Here’s a guide to Carmina Burana, Carl Orff’s colourful, boisterous, Medieval-set cantata from 1935-36, plus a selection of the work’s best recordings.
Who was Carl Orff?
Born into a military family in Munich in 1895, Carl Orff showed an aptitude for music at an early age. After serving in World War I, where he narrowly survived when a trench caved in, he began his musical career in earnest at opera houses in Mannheim and Darmstadt.
From the mid-1920s, he devoted himself to music education, co-founding the Günther-Schule for gymnastics, music and dance in Munich with Dorothee Günther and, in 1930, sharing his methods in the publication Schulwerk.
Though Orff himself said his composing career proper began with Carmina Burana in 1937, it would also prove the peak of his popularity. Required to go through denazification after World War II, he continued to live in Germany until his death in 1982.
Where does ‘O Fortuna’ come from?
‘I’ve amused myself making a list of composers who became famous for the least amount of music,’ wrote pianist Marc-André Hamelin on Twitter. ‘So far my winners are Orff (about three minutes, and y’all know which)…’ One could, of course, respond that Orff also wrote the widely familiar ‘Gassenhauer’ from Schulwerk.
However, for all the millions that might recognise this cheery xylophone and timpani piece from the films Badlands, True Romance and countless TV programmes, few know what it is called, let alone who wrote it. Perhaps Hamelin has a point?
The ‘three minutes’ he is referring to is the shattering ‘O Fortuna’ chorus that appears at the start and end of Carmina Burana. Whether you picture its belted-out chords and pounded timpani accompanying an intrepid surfer in an Old Spice advert or Simon Cowell and co striding onto the X Factor stage may well depend on your age.
Others may recognise it from Enigma’s 1999 song ‘Gravity of Love’, though those associating it with The Omen are victims of popular misconception – it never in fact appears in the 1976 thriller’s score.
Why is Carmina Burana so popular?
The rest of Carmina Burana’s hour-or-so of music for soloists, choir, children’s choirs and orchestra may not share the same level of familiarity as ‘O Fortuna’, but has nonetheless proved enduringly popular since its hugely successful first performance as a choreographed stagework at the Oper Frankfurt on 8 June 1837.
Orff himself knew he’d hit the jackpot, writing to his publisher Schott soon afterwards that ‘Everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately, printed, can be destroyed. With Carmina Burana, my collected works begin.’
That said, one wonders if, among the applause and cheers, there were also a few scratched heads at that Frankfurt premiere, as Carmina Burana is an idiosyncratic beast. Take, for a start, the libretto which, drawn from a collection of 11th-, 12th- and 13th-century poems found in a Bavarian monastery in 1803, is in a mix of Latin, Medieval German and Old French.
What language is Carmina Burana sung in?
Assisted by a young student called Michel Hofmann, Orff ordered 24 of the poems into a structure that, in between the opening and closing ‘Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi’ (Fortune, ruler of the world) sections, falls into three main parts: ‘Primo vere’ (Spring); ‘In Taberna’ (In the tavern); and ‘Cour d’amours’ (The court of love).
(The songs of Carmina Burana were written principally in Medieval Latin, a few in Middle High German and old Arpitan. Some are even in macaronic, a mixture of Latin and German or French vernacular.)
What are the sections of Carmina Burana?
‘Primo vere’ goes through the traditional vernal routine of saying farewell to winter and welcoming birds, bees, flowers and all before taking us onto the lawn (‘Uf dem anger’) where our thoughts are directed towards what young people like to get up to as the warmer weather arrives, a theme explored in lascivious detail in ‘Cour d’amours’.
In between, ‘In Taberna’ begins with the solo baritone’s folk-inspired ‘Estuans interius’ before we are presented with the aria ‘Olim lacus colueram’, in which a swan who is being roasted on a spit reflects how it once swam gracefully on a lake – sung either by a very high tenor, often switching in and out of falsetto, or by a countertenor, it’s intentionally gruesome, full of squawks and hoots.
