'Carmina Burana': College rock for medieval times

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Were the Pittsburgh Symphony to present an evening of orchestrated songs by rock bands big in colleges today, they'd have something not much different from Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana."

You know the work -- trust me, you do -- from its famous driving and ominous chorus, "O Fortuna." That tribute to the fickleness of fortune has found its way to countless films and commercials, but it is just the introduction to Orff's "Songs of Beuren." The work quickly turns to songs that students, scholars and clerics wrote centuries ago -- largely in the 13th century.

Turns out, students back then were just as consumed by love and partying as they are today. Many of the secular poetry sings of lust, love and libations which might have been sung at universities and taverns and the like, but definitely not in church.

In 1934, a second-hand bookseller presented Orff a volume of medieval songs copied from a manuscript now known as the Burana Codex, discovered at the Bavarian Abbey of Benedikbeuren in the 19th century but stemming from much earlier. The texts didn't contain notes, but rough indications on how the music was shape. The composer was so smitten with the poems' vibrancy that he set 24 of them to new, rhythmically potent, almost primitive music which premiered in 1937 as "Carmina Burana: Secular Songs for Soloists and Chorus with Accompanying Instruments and Magic Tableaux."

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performs 'Carmina Burana'
  • Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown
  • When: 8 p.m. Fri. and Sat.; 2:30 p.m. Sun.
  • Tickets: $20 to $79.
  • More information: 412-392-4900.

"He took this Latin text and old German of more-or-less funny things like student songs about drunken monks," says Manfred Honeck, the PSO's music director who will be the latest to lead "Carmina Burana" to Heinz Hall (with the Mendelssohn Choir and soloists). "This is funny when you understand it, but the irony that comes out of this piece is sometimes hidden."

Indeed, the obscurity of the Latin, German and French medieval texts hide some of the ribald, sensuous and even explicitly erotic descriptions in the songs, not unlike the coded messaged in most rock songs ("seeing the light," for one). Among the subjects are:

• Trying to get the girl: "Circa mea pectora" finds the baritone looking to fulfill, "the plan I have in mind to undo the bonds of her virginity."

• Getting sloshed: "In taberna quando sumus" ends with a hilarious drinking song, set to a pounding rhythm by Orff, with lines like: "The steady man drinks, the wanderer drinks/the simpleton drinks, the wiseman drinks... this one drinks, that one drinks, a hundred drink, a thousand drink."

• Pining for warmer weather: "The sun brings peace to all around/ Away with sadness!" sings the chorus in "Ecce gratum."

The work was not just another project for the composer, but it struck him as the dawn of a completely new direction in his writing. "Everything that I have written so far and which you have unfortunately published you can now pulp," he wrote to his publisher. "My collected works begin with 'Carmina Burana'." He would go on to complete a trilogy of works with "Catulli Carmina" and "Trionfo di Afrodite," but none had the impact of "Carmina Burana."

Orff included "Magic Tableaux" in the title because he originally wanted "Carmina Burana" to be staged. In fact, the premiere was at the Frankfurt Opera. And while it is most often performed as in the concert hall now, Orff's fascination with the connection between various artforms, especially percussion and movement, continued on his educational work. In 1924 he co-founded the Gunther School for Gymnastics, Dance and Music. It enjoyed a Suzuki-like popularity for years in Europe and vestiges of it still form the basis for much childhood music education today.

"When I studied in Vienna in the Musikschule, Orff was regarded firstly as one who created a school, not as a serious composer," says Honeck."

That's also partly because of the continued stain the composer had from his role in Nazi Germany. He wrote music for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and, while at first was condemned by the regime, "Carmina Burana" was held up as a sign of Teutonic glory. The Nazi Party later called it a salient example of "the indestructible and always re-emerging power of the ways of the common people."

But Orff never joined the Party and after the war claimed to have been a resistance fighter with the White Roses. While he was good friends with its leader, Kurt Huber, Orff's actual involvement has been questioned. It seems the composer used opportunistic means to survive, and was probably apolitical and absorbed in his music.

"The Nazis used him as they used a lot of things," says Honeck.

In any case, "Carmina Burana," about the past, had had its own future far beyond the bounds of Hitler's Germany. Its opening chorus is perhaps the most well-known choral piece today and the rest of the three-part work has given audiences much-appreciated lighter fare in concert halls dominated by serious music. One of Honeck's favorites is "a great illustration of a cooked swan," which sings as it rotates on a pit. Combine that goofy college humor, dances, love songs and satire with Orff's infectious rhythms, and you have an unlikely hit that shows that times may have changed, but students and the general pursuit of earthly desires haven't.

Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.


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