Carmina Burana. Not for Scarey Movies or Swiftboat Ads

Carl Orff is one of my favorite composers. I have performed Carmina Burana, and Catulli Carmina, many times. These two works are from a trilogy (Trionfi meaning “triumphs) written by Orff in the early 1930s, and is comprised of songs about lust and unrequited love, religious hymns and plays, about gambling and games, about the life of vagabonds and life’s tribulations in general. Orff describes his trilogy as “the celebration of the triumph of the human spirit through sexual and holistic balance.” For this reason, Orff’s trilogy is often considered, and performed during, a “summer” or “spring” work.

Orff’s trilogy is a musical masterpiece. The most difficult work, with its syncopated rhythms and expansive vocal range, is Catulli Carmina, which did not enjoy the same kind of exposure and popularity as Carmina Burana, the most famous work of the trilogy. Carmina Burana’s popularity is due in large part to the opening and closing song, O Fortuna (O Fortune in Latin and also known as the Roman Goddess of Fortune). When I first performed Carmina Burana, we sang O Fortuna in its original key as Orff wrote it, which was a soprano’s dream. Those of us in the first soprano section reveled at the chance to dance on those high b flats and c notes. We lived for those moments!

My introduction to Orff was Catulli Carmina. I loved the intricate rhythms, the solos, especially the baritone/tenor/counter-tenor solo that is exquisite and spans across three vocal ranges — almost instantly, making it not that easy to sing, but indescribably wonderful to listen to.

Orff’s music is no easy task to master. In addition to the challenging rhythms and vocal ranges, there is the constant shifting between languages within themselves, i.e., is this “regular” German or Middle High German. Then flip the page to the next piece and begin immediately singing in Latin. Carmina Burana is comprised of 21 of a collection of 24 poems of the same name, written in about 1230, and Catulli Carmina consists of a number of poems written by Catullus, a Roman poet of the 1st century BC, hence the language challenges.

I first performed Catulli Carmina in high school (quite some time ago), but not until after much ado about the sexual content — even though it was in Latin, German and Middle High German. In those days, we did not memorize notes and sounds, we learned the language and the full depth and breath of the meaning behind the song, along with the historical perspective — all of which was part and parcel of Orff’s pedagogy for musical learning. Pedagogy aside, the lustiest songs were cut out – or had parts of them cut out. That did not deter us students. Determined to find what the text really said, we rushed to G. Schrimer’s (a sheet music store in NYC) and purchased a full copy. As we tackled each song, at least one of us would show up in class with the “real” translation.

No doubt, the strength and power of O Fortuna, coupled with it’s deliberate building on the pulsating underlying rhythm, starting softly yet definitely after the opening chorus and building into a profound crescendo (triple forte) at the end. A lot of movies and commercials have used O Fortuna to depict strength, warriors going into battle covered with blood guts and gore, and, quite often FEAR. (OOOOO!)

Tonight, I watched a swiftboat ad on television that uses O Fortuna as the background music. The ad is about the closing of Guantanamo and implies (with words) that “terrorists” will be released into our neighborhoods if we allow the President to close Guantanamo. While pictures of “terrorists” are streamed across the screen with a blood red backdrop, O Fortuna plays on.

As I watched the ad, I laughed so hard thinking about the real meaning behind the music. It was hilarious. Instead of conjuring up fear, the ad conjured up the stories about suicide bombers imagining that if they killed themselves in this manner they would be received by 100 virgins when they reached heaven. Knowing the composer’s intent, this is more inline with the music. I realize that is not so nice, but really! Whomever put this ad together obviously did not do his or her homework — as usual, they ignored the facts. We’re not shaking in our boots with fear, we rolling on the floor, laughing out loud.

The days of my youth came spilling forth as I recalled sitting with my classmates in study hall, huddled over the “real” translation, covering our mouths to muffle our snorts and giggles. When you read the translation of O Fortuna without the benefit of the rest of the piece, you loose the meaning behind the song — especially without knowing about the wheel of fortune that is referenced in this piece.

So, swiftboat ad-person, you think this music is meant to emphasize fear? Read the translation to the song — here’s a hint, someone did not get any luck from the goddess of fortune so the rest of the folks should sing a mournful tune with that person. I guess the phrase “misery loves company” applied even in the latter part of the Middle Ages — and at the end of the day, could very well apply here as each “detainee” laments that the Roman goddess of fortune rained on their parade. Go figure. Here’s a translation of the song:

O Fortune,
like the moon
Stands constantly changing,
ever waxing
or waning;
hateful life
now oppresses
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;
and power
it melts them like ice.

Fate – monstrous
and empty,
you whirling wheel,
stand malevolent,
well-being is vain
and always fades to nothing,
and veiled
you plague me too;
now through the game
I bring my bare back
to your villainy.

Fate, in health
and virtue,
is against me
driven on
and weighted down,
always enslaved.
So at this hour
without delay
pluck the vibrating strings;
since Fate
strikes down the strong man,
everyone weep with me!

Now playing: Carl Orff – Carmina Burana – O Fortuna
via FoxyTunes

Now playing: Carl Orff – O fortuna
via FoxyTunes

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