Carl Orff’s secular cantata, Carmina Burana, is based on 24 poems that were part of a larger collection of 13th-century songs and writings discovered in a German monastery in 1803. The poems, written mostly in Latin, with a dollop of Middle High German and medieval French, addressed a range of topics. Orff divided his work into three sections—Primo vere (In Springtime), In Taberna (In the Tavern), and Cour d’amours (The Court of Love)—bracketed by a dramatic prologue and postlude that invoke the vicissitudes of fate and fortune.
In a series she does for NPR, Marin Alsop, the Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, had this to say about the work:
“The subject matter covered in Carmina stays pretty basic: love, lust, the pleasures of drinking and the heightened moods evoked by springtime. These primitive and persistently relevant themes are nicely camouflaged by the Latin and old German texts, so the listener can actually feign ignorance while listening to virtually X-rated lyrics. (Veni Veni Venias! Come, come come now!)
The music itself toggles between huge forces and a single voice, juxtaposing majesty and intimacy with ease. At its largest, Carmina employs a chorus of 200 or more voices, an orchestra of 100 players and a children’s choir of 50 or more, plus three soloists (soprano, tenor and baritone).
The music’s style is equally inclusive, ranging from simple chant to almost rock-inspired rhythmic sections. The opening and closing tracks, both titled “O Fortuna,” mirror each other: They begin with all forces at full throttle, then immediately scale back in an ominous warning repetition that builds to a climactic close. Between these bookends lies music of many diverse styles, with a hypnotic repetitive element, an intense purity of the solo soprano and the children’s choir, a raucous quality to the all-male sections, and a humor underlying the lewd nature of the lyrics (which sound so erudite in Latin), all combining to create an immediacy and accessibility not found in many works.”
My Carmina Burana moment occurs in Renée Fleming’s performance of “In Trutina” on her 1998 recording, The Beautiful Voice. The lyrics, in both Latin and English translation, are below.
Listen to what she is able to convey, through changes in dynamics (softer, then louder, then softer again) in just one syllable (the last one) of one word (contraria, in the second line). Talk about breath control.
In trutina mentis dubia
lascivus amor et pudicitia.
Sed eligo quod video,
collum iugo prebeo:
ad iugum tamen suave transeo.
In the wavering balance of my feelings
set against each other
lascivious love and modesty.
But I choose what I see,
and submit my neck to the yoke;
I yield to the sweet yoke.
Trivia tidbit: Even though you may not have known it was from Carmina Burana, you’ll no doubt recognize the work’s opening piece, “O, Fortuna”, which has been used in myriad movies and TV commercials.