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Carl Orff (1895-1982)
Carmina Burana
Composed between 1935 & 1936

Cantiones profanæ cantoribus et choris cantandæ comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis is a scenic cantata based on 24 poems from the medieval collection Carmina Burana. Literally translated, Carmina Burana means Songs of Beuren (a Benedictine monastery in Bavaria). The work is part of the musical triptych (a trio of works) composed by Carl Orff called Trionfi. In 1934 Orff discovered the 1847 edition of Carmina Burana by Johann Schmeller, with original text dating from 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries. Orff’s friend Michel Hofmann, a Latin and Greek enthusiast, helped him select and format the 24 poems into a libretto or text intended for an extended musical work like an opera, musical, or cantata. Although sounding sacred and extremely biblical, the work is in secular Latin verse covering a wide range of topics including the fickleness of fortune and wealth, the nature of life, the pleasures and perils of drinking, gluttony, gambling, and lust to name a few.

Written in five major “chunks” (including the reprisal of the opening) most of the structure of the piece is based on the turning of the Fortuna Wheel. (The wheel encapsulates the phrases: I shall reign, I reign, I have reigned, and I am without a realm). With each new section the wheel “turns” taking grief to hope or joy to despair. Alongside the display of emotions, Orff insisted that his music be inseparable to movement and speech. Although many modern-day presentations of the work are in concert halls as a cantata, Orff had intended the work to be set to dance.

In maintaining his sense of methodical programming, Orff ensured that his work contains little or no musical development in form and polyphony (two or more lines of independent melody running together) is absent. For Orff, the actual sound of the words sung by the soloists and choristers was extremely important. Throughout the piece, note the percussion section’s ability to highlight and enhance the singing of the text. The texts in the piece are fairly simple melodies, evoking a sense of folk song or plainchant.

Rhythm for Mr. Orff was the primary musical force in his compositions. All together it sounds rhythmically simple, but the meter (duple or triple) changes freely from one measure bar until the next. The constant rhythmic changes give Carmina Burana a “very conversational feel” allowing the listener to perhaps not notice the wild changes in the overall pace of the piece.
Alongside the wild changes in rhythm, Orff created very challenging solo arias. The only tenor aria is generally sung completely in falsetto (head voice) to mimic the fate of his character. Likewise, the baritone arias require high notes that are not part of the normal baritone range. This also causes the baritone soloist to sing long passages in falsetto. Not to be left out, the soprano aria has exceedingly high notes, making it possible for only very skilled lyric sopranos and not for coloratura or mezzo-sopranos. At the same time, Carmina offers one of the fullest orchestras written for the modern day, including many lower sounding instruments like the English horn, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, and the not to be forgotten, six percussionists.

After composing Carmina Burana Orff said “Everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately, printed, can be destroyed. With Carmina Burana, my collected works begin.”

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