Presumably, the swan is on the menu of the Abbott who, introducing himself in the baritone’s chant-like ‘Ego sum abbas’, explains that he enjoys the company of drunkards and gamblers. ‘In taberna quando sumus’, a drinking chorus par excellence, follows.
Is Carmina Burana popular with performers?
Quirky solos and a large performing forces aside, however, there is surprisingly little for a conductor to work with in Carmina Burana. Forget intricate polyphony, for a start. Much of the music consists simply of a single vocal line plus orchestral accompaniment, and even when the chorus does sing in harmony, the various voices often double up – even in those grand opening ‘O Fortuna’ chords, the second sopranos and tenors sing the same line, as do the altos and basses.
Orff can be ruthless with his singers, pushing both soloists and chorus members to the very tops of their range. Having being required to scale a top C (two above middle C) in the closing bars of ‘Primo vere’, the sopranos are probably glad of the break as the male singers alone head into the pub for the entirety of ‘In taberna’.
Though there are more restrained moments – the baritone’s seasonal ‘Omnia sol temperat’ solo and the soprano’s deliberations between love and chastity in ‘In Trutina’, for instance – subtlety is not something one immediately associates with Carmina Burana. For that reason, plus the unavoidable fact that it enjoyed cult popularity in Nazi Germany, it has as many detractors as it does devotees.
Many of the world’s great conductors have been drawn to it, however, and the number of available recordings is vast…
Carmina Burana best recordings
Seiji Ozawa (conductor)
Stanley Kolk (tenor), Evelyn Mandac (soprano), Sherrill Milnes (baritone); New England Conservatory Chorus and Children’s Chorus, Boston Symphony Orchestra
How did Orff himself like Carmina Burana to sound? For this, we can turn to two versions that we know had his personal stamp of approval – Eugen Jochum’s from 1967 (see right) and Herbert Kegel’s refined MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra recording from 1960, complete with background birdsong (presumably intentional) at the start of ‘Primo Vere’.
Both Jochum and Kegel display the keen sense of rhythm that is of vital importance in Carmina Burana, and it is worth remembering that Orff wrote it intending dance to be part of the mix. Similarly, there also need to be a feeling of forward momentum or, given Orff’s penchant for repetition, the attention can so easily start to drift.
The large orchestra should thrill, frolic and beguile in equal measure, while the soloists need to strike a fine balance between being characterful and hamming it up. Very few of the many recordings available are duds and several – including the likes of André Previn, Christian Thielemann and Riccardos Chailly and Muti – vied for the shortlist here. It is the 1970 recording by Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra that above all compels from start to finish.
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And what a start – in the opening ‘O fortuna’, the contrast between pianissimo and forte when Ozawa’s chorus and orchestra unleash their full might at ‘Sors salutis’ is hair-raising. And both here and throughout, the New England Conservatory Chorus gain extra points for their immaculate diction. Though listeners with a firm command of Latin plus Medieval French and German are probably few and far between, it is still nice to be able to hear all the words clearly.
Ozawa also has a first-rate team of soloists. One’s appetite for roast swan can start to wane after repeated listenings, but Stanley Colk stands apart – singing at the top of his tenor range without ever heading into falsetto, he paints the very picture of despair.
Soprano Evelyn Mandac is floatily seductive in ‘Amor Volat Unique’ and hits the top D in ‘Dulcissime’ with effortless elegance, while baritone Sherill Milnes is equally effective basking in the sun in ‘Primo Vere’ as he is as a debauched abbot in the taverna. Could he perhaps be a little less prim and precise in ‘Estuans interius’? Possibly, but it’s a small blip in an otherwise hugely enjoyable experience.
Carmina Burana greatest recordings
Three more to try
Eugen Jochum (conductor)
The German Eugen Jochum was, in 1952, one of the first conductors to record Carmina Burana, and then returned the work in 1967 for this superb recording with the Deutsche Oper Berlin.
