The Improbable History of Carmina Burana

Steve Holtje

By Steve Holtje

on 06.28.12 in Spotlights

Orff: Carmina Burana

Donald Runnicles

Seventy-five years ago, on June 8, 1937, the world first heard one of the most popular choral works ever written. It’s become so iconic that its opening, “O Fortuna,” has been used in commercials, at sporting events, and even for the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards introduction of host Chris Rock, segued into a choir arrangement of Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba” (with your author in the choir) Pretty unlikely popularity for 800-year-old poetry! Predictably, it was a long, twisting road from its origins to its modern status.

The story starts in the 13th century, in a Benedictine monastery in Bavaria, with a bunch of goliards. You’ve heard of troubadours, right? Well, goliards were to troubadours as John Belushi was to Sir Laurence Olivier. Troubadours’ audiences were the high and mighty, so they created sophisticated songs for connoisseurs of music and poetry. Goliards’ audiences were drunk and lowly, so the goliards, who tended to be rebellious students or irreverent monks, created witty songs for connoisseurs of cynicism and raunch. Some of those songs were preserved in illuminated manuscripts.

The story might have ended there, since their musical notation became obsolete; only specialists could decipher them. But in 1803, for complicated political reasons not worth going into, all Bavarian monasteries were secularized, and their libraries were consolidated in the Court Library at Munich. In 1847 around 300 goliard songs, and accompanying manuscript illuminations, were published by the court librarian, in a fancy modern edition titled Carmina burana (translation: Songs of Beuren, that being the town where the monastery was) that became popular as a poetry/art collection. It was this that German composer Carl Orff (1895-1982) encountered.

Orff and poet Michel Hofmann whipped two dozen of these poems into a libretto and Orff, unaware of their original melodies, wrote music for them in the colorful and dramatic style he had distilled from such Igor Stravinsky works as Les Noces and Oedipus Rex. There’s debate about the musical quality of Carmina burana; some musicians think that while the orchestration is brilliant, the actual musical content is simplistic. Well, simplicity has its attractions, and complexity, while it keeps musicians interested, is no guarantee of quality. It was rhythmically lively, and — two decades on from Stravinsky having shocked the world with his origination of the style — still sounded thrillingly modern to German audiences without seeming bizarre anymore.

The premiere at the Frankfurt Opera went well, but would the Nazis approve? (Orff didn’t want to displease them, because he was hiding the fact that his grandmother was Jewish.) They were extremely conservative in their musical tastes, and prudish enough that the mild eroticism of a few of the songs could have caused problems, but they presumably couldn’t resist the allure of Orff’s look back to Germany’s past and the folk-music evoking structures of individual songs. Orff knew he’d struck musical gold. Already 41 years old at the time, he declared to his publisher of more than a decade, “Everything I have written to date…can be destroyed. With Carmina burana my collected works begin.”