Friday, November 7, 2008

Carl Orff "Carmina Burana"

Discovered in 1803 in the Benediktbeuern abbey by the German scholar Johann Andreas Schmeller, the Codex Burana is a collection of 228 poems written in Latin, Middle German and Old Provençal. They were recorded by students and clergy about the year 1230 in southern Bavaria. Meant to be set to music they include love songs, drinking songs and scandalous chucrh parodies. The songs provide a fascinating uncensored view into the cultural life of the high middle ages.

Schmeller published the codex and named it the Carmina Burana (Songs of Beuern) in 1847. In 1935 and '36 the German composer Carl Orff set 24 of the songs to new music, producing a work meant for orchestra, soloists and choir. Subtitled cantiones profanae, the styles range from plaintive and pastoral to comical to demonic to ecstatic. The composition was highly successful, long outliving the Nazi regime which at first found the work too controversial for public performance.

It premiered at the Alte Oper, Frankfurt, in 1937. The opening movement, O Fortuna, is one of the most well known pieces of classical music, familiar to many as the theme to the film The Omen. Covered by performers from the Doors' Ray Manzarek to Enya and by every classical venue on the planet, performances of this work are a guaranteed to sell out.

The Carmina Burana is meant to be performed operatically, and in 1975, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle produced a West German film version which faithfully produces scenes from mediaeval festivals and morality plays with an effect that seems to cross Easter with Halloween.

The text of Orff's Carmina Burana is available at Teach Yourself Latin. It includes the Latin, French and German lyrics with a loose English translation. The 1975 film by Ponnelle, with a fine musical recording is available in full, starting here with O Fortuna, at YouTube:

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