O Fortuna, O Fortune, like the moon
velut luna You are always changing
statu variabilis, Waxing now, now waning,
semper crescis Never the same for long remaining
The mallets bounce off the timpani in a strict four-by-four time. The shrill of the choir voices soar on the second beat climaxing at the third bar. This sets in motion the thrilling ride of the popular choral piece known as the Carmina Burana. Resigned young poets celebrate. They raise their glasses and drink to lost hope. They sharpen their tongues and spew shards of damning poetry into the fierce night. Centuries later, a middle-aged composer raises his baton and plucks twenty-four twinkling stars from the night and sets music to the poetry. Both, poets and composer, take their place in annals of musicology.
In 1937, the German composer, Carl Orff chose 24 poems from the anthology known as the Carmina Burana. The Carmina Burana is a collection of 200 Goliardic poems collected by a Benedictine monk at the monastery of Beuron in Bavaria in the thirteenth century. The Goliards is a name given to the street poets who lived in the twelfth century. They were usually one-time monks dedicated to the pious life or university students committed to higher education with the hope of advancing to a profession or church. Both abandoned their studies because of the corruption that surrounded them. The monks heard sermons praising poverty and good deeds but saw money buying position and power in the church. The students, facing intense competition, did not see any hope in entering into a profession. Hence, the songs speak of disillusionment with the world yet, court love and the immediate pleasures of life: games of chance, sex, drink, and general bawdiness, rebelling against the former virtues of religiosity and scholarly disciplines. In fact, the gambling metaphor is used freely to illustrate how fate is a game of luck. According to the poets the odds are against you so you might as well enjoy the pleasures that are placed before you.
Hac in hora So at this hour
sine mora without delay
corde pulsum tangite; pluck the vibrating strings;
quod per sortem since Fate
sternit fortem, strikes down the string man,
mecum omnes plangite! everyone weep with me!
Written in Medieval Latin the 24 poems are composed of three verses. Each verse containing 12 to 8 lines of poetry, employing a regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, when we compare the first verses of the first and second poems there is an obvious difference in the number of lines – the first consists of 12 lines, as opposed to 8 in the second. If we look at the end-rhymes, we notice that there is no consistency in the rhyme scheme. The first verse in the first poem employs a pattern where line 1 and 2 rhyme, line 3, 4, 5, and 6 rhyme with another sound. In the second poem, line 1 rhymes with line 3 and line 2 with 4. This is not surprising, since the collected poems had been sung by different poets. Nevertheless, each piece with its pithy lines works in contributing to the spirit of the whole. The short staccato lines that are sung in Medieval Latin mixed with French and German perfectly accentuate the pulsating rhythm of Carl Orff's music. From beginning to end, the poetry jostles with life shifting from colloquial speech to allusions to mythical characters such Queen Hecuba. The juxtaposition reveals that the Goliards were not ordinary street poets but scholars.
nimis exaltatus far too high up
rex sedet in vertice sits the king at the summit -
caveat ruinam! let him fear ruin!
nam sub axe legimus for under the axis is written
Hecubam reginam. Hecuba was queen!
Carll Orff in his musical arrangement traverses between the pulsating rhythm of classical dance to haunting voices recalling the church hymn. By doing so, Orff gives the poetry context. He creates the right tension and reveals the inner conflict facing the Goliardic poets. The Goliards, having forsaken their old virtues for the wild side, never lose the essence of their erudite or spiritual past. Orff ‘s music captures the mood perfectly, whether he chooses the cavernous sound of the kettledrums or a single stroke on a piano that vibrates across the chest cavity. The staccato builds to a crescendo. He produces a rebellious empowering piece of music. The melody sung by a full chorus, backed by piano and drums, resembles the cry of the destitute reinforcing the theme of disillusionment. The dramatic flourishes, that follows, ignited by the full orchestra captures the unspoken hopes of the Goliardic poets’ movement.
The music with its dramatic beginning entices the listener to immediate response. One can not, whether one understands the lyric or not, but react to the theatricality of the piece. Each section builds, climaxes, and ends only to begin the cycle again. Starting at the lower registers, one can feel the chorus brewing to a higher register while the drummer draws an unrelenting beat that paints a picture of coming revolution.
The pounding rhythms, the evocative chorus, the music moves to dance, and drama. Beautifully layered and paced the Carmina Burana demands attention from the first to the umpteenth listen. It registers in the heart, the mind and the feet. The Carmina Burana is musical theatre that works the sensory muscles. It delights in life. It caresses and hurls the listener in the air, catches him, and hurls him even higher.