Orff: Carmina burana

CARL ORFF

BORN: July 10, 1895. Munich, Germany

DIED: March 29, 1982. Munich

COMPOSED: 1935-36

WORLD PREMIERE: June 8, 1937. Bertil Wetzelsberger conducted, with staging by Otto Wälterlin and sets and costumes by Ludwig Sievert, at Frankfurt Opera

US PREMIERE: January 10, 1954. Giovanni Camajani conducted, with Maria Segale, Gordon Zimmerman, and Ronald Dutro as soloists, in a concert of the University of San Francisco Schola Cantorum at the War Memorial Opera House. The Schola Cantorum Orchestra consisted largely of San Francisco Symphony players

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—August 26, 1978. John Nelson led, with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, and soloists Kathleen Battle, William Harness, and Brent Ellis. MOST RECENT—July 2013. Edwin Outwater conducted, with the SFS Chorus, Pacific Boychoir, and soloists Nikki Einfeld, Lawrence Brownlee, and Hugh Russell

INSTRUMENTATION: Soprano, tenor, and baritone solos, with brief solo assignments also for 2 tenors, baritone, and 2 basses; a large mixed chorus, a small mixed chorus, a children’s chorus, and an orchestra constituted as follows: 3 flutes (2 doubling piccolos), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (1 doubling E-flat clarinet and 1 doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 3 glockenspiels, xylophone, castanets, ratchet, small bells, triangle, antique cymbals, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, tam‑tam, tubular bells, tambourine, snare drum, bass drum, celesta, 2 pianos, and strings

THE BACKSTORY Let us begin with the title. Carmina burana—with the accent in Carmina falling on the first syllable—means “songs from Beuern,” which is itself a variant of Bayern, the German name for Bavaria. And the subtitle: “Secular songs to be sung by singers and choruses to the accompaniment of instruments and also of magic pictures.”

Beuern is Benediktbeuern, a village in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps about thirty miles south of Munich. It takes its full name from a Benedictine monastery founded there in 733. When the Bavarian monasteries were secularized in 1803, the contents of their libraries went to the Court Library in Munich. In 1847, Johann Andreas Schmeller, the Court Librarian, published a modern edition of the most remarkable of these acquisitions, an ample and richly illuminated parchment manuscript of poems, most in Latin, but with a fair number in Middle High German with some infusion of French and Greek. Schmeller invented the title Carmina burana for his edition. British and American readers first encountered Carmina burana in 1884 when the English historian, poet, essayist, and biographer John Addington Symonds published a little volume called Wine, Women, and Song, which included his fragrant translations of forty-six poems from the collection. Orff’s vibrant cantata drew the attention of thousands more to these treasures, and the circle was completed in the 1950s, when German scholar Walter Lipphardt deciphered and transcribed the original melodies, and groups like the Early Music Quartet began to perform them.

Orff encountered Carmina burana in Schmeller’s edition and enlisted the help of the poet Michel Hofmann in organizing twenty-four of the poems into a libretto. (He did not know the original melodies; in fact—he did not even know they existed.) After the riotously successful premiere in June 1937, he told the house of Schott, his only publisher since 1927, “Everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately, printed, can be destroyed. With Carmina burana my collected works begin.”

He was just about to turn forty‑two when he wrote that letter. It had been a long, long upbeat. His family background was military; he himself was from childhood passionately interested in music, words, and theater. He got a story published in a children’s magazine when he was ten, at which point he was already inventing music to go with the puppet plays he had written for a theater he had built himself. He had lessons on the piano, organ, and cello, and some guidance in composition, but essentially he was self‑taught. He composed prolifically—works of large ambition and originality of coloring; he worked in theaters in Munich, Mannheim, and Darmstadt as conductor and coach; he devoted much time to the study of Renaissance and early Baroque music and also to African music; he followed eagerly the development of modern dance; he co-founded a school for music, gymnastics, and dance, making imaginative and productive contributions to music education that were eventually codified in collaboration with several of his students; he made versions for the modern theater of several works by Monteverdi and staged such works as the Saint Luke Passion that was falsely ascribed to J.S. Bach and the Resurrection Oratorio of Heinrich Schütz. His allegiance was to Expressionism. He absorbed every note of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra and transcribed the Chamber Symphony for piano duet, and the center of his literary universe was Franz Werfel.

We still have no precise knowledge of just what happened in 1935 when Orff came across Carmina burana and saw what manner of music he had to invent for these poems. The “collected works” that begin with Carmina burana, almost all for voices and the largest part of them written for the stage, are varied in substance, intent, and effect, but they all stand upon the common principle that directness of speech and access are paramount.

Carmina burana was an instant popular success. Though its international circulation had to wait until after World War II, it has kept its hold on audiences. Undeniably, the aesthetic and historical considerations that “place” Carmina burana have made it controversial, for it courts popularity in part by avoiding complexities in harmony and rhythm, and this is the music of a man who found Germany in 1936 a comfortable place to work. But however suspect one might find the composer’s ends and means, it is impossible to deny his skill in pacing and design, the catchiness of his tunes, and the splendid way in which everything “sounds.”

THE MUSIC Orff was immediately captivated by O Fortuna, velut Luna (O Fortune, like the moon), the first poem in Carmina burana and its accompanying Wheel of Fortune miniature. He saw this bitter meditation as a strong frame, inside which he groups poems in three chapters. The first, Springtime and On the Green, offer pastoral and genre poems. The second is In the Tavern. The third is The Courts of Love, concluding with the ecstatic address to Blanziflor and Helena.

O Fortuna is a massive structural pillar. The three spring poems that follow introduce brighter colors, though the first two continue with melodies close to chant.

The sequence on the green begins with a lively dance for the orchestra. Floret silva (The noble forest) alternates big and small choruses. The sly slurs on “meus amicus” (My long-lost lover) are charming, as is the picture of the lover riding off into the distance. Another instrumental dance separates the softly curved song of the girl out to buy makeup (Chramer, gip die varwe mir) from the uninhibited passage (Swaz hie gat umbe. Were diu werlt alle min) in which erotic ambition extends to possession of the Queen of England, a passage enclosed in fanfares and ending with an exultant shout.

Orff regards the tavern as a male preserve, and he begins with an unbridled song for baritone. Then comes one of the most original pieces in the cantata, the Lament of the Roast Swan. The Abbot of Cockaigne lurches forward to speak his fierce little credo, whereupon the whole male chorus plunges into its whirling catalogue of toasts and drinkers.

After a pause for breath, we enter the Cour d’amours (The Courts of Love) and go to the delicate sound of flutes and soprano voices. In Dies, nox et omnia (Day, night and all the world) the baritone bemoans his lovelorn state. In Stetit puella, the soprano sets before us the picture of the girl in the red dress with her irresistible erotic radiance. Si puer cum puellula (If a boy and a girl linger together) is set for a chattering, leering sextet of male voices. Veni, veni, venias (Come, come pray come) is a love song full of bird noises. For In trutina (In the scales), the song of the girl who finds it not so very difficult to choose between physical love and chastity, the soprano is held to her most seductive low register, projected against a softly pulsating accompaniment. The baritone and chorus heat things up still more in the vigorous Tempus est iocundum (Pleasant is the season) and then, in a wonderful stroke, the girl fulfills the promise of In trutina: Dulcissime (Sweetest boy) soars to the very highest reaches of the soprano’s voice. The brief address to Blanziflor et Helena makes a bridge to the reprise of the Fortuna chorus. Few would guess that the words of the ringing close are an exhortation: “Come, all, and weep with me!”—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(June 2019)