Thursday, January 27, 2011

June 8th 1937 - Carmina Burana Composed by Carl Orff

"O Fortuna", more commonly known as the opening to Carmina Burana is one of those tunes that everyone knows, but no one KNOWS they know. Awhile back when I used to work at Tower Records, the dude who worked the classical room had this CD sampler that was called something like "99 Most Influential Classical Scores" and I think O Fortuna was was something like track 6 or 7. Looking back on my life, I am sad to admit that I think the first time I ever heard it was in a Guinness beer commercial.

I can't locate any kind of copyright information on this commercial, but I have a feeling that it ran in the late 90's, I think I may have possibly been in middle school. I say this because there are two very poignant life references I can make to this song. My best friend at the time, Ian, was in marching band for about as long as I've known him. I think in middle school, the marching band did either O Fortuna, or possibly the entire opera, possibly a truncated version. The other thing that comes to mind when I think Carmina Burana is "The Duel of the Fates", from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Needless to say, this is a film that did not age well with me, but when I was in middle school, I thought it was the goddamn coolest thing in the world!
The only part of this film that survived the fanboy onslaught is the soundtrack, which is brilliant. In particular, "The Duel of the Fates", which is used mainly as Darth Maul's theme.

I can't remember if this is true of if I'm just imagining it, but I think I remember hearing in an interview or some "making of" documentary thing that John Williams took a lot of inspiration from Carmina Burana while composing this score. John Williams is one of my favourite lazy geniuses. Because of it's influence, "Duel of the Fates" stands out as one of Williams' most unique compositions.

But enough about Star Wars, there will be plenty of time to talk about that later.

In the early 2000's, when I was still working for Tower, this copy (pictures at top) of Carmina Burana stumbled into our discount used classical bin. I think I may have paid something like $4.99 for it, which was cheap for a CD back then. I can't remember if this was when I lived with my parents or when I lived with John, but I took that CD home and drowned myself in it. Like I am prone to doing while drowning in an album, I dug deep into it. This was a piece of antiquity to me, despite being only 60 or 70 years old, not holding a candle to the hundreds of year old compositions by people like Beethoven or Mozart.
Despite that, Orff's interpretation in opera from the late 30's represents an ancient manuscript of poetry from the 11th and 12th centuries.

This is where my Art History roots begin to show a little more :)
in 2008 and 2009 when I initially went back to school for my art degree, Art History was a required course. My preconception was tainted by a friend at the time who told me the class was really dull and full of lots of dry reading. I now consider that person to be a crazy tripper, because that class was one of the most interesting I think I've ever taken. Not only was the subject matter completely the opposite of dull and dry, and it was presented in the best way possible, by someone who became one of my favourite Professors ever, Simon Pennington. You can see how well regarded he is by his students on ratemyprofessor

We did not specifically cover Carmina Burana in his class, but it would have been right at home in his curriculum. Here is the brief version of its history. Carmina Burana is a manuscript of over 200 poems, and other dramatic writings. It spans mostly the 11th and 12th centuries, but I learned later that there's some writing which date to the 13th century as well. They're in at least 6 different languages, by students of the clergy who were known at the "Goliards", who in essence, are characterized as getting drunk and writing satirical songs about the church. This was a time when the immense failure of the Crusades was still a hot topic. The Goliards were the bloggers of their time, shaking their fingers at the monarchy, tut tutting their huge public failures, in much the same way harangues Washington DC.
600 years later, Carl Orff took 24 of those scathing condemnations and based a grand opera around them. I am not certain of Orff's political leanings to be honest. All I really know is that he lived in Germany during the rise of the Hitler's Third Reich. I know plenty of stories about Artists who fled Germany during this time, but as far as I know, Orff just hung out and composed music.
This is an interesting dichotomy to me. A man who was seemingly comfortable with Nazi occupation and martial law chose a scathing review of the powers that be as the inspiration for his most prominent work. It would be like if Saddam Hussein had commissioned a musical version of Fahrenheit 451.

Regardless of the seemingly murky history, Carl Orff's Carmina Burana is one of those epic melodies that will most likely live forever in our hearts and minds.

I know last time, I said that I'd be writing about the Wizard of Oz, but this took priority for me this week. I SWEAR I'll do Wizard of Oz next time! :D

In two weeks, I'll be revisiting the topic of music in World War II with the jazz/swing/big band compilation "Swing Tanzen Verboten!"

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

January 1938 - Songs From Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - Written by Frank Churchill and Leigh Harline

Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is one of those cultural juggernauts that seems to completely transcend generation. Snow White is of course a timeless fairy tale, but everyone I know with is more immediately familiar with the Disney version.
Everyone rolls their eyes at Disney now, because it's such a gargantuan corporation that's almost completely covered popular media in only the most hostile of takeovers. That, layered on top of modern day accusations of shady business practices gives people a bad taste in their mouths when they think about Disney. Despite all of this, all you have to say is "Heigh-Ho!" to trigger that special, sympathetic, nostalgic nerve in someone, and suddenly, all is forgiven!

Snow White was a huge to-do back in the day. No one believed in the film while it was being made, it was costing so much to produce that even Disney's wife thought it was going to end up ruining them. We with the benefit of hindsight know what a cultural force it became, and this is due in no small part to the iconic musical score. The fact that Snow White's soundtrack was the first ever commercial issued soundtrack is a testament to that. Think about this for a second. Until this moment in time, film soundtracks were unavailable to the general public, or at least unavailable in any form other than simply watching the movie, but not in a media that one could purchase and take home.

This is a real shame to me, because there are many, many films from the 20's and 30's with amazing original scores, but they mostly just exist as sheet music now, and the closest we can get to having soundtracks are often weak facsimiles. For example, 1922's Nosferatu is one of my favourite lost scores of all time. I got the opportunity to hear a live rendition of it from the organist who plays at a local old timey theater in my area. Sadly, this version has NEVER been committed to CD, and likely never will be :( Even the DVD release has some second rate orchestra fiddling together some random chords and strings that seem like they'd sound more at home in a Looney Toons short which parody's Dracula.

Needless to say, soundtracks used to be a hard thing to get ahold of, but this all changed with Snow White. The music was so fun, and catchy, and memorable, so moved the audiences that heard it, that they demanded to be able to take it home. Thus began the age of the film soundtrack!

My first exposure to this film and its music started when I was merely a boy of 3.

In the late 80's, Disney was doing a theatrical re-release of the film, and my folks decided to take me, thus changing my life forever. Seeing Snow White on the big screen remains one of the oldest memories, for the longest time, I had no idea why I knew these songs, or why I associated these images with them. That's how deep it bored into my skull.

When I was in second grade, I was even in a school production of Snow White, I played Grumpy! :D. At this time, the Disney VHS collection was still three years away. No one had the movie on tape unless it was recorded from TV, and to my knowledge, the only soundtrack that was available was the three LP set released in 1938, so an entire 2nd and 4th grade class rehearsed those songs form memory!
Granted, I only had to know certain parts from only three songs, but I still HEARD the rest of the cast doing their part. And so, even beyond having those very early memories of having seen it in the theater, these songs further dug it's way into my memory from all those rehearsals. This was of course before Disney started litigating against schools for things like this.

It was not until 1994 that Snow White came out on VHS, and the soundtrack was released on cassette, I had to wait three years to see how close we got on stage, and to the best of my recollection, we were pretty fantastic :D