Home > About Us > Repertory > Carmina Burana

 

Repertory

 

 
Photographer:
  Photographer Steve Wilson.
   

Carmina Burana
Choreography: Toni Pimble
Music: Carl Orff

The text of Carmina Burana is a selection of the songs and poems in a manuscript discovered at a Benedictine monastery at Beuron, in the Bavarian Alps in A.D. 1280.  J.A. Shmeller published the manuscript in 1847 and titled it Carmina Burana.  As Ernst Brost observed, the manuscript contains verses that touch every sphere of human activity: church, state, society and the individual.  Orff's selections offer a celebration of spring, erotic love, food, drink and abandon. The songs are an expression of the age-old "carpe diem" theme and, as if to emphasize the reflections on the human condition that gave that theme its birth, Orff frames the celebratory songs with the first and last movements, an invocation to and excoriation of Fortuna, imperatrix mundi (Fortune, empress of the universe).  The Wheel of Fortune turns, raising and lowering individuals in unpredictable times.

The authors of these songs of exuberance and sorrow were itinerant clergy, scholars and students. As James Lyons observes, "In the middle ages, Carmina were the songs of the Goliards - those peripatetic undergraduates-at-large, erstwhile seminarians and disenchanted monks who had left the universities and the monastic disciplines to spend their days and nights singing, drinking, making love and praising all of these pleasures in extremely earthy poetry.

Orff's mix of lyric melodic lines, exotic tone color, dramatic choral movements, self-consciencious use of archaic repetitions and percussive, driving rhythm reflect his compositional philosophy and his deep understanding of both the earthy and sublime elements of human nature.  He stages human drama - joy, sorrow, triumph, tragedy, and helplessness in the face of forces too large to comprehend.  "O fortuna, velut luna statu variabilis: Oh Fortune, like the moon, changeable in state".  We cannot triumph finally, we can only endure.  It is perhaps a measure of the resilience of the human spirit that we endure in celebration.  It is perhaps a measure of Orff's admiration of the human spirit that he realizes that celebration so vividly and dramatically in his representation of Carmina Burana.

Orff begins and ends his selections from the Carmina Burana with the central theme of the Wheel of Fortune, one of the dominant paradigms of the Middle Ages.  Life is ephemeral, unpredictable, and changeable at a moment’s notice.  Tragedy follows triumph and triumph tragedy in the twinkling of an eye.  Throughout the texts Orff chose (and throughout the original Carmina Burana) both cyclical and antithetical images abound. As Kipling observed, “The precession of the equinoxes was proceeding according to precedent.” We soon find out that the change of seasons, itself a cycle, is about all people can count on.

At the same time, the poems set up oppositions such as spirit/flesh, triumph/tragedy, hope/despair.  It behooves us to remember that a lot of the poetry was written by those who, at least for a time, were seeking to obtain holy orders.  There is a deep intelligence behind these poems, and the writers show
themselves to be thoroughly familiar with Church doctrine, scripture, and secular writings. Many of the poems lampoon the clergy, the follies of love, and life in general.

 

Wheel of Fortune
The first movement of Carmina Burana is represented by two poems, O Fortuna/O fortune and Fortune plango/I bewail the wounds of fortune.  They are about human drama - joy, sorrow, triumph, tragedy, and helplessness in the face of forces too large to comprehend.  "O fortuna, velut luna statu variabilis: Oh Forune, like the moon, changeable in state”.   The wheel of fortune is seen on the stage at the end of the first poem as a rose window with a man pinned against it turning helplessly in its power.

First Spring
The second movement is represented by a collection of poems that sing about the welcoming spring and the arousal of love in all its guises. Women long for a young man and bemoan their fate when he rides away. The poem “Shopkeeper give me the color”, is danced with fabric representing towels as bathing women make themselves beautiful to welcome their lover.  And a circle dance brings men and women together on the green to enjoy loves pleasures.

