Thursday, February 15, 2007

an article about Orff's Carmina Burana

I fell in love with Carmina Burana the first time I heard it rehearsed: I was the nanny for a little boy who was singing in the children's choir which accompanies the performance, and as I sat backstage during the dress rehearsal listening to the great thumping timpani and crashing cymbals, I wished it would never end.

This was the last story I wrote for Scene Magazine, and it was a fitting end to my time with them. My very first story had been a review of a Gerald Fagan performance, and over the years I had become very fond of interviewing Gerry. It seemed appropriate that he should be there to witness the end of this chapter of my life.

In the article I tried to convey my deep love for Orff's creation, and to this day I'm not sure that I succeeded. I put the music on just now as I have been writing this introduction, and I sobbed just as I have always sobbed. Perhaps there are some things we can't say with words...

Fate is against me in health and virtue,
driven on and weighed down,
always enslaved.
So at this hour without delay
pluck the vibrating strings;
since Fate strikes down the strong man,
everyone weep with me!

So ends the opening chorus of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, subtitled "Secular songs for soloists and choir accompanied by instruments and magical pictures."

You'd recognize the music if you heard it - it's been sampled in television commercials for years. I first heard it in a movie trailer for Mel Gibson's Hamlet. It's probably my favorite choral work of all time.

The London Fanshawe Symphonic Chorus is peforming Carmina Burana along with Poulenc's Gloria on November 12, and I wish the entire world could be sitting in the audience.

I want people to fall in love with this music - to have their hearts ripped out of their chests and beaten to a bloody pulp before being stuffed back in again. I want to see helpless concert-goers stumble out of Centennial Hall into the night, dazed and exhilarated. I defy anyone to remain unmoved by the primal passion of Carmina Burana. If that sounds like a tall order, I can't think of any other music that comes closer to filling the bill.

The title, Carmina Burana, is Latin for "songs of Bueren." It refers to the Abbey of Benediktbeuren, where the 13th-century manuscript which inspired Orff to create his 1936 masterpiece was once believed to have originated.

The medieval poetry is written in Latin and High Middle German, and tells tales of loving and yearning, drinking and yearning, and loving some more. The entire work is book-ended by the Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi (Fortune, Empress of the World) lament quoted at the beginning of this column.

Orff's music for Carmina Burana was written with an emphasis on percussion and rhythm. Coupled with the pleasing melodies, the music is an excellent introduction to modern classical music for the novice listener.

Special attention should be paid to the text, as the words are beautiful - at times even downright bawdy and erotic. The thunderous opening movement gives way to gentle springtime, and the baritone soloist (Claude Soulodre in this performance) plaintively expresses his awakening desire. Fast-paced dancing and merriment follow, before the action shifts to the tavern for lusty drinking songs.

In the main section of the work (Cours D'Amour: Court of Love), the baritone and the soprano (Leslie Fagan) meet - the man lustful and insistent, the maiden shy and reticent. In a moment of exquisite beauty the soprano finally surrenders - and the lush chorus of Blanziflor et Helena hails the mystery of a blossoming woman on the cusp of maturity, before Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi is reprised and the wheel of fate is sent spinning again.

I asked Gerald Fagan if he remembered the first time the force and majesty of Carmina Burana really moved him. He admitted it wasn't until he conducted the work himself. His then-19-year-old daughter Leslie was the soprano soloist for that performance, and in her last aria she was required to sing a sustained high B into a high D and then a descending scale. "And the way she did it," says Fagan, "the way she held the notes and so on - to show complete control - was really thrilling for me."

Each time he conducts Carmina Burana, Fagan looks forward the ending - the triple punch of the soprano's last solo, the Blanziflor et Helena chorus and the reprised Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi. "I mean, if you're sitting there and you don't think you got your 18 bucks' worth [after that]," says Fagan, "I think you should go to a movie the next night, you know?

"In those moments it's like great theatre, or it's like watching a great movie, or it's like anything. If it works, it's fabulous."

November 4, 1999
copyright 1999, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

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