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!"


  1. Well, about Orff's political opinion can only be speculated, but it seems he simply didn't care for it.
    He composed two pieces for the Nazi regime while being close friends with one of the founders of the resistance group "Weiße Rose" (white rose) at the same time.
    The verses he selected for his Carmina Burana are not of such political nature as well, and more about universal themes as the return of spring or the joys and dangers of gambling.
    There was a movie in the 1970s if I recall correctly, showing the original scenes with Orff's music.

    But I got distracted it seems, I just wanted to let you know that I really like your way of writing and the music you have presented so far.
    Keep it up.

  2. Thanks so much, Cheshire :D
    It's so nice to be getting feedback from people who I don't know in person.
    Thanks for reading, and be alert for further updates! They are in the wind!

  3. I had no idea that I knew O Fortuna! I think it's amazing how you can comment in so much detail.

    These blogs are really well written, and I like the huge variety of songs you have up there

  4. Thanks so much selbydate16, I appreciate any kind of observation or criticism I can get :)
    I intend on branching out even further as time goes on, so check back early and often.