In the Tavern
In the third movement the mood changes abruptly. The action moves from the idyllic countryside to the frenetic atmosphere of the tavern.  In the first poem “Estuans interius”, the poet knows full well not only that he is a slave to the sins of the flesh but that he risks damnation by succumbing to them.

Olim lacus colueram is the comic lament of a swan being roasted. He recalls the days when he was beautiful and free and bewails his sorry state.  Meanwhile, the men in the tavern are sharpening their utensils and all but drooling in anticipation of the impending feast.

Ego sum abbas is a baritone solo. The poem is all one sentence and is evocative of sacred chant but with profane content.

In taberna quando sumus is a full-blown expression of the carpe diem theme, a concept that continues to resonate throughout the centuries. Death is inevitable, but it is possible to forget that with the proper diversions - gambling drinking and revelry.

The Court of Love
In the fourth movement the verses take love more seriously than the earlier poems. The texts speak of love, fear, longing, and loss in intensely personal terms. The verses become decidedly earthy. There are images of a boy and girl dallying in a secluded chamber, of the sharp longing of a lover awaiting his beloved, and of someone trying to choose between the chaste and the carnal. the excitement of new love, the fear of going too far, and the anguish felt by those still virgins but teetering on the brink of sexual awakening.  The chorus comes together to hail the coming of love at the end of this scene.  Then the work comes full circle to the opening poem “O fortune” and once again we are cast down into the depths of despair from which we cannot triumph, we can only endure as we turn on the wheel of fortune.

Prologue
Orff begins and ends his selections from the Carmina Burana with the central theme of the Wheel of Fortune, one of the dominant paradigms of the Middle Ages. Life is ephemeral, unpredictable, and changeable at a moment’s notice.  Tragedy follows triumph and triumph tragedy in the twinkling of an eye.  Throughout the texts Orff chose (and throughout the original Carmina Burana) both cyclical and antithetical images abound. As Kipling observed, “The
precession of the equinoxes was proceeding according to precedent.” We soon find out that the change of seasons, itself a cycle, is about all people can count on.   At the same time, the poems set up oppositions such as spirit/flesh, triumph/tragedy, and hope/despair. It behooves us to remember that a lot of the poetry was written by those who, at least for a time, were seeking to obtain holy orders. There is a deep intelligence behind these poems, and the writers show themselves to be thoroughly familiar with Church doctrine, scripture, and secular writings. Many of the poems lampoon the clergy, the follies of love, and life in general.

1. O Fortuna addresses, in general and personal terms, the vicissitudes of fortune. Moving from the cosmic (Fortune is like the moon) to the personal (Fortune oppresses me) and finally to an empty call to arms (join with me and take action), the poem encapsulates our feelings of helplessness, frustration, and anger in the face of an existence over which we have no real control.

2. Fortune plango is a caveat to all who, for the moment, at least, are in ascendancy. The wheel motif is emphasized again, making clear that one can plunge from heaven to hell precipitously. The medieval conceit concerning Hecuba, the queen of Troy in the Iliad, is that, since she is an old hag, she is the queen of hell.

Part I
The prologue sets up the stakes of the argument, but that argument seems to be vitiated by an abrupt change of theme. The return of spring brings warmth, joy, and abundance. Upon reflection, however, the change is not so abrupt after all. Spring is part of cycle, a wheel, if you will. The adage “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” can be inverted: If spring comes, can winter be far behind?

3. Veris leta expresses the exuberance at the renewal of all living things.  It also contains some of the many allusions to classical mythology (remember Hecuba?) in Orff’s selections. This is fitting, since Orff himself was a classical scholar well-versed in Greek and Latin mythology.
Flora is the Roman goddess of flowers and hence the personification of spring.  Phebus is an epithet of the god Apollo. Its literal meaning is “shining.”  Apollo is often referred to as the sun god in ancient mythology.   The nightingale is associated with spring and consequent lust by many medieval poets, among them the Troubadours and Chaucer.

