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Composed: 1936

Length: 55 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd and 2nd = piccolo 1 and 2), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet and E-flat clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (antique cymbals, bass drum, castanets, chimes, chime in C, chime in F, cymbals, glockenspiel, ratchet, snare drum, sleighbell, suspended cymbals, tam tam, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), 2 pianos, celesta, and strings, with soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists, chorus, and children's chorus

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 24, 1954, Alfred Wallenstein conducting

About this Piece

Carl Orff had more in common with conservative trends in German culture than he did with the iconoclasm of the Weimar years. Instead of going for all-out musical revolution, Orff studied earlier musical forms and styles and used them to create his own compositional language. From early on, the composer was interested in the musical past. While Bartók was orchestrating The Miraculous Mandarin, Orff was arranging scores by the 17th-century Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi - the opera Orfeo, the Lamento d'Ariana, and the Ballo dell'ingrate. Orff also served as director of the Munich Bach Society for the 1932/33 season. His staged realizations of German baroque composer Heinrich Schütz' Auferstehungshistoria (Resurrection Story) and J.S. Bach's St. Luke Passion (a work now known to be spurious, but thought at the time to be by Bach), the latter accompanied by slide projections of 15th-century Tyrolean woodcuts, were recognized as pioneering by contemporaries.

This return to the past was common in conservative thought at the time in Germany. Movements celebrating the body and nature - two subjects in the poem set by Orff - surged in popularity during the first decades of the 20th century, with exercise and the outdoors offered as alternatives to cultural decadence and urban squalor. Groups like the Wander-vogel (a German youth movement) sang the praises of clean living. (Nazi propaganda took this to new extremes - a well-known example is Leni Riefenstahl's film of the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, Olympiad.) Germans made pilgrimages to sites of past cultural and political greatness like Wartburg Castle and Goslar's Kaiserpfalz, and conservative intellectuals longed for their nation's imperial past. It was in this context that Orff stumbled on the inspiration for his Carmina Burana.

The composer recalled his discovery in a series of autobiographical documentations published in the late 1970s. "Fortune smiled on me when she put into my hands a Würzburg second-hand bookshop's catalogue, in which I found a title that drew me in with magical force: Carmina Burana: Latin and German Poems of a 13th-Century Manuscript from Benediktbeuern." (Benediktbeuern is a monastery in Bavaria, and the title Carmina Burana is simply a Latin rendition of "Songs of Beuern.")

The texts are by the usual medieval suspects. Scholars believe the poems came from England, France, Spain, Italy, and Central Europe - the fact that so many were in Latin gave them wide currency at the time. Some of the poems name authors such as Hugh of Orleans, Philippe Abelard (who was Chancellor of the University of Paris), and the Archipoeta of Cologne (who wrote "Estuans interius," the wandering scholar's monologue that opens "In Taberna"). The other anonymous authors were most likely students, teachers, monks, clerics, wandering scholars, and the like.

Orff continues, describing the instant effect the collection had on him: "I obtained the book on Maundy Thursday 1934, a memorable day for me. Right when I opened it, on the very first page, I found the long-famous illustration of 'Fortune with the Wheel,' and under it the lines: 'O Fortuna velut Luna statu variabilis…'

"The picture and the words took hold of me. Although I was, in the beginning, only acquainted with the broad outlines of the contents of the poetry collection, a new work, a stage work with choruses for singing and dancing, simply following the pictures and text, sprang to life immediately in my mind. That very day I had sketched the first chorus, 'O Fortuna,' in short score. After a sleepless night during which I nearly lost myself in the voluminous poetry collection, a second chorus, 'Fortune plango vulnera,' was finished, and on Easter morning, a third, 'Ecce gratum,' was put on paper."

So in a mere four days after discovering the poetry collection, Orff had already composed three numbers of the score, including the monumental opening chorus, perhaps his most inspired - and certainly his most famous - stretch of music ever. The chorus introduces the overall character of Carmina Burana, including its straightforward tonality, its reliance on rhythm and ostinato rather than elaborate musical development to give the work a sense of forward motion, and its melodic richness.

The work that follows is in three parts - "Primo Vere" (Spring), "In Taberna" (In the Tavern), and "Cour d'Amours" (The Court of Love). Spring begins with a wintry chill lingering in the orchestra at the beginning of "Veris leta facies," and the chorus' rising melody lends the number an air of anticipation. The scene "Uf dem anger" (On the meadow) begins with an energetic dance whose rhythmic variety (rapid switches from triple to duple meter) Orff borrowed from his studies of medieval Bavarian folk music. In "Swaz hie gat umbe," young women and men gather in a circle for a playful seduction game that unfolds to the languid music of the number's central section, "Chume, chum, geselle min."

"In the Tavern" begins with the aforementioned number for the wandering scholar, in which Orff introduces us to the medieval tavern's clientele. Successive numbers feature a descriptive scene for the tenor soloist and the men from the chorus in which a swan laments that it's being roasted, a solo from an abbot who lives to drink and gamble, and the virtuosic closing chorus in which everyone else in the tavern seconds the abbot's love of drink and gaming.

In the last of the three sections, Orff pays tribute to the medieval world of courtly love. In terms of the work's overall structure, the first half of the section functions like the slow movement in a symphony. Beginning with the chorus' "Veni, veni, venias" - which incurred the wrath of the critic for the Volkischer Beobachter, a Nazi mouthpiece, for its "jazzy atmosphere" - the work gathers impetus until the closing moments, a glorious chorus praising the lovers Blanziflor and Helena and the return to the opening invocation to the goddess Fortuna. She ruled the world in the Middle Ages, when science had yet to begin explaining the mysterious forces that ruled people's lives, and, indeed, she made a brief reappearance in Germany between the wars, during "the deceptive years," when players who only later showed their true colors vied for control of a volatile nation.

John Mangum holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA. He spent the summer as a fellow at the University of Erfurt in Germany.