Full of urgency and considerable orchestral heft but also tenderness when necessary, it boasts dream soloists in soprano Gundula Janowitz and baritone Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, whose ‘Omnia sol temperat’ radiates a feeling of spring warmth like no other. Tenor Gerhard Stolze’s swan errs on the side of sinister, however. (Deutsche Grammophon 447 4372)
Simon Rattle (conductor)
As might be expected from a conductor who himself used to wield the timpanist’s sticks, Simon Rattle’s 2004 live New Year’s Eve recording with the Berlin Philharmonic and admirably agile Rundfunkchor Berlin brings out the raw, percussive side of Carmina Burana – this is a literally hard-hitting, fast-moving account.
If baritone soloist Christian Gerhaher’s ‘Estuans interius’ strays a little on the sharp side, he makes up for it in riotous conviviality, while tenor Robert Brownlee is a superbly anguished swan and Sally Matthews a gorgeously warm-voiced soprano soloist. (Warner Classics 557 8882)
Rupert Huber (conductor)
Though the vast majority of Carmina Burana recordings are with orchestra, there is also an arrangement for soloists, choir, percussion and two pianos, made in 1956 by Wilhelm Killmayer at Orff’s request.
As revealed by this polished performance by the SWR Vokalensemble and GrauSchumacher Piano Duo, it’s a surprisingly effective version, bringing out elements within the score that tend to get lost in the vast sound of the original. Being lighter in number than usual allows the immaculately disciplined chorus to display agility and nuance.
What to listen to after Carmina Burana?
Enjoyed Orff’s idiosyncratic Carmina Burana? Here are five more works you may want to try…
Orff: Catulli Carmina
How many people know that Orff’s Carmina Burana is actually one third of Trionfi, a trilogy of cantatas that also includes Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite? The former sets texts by the Roman poet Catullus – master of bawdy repartee and phallic allusion – in a sequence that tells of his fraught relationship with Lesbia.
Its introduction and finale are unusually scored for an accompaniment of four pianos and percussion, while the three central ‘acts’ consist of vocal soloists and chorus alone. (Soloists; Munich Radio Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst Warner 555 5172)
Schmidt: The Book with Seven Seals
For a similarly large-scale contemporary of Carmina Burana, try Franz Schmidt’s The Book with Seven Seals, premiered in 1938. For his libretto, Schmidt took texts from the Book of Revelation – given the date, its apocalyptic theme seems rather prescient.
In contrast to Orff’s rhythmically driven score, Schmidt’s work is late-Romantic in style, with significant passages for solo organ. (Soloists; Tonkünstler Orchester Niederösterreich, Wiener Singverein/Kristjan Järvi Chandos CHSA5061(2))
Hindemith: Das Unaufhörliche (The One Perpetual)
Paul Hindemith shared Orff’s enthusiasm for musical education, so the appearance of a children’s choir alongside the soloists, chorus and orchestra in his 1931 oratorio Das Unaufhörliche (The One Perpetual) is no surprise. Over three movements, it sets a philosophical poem by Gottfried Benn that addresses the inevitable futility of challenging the principle of perpetuality. Much of the writing is typically knotty, but there are moments of drama and beauty too. (Soloists; Berlin Radio Chorus, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Lothar Zagrosek Wergo WER66032)
Schulhoff: Communist Manifesto
The following year, the increasingly left-leaning Erwin Schulhoff turned to Marx and Engels for inspiration, setting their words in his Communist Manifesto. Set in four movements and scored for double choir, four soloists, children’s choir and large wind orchestra, the Czech composer’s work was never performed in his lifetime. Revived in the 1970s, it is gutsy, brassy and, at times, surprisingly martial. (Soloists; Prague Radio SO and Chorus/František Vajnar YouTube)
Manzarek: Carmina Burana
Finally, for a different take on Orff, head for the 1983 rock reimagining of Carmina Burana by Ray Manzarek, former keyboard player of The Doors. Not all of it comes off – the opening ‘O Fortuna’, for instance, morphs into something akin to a comedy camel dance from a 1980s TV sketch show – but Manzarek’s inventive keyboard work make it worth exploring. (Ray Manzarek (keyboards) et al A&M Records 394 945-2)