4. Omnia Sol temperat moves toward warmer weather and the joys that accompany the summer. Winter has been driven off, and anyone who does not “make use of the reward of Cupid” is misguided. This poem again alludes to a mythological character, Paris, who won the love of Helen of Troy (we’ll hear more about her later).

5 & 6 are instrumental and dance numbers.

7. Floret silva employs both Latin and German lyrics. It is a lament of a sort: the forest is green, and everything flourishes, but the maiden who speaks tells us that her lover has ridden off and wonders who will love her.

8. Chramer, gib die varwe mir can be thought of as the maiden’s resiliency.  She hies herself to the shop keeper to buy cosmetics that will enable her to find a new love.

9. Swaz hie got umbe: Two ideas are expressed here. First, there are some maidens whose behavior will leave them without lovers for the whole summer.  This somewhat stinging observation is followed by a young man’s love poem to his beloved and a catalogue of her charms.
10. Were diu werlt comically expresses an impossible dream: the speaker would give up all worldly possessions to take the queen of England as his lover.

Part II--In Taberna

In this section, the mood changes abruptly. The action moves from the idyllic countryside to the frenetic atmosphere of the tavern.

11. Estuans interius sets up the tension between the sacred and the sensual, spirit and the flesh. The speaker alludes to the 7 deadly sins and knows full well not only that he is a slave to the sins of the flesh but that he risks damnation by succumbing to them.

12. Olim lacus colueram is the comic lament of a swan being roasted. He recalls the days when he was beautiful and free and bewails his sorry state.  Meanwhile, the men in the tavern are sharpening their utensils and all but drooling in anticipation of the impending feast.

13. Ego sum abbas points up satirically the corruption of the clergy. The poem is all one sentence and is evocative of sacred chant but with profane content. The speaker may be an abbot or an inn keeper, a distinction of little moment. In either case, he makes his living by cheating. The analogy is powerful.

14. In taberna quando sumus is a full-blown expression of the carpe diem theme, a concept that continues to resonate throughout the centuries. Death is inevitable, but it is possible to forget that with the proper diversions.  The “bibit” section parodies the form of intercessory prayers.

Part 3--Cours d’Amours

15-18. Although #15 begins with the idea that “Love flies everywhere, these verses take love more seriously than does the previous love poetry. The texts speak of love, fear, longing, and loss in intensely personal terms.  Love is painful, and the lover often doesn’t know what to do or even where to begin. These verses are evocative of the poetry of the Troubadours, especially the poems that speak of “love from a distance.”

19-21. These verses are decidedly earthy. There are images of a boy and girl dallying in a secluded chamber, of the sharp longing of a lover awaiting his beloved, and of someone trying to choose between the chaste and the carnal.  (Guess which one wins).

22- Tempus est jucundum recapitulates the themes of spring and love, but in a more concrete fashion. The concept of the Pastoral informs many of the poems Orff chose. “Come live with me and be my love” finds an affinity here, as do the excitement of new love and the fear of going too far, especially in the case of innocents.  Like #21, this verse focuses on the anguish felt by those still virgins but teetering on the brink of sexual awakening.

Blanziflor et Helena

24. This song is a parody of hymns to the Virgin Mary. All the imagery leads the reader to expect just that, but the writer throws us a curve. At the last minute, he addresses Blanziflor, none-too-chaste heroine of a medieval Romance, and Helen of Troy, (Remember Helen?) who ran off with or was abducted by, depending one’s point of view) Paris (remember Paris?). The last line shatters any idea that this could be a hymn to the Virgin. We learn that all the beautiful words were meant to praise Venus generosa.  Venus is the Roman goddess of love, not chastity. The epithet generosa does indeed mean “noble,” but, when traced to its Latin roots, it is clear that
it derives from the Latin verb gignere, “to give birth.”

Return to Repertory