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Carl Orff (1895-1982)Carmina Burana
The Munich-born Carl Orff first gained prominence not as a composer, but as an educationalist, publishing (in the early 1930s) theories about encouraging musicianship in people through movement and musical improvisation (was this the radical stuff responsible for my suffering, at junior school in the 1950s, the squirming embarrassment of “Music and Movement”?). Having discarded his earliest attempts at writing, his only forays into composition preceding Carmina Burana were his realisations of the music of Monteverdi. These were, apparently, occasionally very liberal, so it would be interesting to hear them, to see if they give any inkling of a creative preparation for the unprecedented (and, as yet, unrivalled) Carmina Burana, which is, to all intents and purposes, his very first significant original composition.
Both title and texts were taken from a Thirteenth Century manuscript discovered in the monastery of Benediktbeuern (southern Bavaria) by Schmeller, who published it in 1847. Mixing ancient German and crude “dog” Latin, it in no way corresponds to what you would expect monks to be writing, except perhaps on their toilet walls. The texts, every bit as much as the musical settings Orff provided, have made the cantata controversial from day one. People either love it or hate it - Carmina Burana is one of those very few pieces admitting no middle ground.
Some detest it because of the texts. These are often crude, rude, lewd, and blasphemous, qualities which shine through even the sanitised translations given in concert programmes or record sleeve notes. Taking one simple example, on one old LP the words “wafna, wafna” were translated, somewhat imaginatively and with self-evident inaccuracy, as “Woe is me, hell and devil”. The famous LSO/Previn recording does not even attempt a translation, which is probably just as well!
Having said that, the texts have a primitive graphic power, capable of punching right through the veil of translation: like them or not, phrases such as “We drink the health of wanton girls” carry considerable “poetic” impact. The same is true of the sheer sound of certain other phrases. Who can fail to react, in any way whatsoever, to the words “animo vernali lasciviens”? Just roll them round your tongue - you’ll get my drift! The texts are given voice by three soloists, a large mixed chorus, and a choir of boys (or children) which heightens the feeling of naivety (I hesitate to say “innocence”!).
But, what of the music, a sound so particular that even Orff was unable to replicate its impact in subsequent works like Catulli Carmina? Bartlett (Grove, 5th. ed.) describes it:
“The simplicity and cunning of the music is most impressive. Orff deliberately discards counterpoint, thematic development and the use of elaborate forms; the vocal parts are written in unison, octaves, thirds, and sometimes fifths, the tunes are concise and of popular character and are repeated without variation, sometimes merely transposed into other keys. His writing is tonal in principle and there is an occasional sprinkling of clashing harmonies. The swinging, vigorous rhythm plays a dominating part in the whole work.”
This is an admirable summing up, but it says nothing about the phenomenal impact of this score. Recall the sort of music provided for those old “swords and sandals” films, adventures set in ancient Greece (or thereabouts), enacted to the strains of an all too Twentieth Century symphony orchestra trying to sound “authentic”. Orff similarly wanted to reflect ancient texts in music which breathed the same air, but without sacrificing the expressive power of the modern orchestra. So he set about stripping away the sophistication which had accreted on music and its instruments over the ages; like the boys in “Lord of the Flies”, the modern orchestra is regressed to a blood-curdlingly primitive state.
Listen to some really old instrumental dancing music: what’s missing? Counterpoint. Thematic development. Elaborate forms. Fancy harmonies (go back far enough, and the only intervals were unison, octaves, thirds, fifths). What’s there? Simple tunes, robust rhythms. Almost anyone using a big orchestra for music of such pervasive simplicity is going to come up with a fresh, open sound like Orff’s. So, what makes his sound so incredibly invigorating?
Well, the ancients loved their percussion, which are after all the most primitive instruments. Orff duly conscripted a huge battery of percussion, and applied it lavishly (he wanted proper bells - which sound truly awesome - but cost, space, and integrity of floorboards usually permit only tubular chimes). The result? A hard-edged sound seductive to our most primitive instincts.
Even so, this would have been useless without Orff’s inspired sense of rhythm. We are drawn (momentarily) to compare Carmina Burana with that other seminal masterpiece of musical primitivism, The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky achieved his effect by the wholesale sophistication of harmony, rhythm and instrumentation, while Orff achieved his by the exact opposite, wholesale simplification. He was promptly accused of crudity. I can live with that: like many, I love it for the exact same reasons cited by those who despise it, plus a certain nostalgia for a time when the world seemed a simpler place.
Simplicity dominates even the work’s overall structure. Orff lays out his 25 numbers in three sections (tableaux might be a better word), prefaced by an “overture”, the first of whose two numbers is literally reprised to conclude the entire work. These sections are distinguished mainly by the textual subject matter:
Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi (Fortune, Ruler of the World) portrays Man as the helpless slave of Lady Luck, who dispassionately and whimsically dispenses success and failure. As the Wheel of Fortune revolves, so the fortunes of helpless mortals wax and wane. The machinations of Fortune suffuse the remainder of the work . . .
1. Primo Vere (In the Springtime) celebrates Spring, the rebirth of Life, and the re-awakening of Love. The first three of the eight numbers venerate the seasonal renewal of nature. The fourth is an orchestral intermezzo leading to a sub-section, Uf dem Anger (On the Green), in which more specifically human passions germinate.
2. In Taberna (In the Tavern), contrasting this open-air innocence of pastoral humanity, concerns the sinful dregs who shun the light of day, the embittered “losers” at Fortune’s wheel who waste their lives drinking, eating, gambling, and - so on! The four numbers air several viewpoints, including the somewhat jaundiced one of a spit-roasted swan, painfully and comically squawked by the tenor soloist.
3. Cour d’Amours (Courtly Love) returns to the Great Outdoors, where the Spring buds, both vegetable and animal, have blossomed. The eleven numbers compare the ultimate joy of catching a mate with the equally ultimate despair of failing to catch a mate. The second number, Dies, Nox et Omnia, is a tour-de-force for the baritone, who has to span three vocal registers, while the soprano’s mettle is tested in the brief but telling Dulcissime. The return of Fortuna, Imperatrix Mundi as the “postlude” is stunning, not only for its sonic impact but also for the sudden, shocking resurgence of pessimism right at the climax of consummation of courtly love!
At least, that’s how it ought to be. But, by this time, those who find it all in the worst possible taste will have left, and the rest of us, lacking any sense of critical discernment, will be so high on Orff’s musical “ecstasy” that we’ll be past caring!
© Paul Serotsky, 1998

© Paul Serotsky
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