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Work of the Week – Carl Orff: Carmina Burana

“O Fortuna” – this appeal to the goddess of destiny marks the beginning of the well-known cantata Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. Many have heard this work used in the soundtracks of film, television and advertisements, or in one of its countless concert performances around the world. This summer, audiences in Germany can enjoy performances at the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival on 2 August and at the Rheingau Musik Festival on 4 August, both conducted by Justus Frantz with the Philharmonie der Nationen. Also on 4 August, the Hitachi Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Hideaki Muto will perform the work at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre.

The origin of Orff’s most famous work was a collection of more than 250 medieval poems, songs and dramas, the “Carmina Burana” (or “Songs from Benediktbeurern”), named after the Bavarian monastery in which the collection was found in the early 19th century. The texts are in different medieval languages and deal with a variety of themes: Love and drinking songs are side by side with chants of mourning and spiritual anthems. Orff became acquainted with the collection in 1934 and was fascinated by the texts.

Picture and word seized hold of me. Although for the moment I was acquainted only along general lines with the contents of the collection of poems, a new work – a stage work with singing and dancing choruses, simply following the illustrations and the texts – at once came into my mind. – Carl Orff

Orff combined 24 of the collection’s texts to form his new work. He worked freely with the collection, mixing medieval Latin, Middle High German and old French sources, sometimes using single verses and bringing them into a new order.

Carl Orff: Carmina Burana – Dramatic cantata with medieval texts

Although the “Carmina Burana” contains hints for a musical shaping of its texts, Orff composed the music for his Carmina Burana completely anew. Nevertheless, there are echoes of the medieval in Orff’s music in his use of church modes and sustained harmonies. He renounces the musical development of themes and melodies in favour of a more repetitive form.

Today, Carmina Burana is performed mainly in concert rather than staged as Orff originally conceived, though the piece can and has formed the bases for danced or dramatic realisations. A starting point for such a production can be found in the work’s three-part dramaturgy, with its sections entitled “Primo vere”, around the theme of spring both in nature and in human relationships, “In taberna” depicting a tavern scene, and “Cours d’amour” exploring the pleasure and despair associated with love. The monumental appeal to Fortuna frames the three main sections and casts these worldly experiences as divine dispensation.

In addition to the many performances of Carmina Burana, two of Orff’s operas can also be seen in the coming weeks. A new production of his first opera, Gisei, opens on 8 August at the Carl Orff Fest in Andechs, and on 2 October a new reduced version of Die Kluge will be performed in the Munich Gärtnerplatztheater.



Photo: Ludwig Sievert´s draft of the world premiere´s stage design