff chose just 24, organising them into five sections in what he called a “scenic cantata”. They covered themes such as the joys and pains of love, the beauty of nature in springtime, and drinking’s guilty pleasures.
The Wheel of Fortune from Codex Buranus (Carmina Burana)
A composer brought to light
When the work was first performed in Frankfurt on 8 July 1937, Carl Orff was not widely known. The conductor and great educator had opened a school in 1924 dedicated to teaching dance and music, where he applied Orff-Schulwerk, his own method for teaching music based on intuition, playing and improvisation. He was passionate about the Renaissance, and transcribed several of Monteverdi’s works, a project he would later describe as an important influence for his later compositions.
Carmina Burana marked a real turning point in Carl Orff’s life and work. It was not a transcription of medieval melodies, but a truly original creation, signalling the birth of a new musical and theatrical language for this composer in his forties. A few days after the premiere’s roaring success, he asked his publisher to kindly destroy anything he might have written before.
The work had a profound effect on Jacques Prévert, who met the composer in Paris in 1963, and went so far as to write a poetic tribute, also called “Carmina Burana”!
From that point on, theatre and literature remained his main sources of inspiration, as is evident from titles such as “Œdipus the Tyrant”, “Antigone”, “The Moon” (based on a tale by the Brothers Grimm) and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
Aquatint of Carl Orff
The double-edged sword of success
People are often unaware that Carmina Burana is part of a trilogy of cantatas called Trionfi – Trittico teatrale. The other 2 cantatas are Catulli Carmina (Songs of Catullus) and Trionfo di Afrodite (Aphrodite’s Triumph). These “triumphs” are none other than the triumphs of love, and are largely drawn from poems by the Roman poet Catullus and the Greek poetess Sappho. These are not operas but scenic cantatas: rather than using one plot, with a beginning and an end, they are structured around a series of musical tableaus, some very short, in which the ancient or medieval language takes priority over traditional plot development. “As ever, my musical style took its cue from the words”, said Carl Off.
It has to be said that even within Carmina Burana itself, the most famous movement O Fortuna, which bookends the cantata, steals the show from the rest of movements! Fortuna is the Roman goddess of fate, “empress of the world”, traditionally depicted with a wheel that symbolises the cyclical nature of life and its fleeting pleasures.
With the masterpiece that is Carmina Burana, Carl Orff turned his back on the modernist movements of his time, instead creating a canon that was both easily identifiable and highly original. Its rich rhythms and harmonies, elegiac texts and sheer life force conjure a huge, primitivistic epic just waiting to be (re)discovered!