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CARL ORFF (1895-1982)

Carmina Burana (1935-36)

Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai


(Fortune, Empress of the World)

1. O Fortuna

2. Fortune plango vulnera


I. PRIMO VERE (In Springtime)

3. Veris leta facies

4. Omnia Sol temperat

5. Ecce gratum


UF DEM ANGER (On the Green)

6. Tanz

7. Floret silva

8. Chramer, gip die varwe mir

9. Reie

10. Were diu werlt alle min


II. IN TABERNA (In the Tavern)

11. Estuans interius

12. Olim lacus colueram

13. Ego sum abbas

14. In taberna quando sumus

III. COUR D’AMOURS (The Court of Love)

15. Amor volat undique

16. Dies, nox et omnia

17. Stetit puella

18. Circa mea pectora

19. Si puer com puellula

20. Veni, veni, venias

21. In trutina

22. Tempus est iocundum

23. Dulcissime



(Blanziflor and Helena)

24. Ave formosissima



(Fortune, Empress of the World)

25. O Fortuna


Fortune, passion, gambling, and drinking are just a few tastes of 11th-13th century temptations taken from the Codex Buranus, a collection of poems by anonymous scholars, discovered in 1803 at a Benedictine abbey in Bavaria, Germany. It is the inspiration behind Carl Orff's mammoth Carmina Burana, composed from 1935-36 and premiered in 1937.


The fortunes of the world spiraled downward in 1937. On March 17, Amelia Earhart, Fred Noonan, Harry Manning, and Paul Mantz arrived in Honolulu, Hawai'i, completing the first leg of a planned world flight. Unfortunately, Earhart’s attempt to take off from Ford Island in Pearl Harbor damaged the Electra, ending the flight altogether. In her second attempt on July 2, this time from a West-to-East trajectory, Earhart’s plane vanished over the Pacific from New Guinea to Howard Island, Australia.


Unrest in the European and Pacific theatres would converge into the Second Great War. Germany's invasion of Poland, the United Kingdom and France launched World War II on September 1, 1939. Japan's invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and the ensuing Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, set the stage for the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and America's entry into the war. 



In John Boorman's 1981 adaptation of the Arthurian legend Excalibur, Arthur (Nigel Terry) drinks from the Holy Grail. Then, rejuvenated from a magical state, he rallies his forces on horseback against Morgana Le Fay and Mordred, with Orff's O Fortuna blasting as the soundtrack. Orff's mega opus so elevates the changing fortunes of Arthur; its use in the film has been Orff's good fortune. Its full title is Merlin-esque just by length, Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanae cantoribus et choris cantandae comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis (Songs of Beuern: Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magical images).


In 1803, Bavarian monasteries were secularized. Discovered in the Benedikbeuren Abby (from which the "Burana" in the title is derived), the Codex Buranus was sent to Munich. Court Librarian, Andrea Schmeller, published the manuscripts in 1847 under an invented title, Carmina Burana. Including manuscript poems mainly in Latin and some in Middle High German, French, and Greek, Orff found the subject of his cantata through this publication.



The first page of the Codex Buranus includes an illustration of a wheel with the inscription: regnabo, regno, regnavi, sum sine regno (I shall reign, I reign, I have reigned, I am without a kingdom). The cantata is constructed to mirror this illustration of changing fortunes, a wheel turning from movement to movement, happiness to sadness, hope to despair, and so on. 


There are 24 poems for 25 movements divided into three sections. The first two movements are a prelude illustrating the duality of fortune. Movements 3-10 comprise "Springtime," musings on sensuous and flirtatious awakenings. Movements 11-14 feature only the male voices touching upon drunken debauchery, beer-drinking shenanigans, and bar-talk found "In the Tavern." Movements 14-24 fall under cupid's arrow, erotic desires in "The Court of Love." The last movement (25) is identical to the first movement and swings the wheel of fortune full circle.


Given the sheer size of the source material, poet Michel Hofmann assisted the composer with the libretto and wheel structure. While original melodies were attached to the text, Orff was unaware of their existence. They would not be decrypted and transcribed until 1950, partly because Carmina Burana's success had to come first to instigate renewed interest in the codex. 



Carmina Burana premiered on June 8, 1937, with the Frankfurt Opera conducted by Bertil Wetzelsberger, with staging by Otto Wälterlin and costumes by Ludwig Sievert. Orff was dealt fortune's turning wheel; the premiere was an immediate success, but it would remain unperformed to the world until after World War II. Given the work's titillating nature, it's fortunate most of the music is in Latin and likely incomprehensible to all and the most conservative chaste listeners. 


Orff's legacy consists of two significant contributions, Carmina Burana and music education. In the 1920s, Orff began to develop with his colleague Gunild Keetman a "child-centered way" of learning music using rudimentary forms of activity, an Orff approach. The composer continued his interest in education, sustained through the fortunes of Carmina Burana's reign. So confident was the composer that after the dress rehearsal, Orff reportedly disavowed himself of any work he composed before, "Everything that I have written up until now…you now can pulp. With Carmina Burana begins my collected works."


Carl Orff was born on July 10, 1895, in Munich, Kingdom of Bavaria, German Empire, and died on March 29, 1982, in Munich, West Germany.

© 2020 Michael-Thomas Foumai

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