On June 8, 1937, the Frankfurt Opera was introduced to the majesty and power of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. It was the first of a triptych of works intended to showcase (but almost never does in modern performances) dance and a variety of other stage action in addition to music and lyrics. The opening number, “O Fortuna,” is infamous for its ability to turn anything remotely cool into something mind-blowingly awesome. I first heard it as part of Trevor Jones’ score for 1981’s Excalibur, a film which had the extra bonuses of introducing me to not only this wonderful piece of music, but also to Arthurian legend, Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle of Operas, and to the ideas of life, culture, and music of the Middle Ages.
Orff’s music was influenced melodically by the likes of the late Renaissance / early Baroque masters William Byrd and Claudio Monteverdi even though it’s not nearly so complex. The lyrics were positively Medieval. Orff’s work highlights only 24 poems of a considerably larger manuscript. The original collection consists of 254 dramatic texts and poems dating from the 11th to the 13th century. It’s name, Carmina Burana, is Latin for “Songs from Beuern,” being short for Benediktbeuern, located in Bavaria, Germany. This is where the folio was found, but not necessarily where it was created. It’s written primarily in Medieval Latin, with some poems in Provencal (Medieval French) or Middle High German. They were written by clergy and their students when Latin was the common language across the whole of European Christendom.
If you haven’t already, listen to the music in the above video. If you have, do it again just because you can. Really get a sense for what Orff is bringing to the table here. What do you feel when you hear this piece? Something grand and powerful? Something ominous? Inevitable? The theme of the Wheel of Fortune is at work here, Fate’s grand design turning for every one of us. Consider the collection of poems that Orff is working from. Consider that these poems were lost to time, recovered in 1803 in a Benedictine monastery in that little village in German for which the collection is named. Consider that it is the most important collection of Goliard and vagabond songs surviving today.
Sounds important and oh-so-serious, doesn’t it?
What if I told you the Carmina Burana folio is mostly a collection of love songs and irreverent bawdy songs?
That’s what Goliards are, if you’re unfamiliar with the lingo of the era: young clergy who protested the growing contradictions within the Church. Goliards often presented their songs and protests within a carnival setting. If you’ve read or seen any film version of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, recall the Feast of Fools sequence where Quasimodo makes his public entrance. That’s the kind of setting where these songs would be performed. These works are satire, and their target is none other than the big, scary, dominant overlord of the era, the Catholic Church itself. When you consider that such performances would be held in the shadow of the great cathedrals so prominent in that time, you can imagine the effect it would have on the general public.
The collection breaks down roughly like this: 55 songs of morals and mockery, 131 love songs, 40 drinking and gaming songs, two longer spiritual works intended for theatrical performance, a song for mourning the dead, a couple of educational stories about the names of animals, some prayers to saints, songs about the Crusades, reworkings of rediscovered Classical writings, and a handful about the end of the world, with a few scattered odds and ends to round out the folio.
With the Crusades and the system of banking put into place by the Knights Templar came a monetary economy in the 12th century. With the advent of money comes greed and simony. These themes feature prominently within the Carmina Burana. There are songs about rape and/or seduction of shepherdesses by knights and clergymen. Love is depicted as an act of military service, with inspiration drawn from Ovid’s erotic love poems. It’s graphic. For example, CB 24 translates as:
Glory be to virgin thighs,
Slender and exciting!
Flesh unsoiled by mortal touch
Soon will be uniting.
How I long to feel your lips
Kiss me, Mary, Queen of Saints,
Virgin most inviting!
No doubt some of you are horror-stricken, and some of you are trying to contain your awkward laughter. Perhaps both. If that’s not bawdy enough for you, CB 76 is a first-person narrative that recalls a 10-hour intercourse with none other than Venus, the goddess of love. There is a mass written for drinkers and gamblers, for while Einstein said God did not play dice with the universe, it was well-known the monks of the Middle Ages most certainly did. These songs were the younger generation calling out the bad examples their elders were setting. In fact, the use of cards and dice were even worse when you consider that these were used in acts of prophecy and fortune-telling, which was considered blasphemy by the Church. If you’re not already aware, your modern deck of cards is based on the Tarot. Deal a full house, and five friends die! Ok, not really, but that’s the sort of black humor you’d find in the minds of those who wrote Carmina Burana. Sort of puts the reforms of Martin Luther into perspective, doesn’t it? It was nearly two centuries after the final works of Carmina Burana that Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in 1517.
When the poems were first translated in more modern times, they were taken literally instead of as parody. Large feasts, heavy drinking, gambling, whoring, and sleeping until midday were assumed to the be the order of the day within monastery walls, according to those unsuspecting scholars.
And now you’ll never hear Orff’s masterpiece the same way again. Go ahead and play that video again, and see if the music still has the same effect on you it did a few minutes ago.
Of course, if you’re familiar with Orff’s version, you already know there’s a song in there from the point of view of a game bird being cooked for dinner, so how serious could it be?
Since those initial efforts at translation, modern early music performers have been able to identify and recreate the melodies for many of the songs. Musical notation was still in its infancy at this point. For us in the modern era, musical notation is written on a five-lined staff that identifies tones and length of the notes. About 25% or so of Carmina Burana is written using neumes. Basically this means that there is no staff system, and the only indication of how to play a note is that it’s pitched higher or lower than the preceding note. Pitched by how much… that’s anyone’s guess, best left to those smarter and more immersed. Scholars have figured this out by comparing contemporary manuscripts, and so today we think we know what these pieces may have sounded like. Would you like to hear some of it? For your enjoyment, I’ve linked to a few videos from YouTube. There are more out there for the asking if you like what you hear.