The Kennedy Center

Carmina Burana

About the Work

Carl Orff Composer: Carl Orff
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Carmina Burana, Cantiones profanae (1935-1936)

Carl Orff

Born July 10, 1895 in Munich.

Died March 29, 1982 in Munich.


About thirty miles south of Munich, in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, is the abbey of Benediktbeuren. In 1803, a 13th-century codex was discovered among its holdings that contains some 200 secular poems which give a vivid, earthy portrait of Medieval life. Many of these poems, attacking the defects of the Church, satirizing contemporary manners and morals, criticizing the omnipotence of money, and praising the sensual joys of food, drink and physical love, were written by an amorphous band known as "Goliards." These wandering scholars and ecclesiastics, who were often esteemed teachers and recipients of courtly patronage, filled their worldly verses with images of self-indulgence that were probably as much literary convention as biographical fact. The language they used was a heady mixture of Latin, old German and old French. Some paleographic musical notation appended to a few of the poems indicates that they were sung, but it is today so obscure as to be indecipherable. This manuscript was published in 1847 by Johann Andreas Schmeller under the title, Carmina Burana ("Songs of Beuren"), "carmina" being the plural of the Latin word for song, "carmen."

Carl Orff encountered these lusty lyrics for the first time in the 1930s, and he was immediately struck by their theatrical potential. Like Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson in the United States, Orff at that time was searching for a simpler, more direct musical expression that could immediately affect listeners. Orff's view, however, was more Teutonically philosophical than that of the Americans, who were seeking a music for the common man, one related to the everyday world. Orff sought to create a musical idiom that would serve as a means of drawing listeners away from their daily experiences and closer to the realization of oneness with the universe. In the words of the composer's biographer Andreas Liess, "Orff's spiritual form is molded by the superimposition of a high intellect on a primitive creative instinct," thus establishing a tension between the rational (intellect) and the irrational (instinct). The artistic presentation of the deep-seated psychological self to the thinking person allows an exploration of the regions of being that have been overlaid by accumulated layers of civilization. To portray the connection between the physical and spiritual spheres, Orff turned to the theater. His theater, however, was hardly the conventional one. Orff's modern vision entailed stripping away not only the richly Romantic musical language of traditional opera, but also eliminating its elaborate stagecraft, costumes and scenery, so that it was reduced to just its essential elements of production. Orff's reform even went so far as to question the validity of any works written before 1935, including his own, to express the state of modern man, and he told his publisher to destroy all his music (i.e., Orff's) which "unfortunately" had been printed. The first piece that embodied Orff's new outlook was Carmina Burana.

Though Carmina Burana is most frequently heard in the concert hall, Orff insisted that it was intended to be staged, and that the music was only one of its constituent parts. "I have never been concerned with music as such, but rather with music as ‘spiritual discussion,' " he wrote. "Music is the servant of the word, trying not to disturb, but to emphasize and underline." He felt that this objective was best achieved in the theater, but Carmina Burana still has a stunning impact even without its visual element. Its effect arises from the monumental simplicity of the musical style by which Orff sought to depict the primitive, instinctive side of mankind. Gone are the long, intricate forms of traditional German symphonic music, the opulent homogeneity of the Romantic orchestra, the rich textures of the 19th-century masters. They are replaced by a structural simplicity and a sinewy muscularity that is driven by an almost primeval rhythmic energy. "The simpler and more reduced to essentials a statement is, the more immediate and profound its effect," wrote Orff. It is precisely through this enforced simplicity that Orff intended to draw listeners to their instinctual awareness of "oneness with the universe." Whether he succeeded as philosopher is debatable. Hanspeter Krellmann wrote in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, "The four aspects of Orff's musical theater [tragedy of archetypes, visionary embodiment of metaphysical ideas, bizarre fantasy and physical exuberance] are usually intertwined; and it is apparent from the works that Orff's main concern is not with the exposition of human nature in tragedy, nor with whimsical fancy, nor with the statement of supernatural truths, nor with joyous exultation. His intention seems to be to create a spectacle." So what then is Carmina Burana: a set of ribald songs? a Medieval morality play? a philosophical tract? Perhaps it is all of these. But more than anything, it is one of the most invigorating, entertaining, easily heard and memorable musical creations of the 20th century.

Orff chose 24 poems from the Carmina Burana to include in his work. Since the 13th-century music for them was unknown, all of their settings are original with him. The work is disposed in three large sections with prologue and epilogue. The three principal divisions - Primo Vere ("Springtime"), In Taberna ("In the Tavern") and Cour d'Amours ("Court of Love") - sing the libidinous songs of youth, joy and love. However, the prologue and epilogue (using the same verses and music) that frame these pleasurable accounts warn against unbridled enjoyment. "The wheel of fortune turns; dishonored I fall from grace and another is raised on high," caution the words of Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi ("Fortune, Empress of the World"), the chorus that stands like pillars of eternal verity at the entrance and exit of this Medieval world. They are the ancient poet's reminder that mortality is the human lot, that the turning of the same Wheel of Fortune that brings sensual pleasure may also grind that joy to dust. It is this bald juxtaposition of antitheses - the most rustic human pleasures with the sternest of cosmic admonitions - coupled with Orff's elemental musical idiom that gives Carmina Burana its dynamic theatricality.

The work opens with the chorus Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi, depicting the terrible revolution of the Wheel of Fate through a powerful repeated rhythmic figure that grows inexorably to a stunning climax. After a brief morality tale (Fortune plango vulnera - "I lament the wounds that fortune deals"), the Springtime section begins. Its songs and dances are filled with the sylvan brightness and optimistic expectancy appropriate to the annual rebirth of the earth and the spirit. The next section, In Taberna ("In the Tavern"), is given over wholly to the men's voices. Along with a hearty drinking song are heard two satirical stories: Olim lacus colueram ("Once in lakes I made my home") - one of the most fiendishly difficult pieces in the tenor repertory - and Ego sum abbas Cucaniensis ("I am the abbot of Cucany"). The third division, Cour d'Amours ("Court of Love"), leaves far behind the rowdy revels of the tavern to enter a refined, seductive world of sensual pleasure. The music is limpid, gentle and enticing, and marks the first appearance of the soprano soloist. The lovers' urgent entreaties grow in ardor, with insistent encouragement from the chorus, until submission is won in the most rapturous moment in the score, Dulcissime ("Sweetest Boy"). The grand paean to the loving couple (Blanzifor et Helena) is cut short by the intervention of imperious fate, as the opening chorus (Fortuna), like the turning of the great wheel, comes around once again to close this mighty work.

Karl Schumann wrote of the universality of Orff's Carmina Burana, "No individual destiny is touched upon - there are no dramatic personae in the normal sense of the term. Instead primeval forces are invoked, such as the ever-turning wheel of fortune, the revivifying power of spring, the intoxicating effect of love, and those elements in man which prompt him to the enjoyment of earthly and all-too-earthly pleasures. The principal figure is man, as a natural being delivered over to forces stronger than himself."