The Taiwan National Choir was established by Taiwan’s Ministry of Education in 1985, with the purpose of supporting young singers in the development of their careers. The choir has visited Korea, [...]
They spoke about it
Carl Orff describes his Carmina Burana, one of the most powerful masterpieces of the 20th century, as a “scenic cantata”. Carmina Burana, which stands for “Secular Songs from Benediktbeuern”, a Benedictine abbey in Bavaria, is a manuscript of 250 medieval poems of songs in Latin, Middle High German and Old French, written in the thirteenth century and discovered in 1803. The collection contains clerical poems, love songs, drinking and gambling songs and two religious dramas, written by anonymous poets or “goliards” as they were called. These poets wrote satires and parodies for carnivals and festivals during which popes, cardinals, religious life and church services were parodied and satirized. Orff selected 24 poems and songs from the manuscript, assisted by Michael Hofmann, a German performer of medieval songs written in neumes. Orff’s selection of medieval texts was meant to be a symbolic statement of man’s subjugation to Fortune. The symbol of the wheel of fortune, which can be traced back to ancient Roman civilization, adorns the cover of the Carmina Burana manuscript.
Although Carmina Burana was conceived as a stage work that was successfully premiered in Frankfurt on Maine on June 8, 1937, with elaborate sets and costumes, it was only after World War II that the work was presented in concert. There are two versions of this composition, the first is for soloists, large choir, children’s choir and large orchestra, and in 1956, the composer made a chamber version of the orchestral forces for two pianos, but using the same percussion section as for the orchestral version (timpani and 5 percussion instruments) “for the purpose of concert and school performances.” The percussion instruments were the ones he used in the Orff Schulwerk, his educational program of music and dance for schoolchildren, developed to teach children the fundamentals of melody, rhythm and movement. (His research into the way music and movement are instinctively linked resulted in a radical change as to how music was taught in schools in Europe and beyond.)
With Carmina Burana, the composer turned his back on chromaticism and polyphony and opted for primitive rhythms and short melodic phrases supported by elemental block harmonies. The work’s exuberance and freshness, and an easily accessible language, made Carmina Burana one of the most popular twentieth century stage works.
Carmina Burana opens and closes with the ode “O Fortuna”, a hymn of magical power, a tribute to the Goddess of Fortune, who runs the wheel of the world and is as “changeable as the moon.” Within this frame Orff created three large sections, taken from various texts of the original manuscript.
Part I, “Springtime”, is a welcome and celebration of the radiant face of spring, of the rebirth of life and the awakening of love.
Part II, “In the Tavern”, features the men’s voices, describing the atmosphere of a medieval tavern with drinking songs, including the lament of the roasted swan and the song of the drunken abbot of Cockaigne, a parody of monastic chant. This section closes with a rousing ode to carnal pleasures.
Part III, “Courtly Love”, changes to the more refined world of love. The baritone solo in the guise of a troubadour sings of the yearning for the absent lover. The solo soprano in a striking vocal leap speaks of succumbing to love. Part III culminates with the choral movement “Blanziflor and Helena”, a hymn to the beauty of Helen and Venus, until Fortuna, the Empress of the world, reappears, turning again the wheel of volatile life and thus closing this captivating work.
© Agnès Grossmann