Leo Hussain, Conductor
Work composed: 1936
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Carlos Kalmar led the Oregon Symphony on February 7–9, 2016
Instrumentation: soprano, tenor and bass soloists, satb choir, children’s choir, 3 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (one doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, antique cymbals, bass drum, chimes, castanets, cymbals, glockenspiel, ratchet, snare drum, sleigh bells, tam tam, tambourine, triangle, celesta, 2 pianos, and strings.
Estimated duration: 60 minutes
If there is such a thing as the one-hit- wonder category in classical music, Carmina Burana certainly qualifies. Its composer, Carl Orff, wrote a number of other works, both before and after Carmina Burana, and he is also known for his Schulwerke (School works), a collection of music for children, and its accompanying pedagogical method of music education. However, nothing else Orff accomplished in his 87 years comes close to rivaling the fame and staying power of Carmina Burana.
In 1934, Orff first came across a collection of 13th-century poems compiled at the Benedictine monastery in Benediktbeueren, located in Bavaria, near Munich. Carmina Burana (Songs of Beuren) is an eclectic collection of over 200 poems and songs. Their themes range from religious ecstasy to secular love, lust, drunken debauchery, and bawdy humor. Most of the poems are in Church Latin, although some feature a medieval Bavarian Germandialect, and a few poems are in French. Several poems mix the languages together.
In setting these texts, Orff rejected the prevailing styles of German music that dominated the first third of the 20th century. Gone are the sophisticated harmonies, 12-tone rows, esoteric theoretical underpinnings, and profound philosophical subtexts. Instead, Orff wrote strophic songs (melodies which do not develop or change from verse to verse), using basic harmonies derived from major, minor and modal scales. He also emphasized dynamic rhythms and spotlighted the percussion section. Most central of all, Orff chose texts that celebrate primal human experiences.
The 24 texts Orff selected are arranged in three large sections: 1. Primo vere (Spring) and Uf dem Anger (On the Green); 2. In taberna (In the Tavern); and 3. Cour d’Amours (Court of Love). The first section is preceded by Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi (Fortune, Empress of the World), the best-known section of Carmina Burana. The concept of the implacable goddess of Fortune spinning her wheel to determine one’s fate is the central theme of Carmina Burana, a medieval trope on “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” The authors of these poems, whose focus on earthlypleasures borders on the obsessive, were motivated by belief in the capricious, often malevolent, power of Fortune’s wheel to destroy their lives.
Primo vere begins with a trilling figure in the piccolos, flutes, oboes, and pianos, a musical birdcall signaling spring’s awakening. The first three songs focus on the rejuvenation of the earth. They also link the first stirrings of spring with feelings of love and passion, which are also emerging from winter’s long hibernation. The music is spare; in the first song, Veris leta facies, the chorus sings in unison octaves; the second, Omnia Sol temperat, features a baritone soloist and the barest wisps of accompaniment. Only when spring fully bursts forth, in Ecce gratum, do we hear vocal harmonies, accompanied by full orchestra. The subsection Uf dem Anger features a number ofdances, both earthy (Tanz) and refined (Reie). The songs are full of flirtation and seductive promises.
In Taberna both celebrates and decries the effects of alcohol. Estuans interius is an operatic rant for baritone, who declares, “My soul is dead/So I look after the flesh.” Olim lacus colueram, sung by tenor and accompanied by a plaintive bassoon solo, is told from the viewpoint of aswan being roasted on a spit at a drunken feast. Ego sum abbas parodies Gregorian chant. It tells of the fictional abbot of Cockaigne, who loses both his money and his clothing at the gambling table. The men’s chorus echoes his despairing cry of “Wafna!” In taberna quando sumus venerates, in a series of toasts, all who partake of drink. The men’s voices are accompanied by alternating bursts of brass and percussion with prosaic oom-pahs.
The songs of Cour d’amours focuses on the two main facets of love in medieval times: courtly love, the yearning for a chaste and usually unattainable lady (as in Dies, nox et omnia), and the frankly erotic (Si puer cum puellula and Veni, veni, venias). The soprano soloist expressesboth longing and virginal hesitancy (In trutina mentis dubia and Tempus est iocundum); she later conveys her ecstasy with an orgasmic aria (Dulcissime). This section ends with the chorus’ grand quasi-religious paean to “the most beautiful one.” With language usually reserved for prayers to the Virgin Mary, she is compared to Helen of Troy, Blanchefleur, the heroine of a 12th-century romance, and Venus herself. Before anyone is allowed to linger in love’s realm, however, Fortune’s ever-spinning wheel returns for a final reminder of life’s unpredictability.
© Elizabeth Schwartz