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Carl Orff - Carmina Burana

Carl Orff

Carmina Burana

Andre Previn

EMI Classics 66951

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Carl Orff
Carl Orff
There is a little town about 100km south of Munich, Germany, called Benediktbeuren. This town has a monastery dating back to medieval times. In 1803, the library of this monastery was being renovated, and a wonderful discovery was made; a manuscript, dating back to the 13th century containing over 250 previously unknown songs and verses, rich in variety and inventiveness, in both Latin and German. The monastery's librarian collected and published them as the Carmina Burana, meaning Songs of Beuren.

Carl Orff was a German composer who lived all his life in Munich. He was convinced that everybody had within them an innate musical ability and that this ability needs to be nurtured from childhood. He developed a music teaching method, children's musical instruments and an entire new concept of music performance.

His idea was of the Total Theatre, combining music, words, visual design, movement and dance to overwhelm the senses. When he was given a copy of the Carmina Burana he knew he had found the perfect vehicle to bring his concept to life. In 1937, Carl Orff's Carmina Burana was born. He described his composition as “secular songs for soloists and choruses, accompanied by instruments and magic images”. A simple concert rendition of Carmina Burana misses half the fun.

Of the 250 poems in the manuscript, Orff selected just 24 to set to music. But what a spectrum in this selection! They describe everything from religious devotion to lust and gluttony. (See the full text lyrics of Carmina Burana).

The Wheel of Fortune
The Wheel of Fortune
Orff's Carmina Burana opens with the stunning and famous O Fortuna, its text is a medieval resigned acceptance of the Wheel of Fortune as the determiner of one's fate. This piece alone is so familiar to the general public, having been used in many movies and commercials that they may not even know that it comes from a much larger work of classical music.

At left we have a medieval depiction of the Wheel, Lady Luck at the center, and around the perimeter a Prince made Pauper and back again.

The bulk of Carmina Burana is 23 pieces in 3 sections:
  1. Primo vere --- In Springtime
    Here we have poems about pastoral simplicity, man's encounter with nature and how the seasons bring on love.
  2. In Taberna --- In the Tavern
    Part II deals with wine. The rowdy atmosphere breaks out with drinking songs and hymns to gambling and debauchery.
  3. Cour d'amours --- The Court of Love
    The final section describes the passions of men and women with the theme that natural sexual feelings should be expressed freely.
Orff concludes Carmina Burana with O Fortuna, the Wheel comes full circle, the cycle complete. All of man's petty feelings and endevours are in the fickle hands of Fate.

Carmina Burana
Carmina Burana
Given the rather explicit subject matter (you really should read the lyrics!) it may come as a surprise that the authors of these verses back in the 13th century were monks! Goliards to be precise, defined as defrocked or lapsed monks, and students, part of a traveling band of minstrels and clerics who may have used the verses as morality plays.

Carl Orff's music has been immensely popular since it was written, totally eclipsing everything else of his. At first glance, it is difficult to see why. The melodies are very simple, repeated over and over with almost no thematic development. Orchestration is sparse and relies heavily on percussion. Harmony is likewise simple, and polyphony absent. It is not complex music, so why is it so successful?

Its secret lies in its very simplicity true to its medieval inspiration. Its appeal lies in in building momentum and rhythmic force reflecting the subject matter. This is hedonism, primitive and pagan, relentlessly driving and fun.

There have been many fine recordings of Carmina Burana but Andre Previn's famous 1975 version for EMI brings out the uncorked spirit of the work, full of fire, and not taking itself too seriously. This is the pick of a fine bunch.

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Track Listing

Carl Orff
Carmina Burana
Andre Previn
London Symphony Orchestra
(1975 recording)
Sheila Armstrong
Gerald English
Sir Thomas Allen
  1. Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi: I. O Fortuna
  2. Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi: II. Fortune Plango Vulnera
  3. Primo Vere: III. Veris Leta Facies
  4. Primo Vere: IV. Omnia Sol Temperat
  5. Primo Vere: V. Ecce Gratum
  6. Uf Dem Anger: VI. Tanz
  7. Uf Dem Anger: VII. Floret Silva
  8. Uf Dem Anger: VIII. Chramer, Gip Die Varwe Mir
  9. Uf Dem Anger: IX. Reie-Swaz Hie Gat Umbe-Chume, Chum, Geselle Mini-Swaz Hie Gat Umbe
  10. Uf Dem Anger: X. Were Diu Werit Alle Min
  11. In Taberna: XI. Estuans Interius
  12. In Taberna: XII. Olim Lacus Colueram
  13. In Taberna: XIII. Ego Sum Abbas
  14. In Taberna: XIV. In Taberna Quando Sumus
  15. Cours D'amour: XV. Amor Volat Undique
  16. Cours D'amour: XVI. Dies, Nox Et Omnia
  17. Cours D'amour: XVII. Stetit Puella
  18. Cours D'amour: XVIII. Circa Mea Pectora
  19. Cours D'amour: XIX. Si Puer Cum Puellula
  20. Cours D'amour: XX. Veni, Veni, Venias
  21. Cours D'amour: XXI. In Trutina
  22. Cours D'amour: XXII. Tempus Est Iocundum
  23. Cours D'amour: XXIII. Dulcissime
  24. Blanziflor Et Helena: XXIV. Ave Formosissima
  25. Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi: XXV. O Fortuna

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