We conclude our 10th Anniversary Season with the GCA Children’s Chorus joining the full choir for CARMINA BURANA by Carl Orff. Two pianos and percussion ensemble led by Dr. John Lawless will accompany the mass ensemble.
Welcome to tonight’s Tenth-Anniversary-Season-climaxing concert, Encore! All involved in developing this year-long musical celebration hope that the appreciative “Again!” has been well earned, not only tonight and all season long but looking into the future as well.
As with the December concert, Cheers!, the new Griffin Choral Arts Children’s Chorus will be joining their adult colleagues for the performance tonight. This combination of vocal forces is all the more appropriate because the composer of tonight’s work was a pioneer in music education for young people (as anyone who has seen a choir room overflowing with “Orff Instruments” knows). The special importance of percussion instruments in the “Orff Method” is further reflected tonight by the massive sonic presence of our welcomed guest percussionists. We are also happy to welcome back Seth Davis, founding GCA accompanist, who joins current accompanist Cathy Willis for tonight’s two-piano version of the work authorized by the composer in 1956 for performing forces smaller than full symphony orchestras and choruses. Tonight’s use of a composer-authorized two-piano version recalls a previous milestone performance in GCA history: Brahms’ German Requiem in October 2009, with duo-pianists Seth Davis and Michiko Otaki of Clayton State University.
Carl Heinrich Maria Orff (1895-1982) was born in the south German state of Bavaria. He studied at the Munich Academy of Music until 1914, when he entered the German army in World War I, suffering serious injury and near-death in a trench cave-in. After the war, he held positions in opera houses in Mannheim and Darmstadt, eventually returning to Munich to continue his music studies, including in the 1920’s beginning to formulate his theories on elemental music, based on the ancient Greek concept of the unity of the arts. In Munich in 1924 he and Dorothee Günther founded the Günther School for gymnastics, music, and dance to teach beginners in music, and this led to his further specialization in teaching these basics to children. Married four times, Orff died at age 86 of cancer, and was buried in the church of the Benedictine priory of Andechs, south of Munich and famous for its beer-brewing.
From a medieval European symbol second in popularity only to Biblical icons, down (in every sense) to the TV game show featuring Vanna White, runs a direct line of fascination with the image of the Wheel of Fortune, the theme of the gigantic work performed tonight. Orff’s Carmina Burana is an elaborate musical pondering of this seemingly archetypal symbol. Popularized by the sixth-century Roman polymath Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy (written in jail awaiting his eventual execution), the idea of the Wheel of Fortune was readily adopted by Christian authors in the Middle Ages for its cautions against pride and complacency and for its “consolations” about the risings and fallings of human luck, not as sanctioned by God but at least as “seen” by God as the workings of the demi-goddess Fortuna (often depicted as blind), mechanically turning her Wheel. (The illustration of Fortune’s Wheel depicted on the cover of the musical score is printed elsewhere in this program booklet.)
Orff’s re-imagining of this existential metaphor takes the form of what the composer called a “scenic cantata,” which differs from a strictly musical cantata (like those by Bach) in invoking visual effects beyond presenting the musicians in the performance space. Like his German predecessor Richard Wagner in re-conceptualizing opera as a total art form, Orff envisioned what he called “Theatrum Mundi” (World of Theater), connecting music, speech, and body movement in a totality of effect that, while often presented in concert form, was also frequently staged in multimedia format. The many subsequent ballet versions of Carmina Burana attest to its kinetic appeal, as exemplified by interpretations by the Atlanta Ballet this past February and nearby in late November 2016 by the Carolina Ballet (a performance on which some features of tonight’s staging are modeled).
Orff composed the work over the period 1935-1936, using medieval poems from a collection discovered in 1803 (German-published in 1847) and originally attributed to the Beuern monastery in Bavaria, hence the title Carmina Burana–Songs of Beuern. Orff first saw the poems in 1934 in an English translation called Wine, Women, and Song. With the help of Michael Hoffman, a law student and Latin scholar, Orff selected the twenty-four poems he would set to music. According to BBC Music Magazine, he was attracted to the medieval poetry for its “infectious rhythms and vividness.. . . not least [by] the musicality of the Latin language with its high density of vowels.” The article continues, “He completed the work in just a few weeks. ‘The music was already in my head. . . . so vivid was it, indeed, that I had no need of any written aid.’” The triumphant premiere of the resulting cantata was June 8, 1937, at the Frankfurt Opera, under the work’s full title: Carmina Burana: Cantiones Profanae Cantoribus Et Choris Cantandae Comitantibus Instrumentis Atque Imaginibus Magicis (Songs of Beuern: Secular Songs for Singers and Choruses to Be Sung Together with Instruments and Magic Images). (In another note to GCA history, the “magic images” component of Orff’s premiere, at least dancing and mime but possibly other effects, recalls the ballet-enhanced “scenic cantata”-style performances of Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace and Stabat Mater (A Mother’s Tears) in collaboration with the Griffin Ballet Theatre in 2010 and 2014.)
While Orff’s title word Profanae can indeed be translated as “secular,” it can also be taken in its more literal sense, “profane”–literally, irreverently approaching the altar or place of worship. Orff’s cantata can scarcely be understood except in this frame of reference. The poems found in the monastery collection were composed in 12th- to 13th-century Europe by the wandering Goliards, including men of the Church such as non-cloistered priests, seminarians, or other scholars, who composed humorous, often bawdy, songs to satirize Church hypocrisies as well as simply to amuse themselves and others. Often surprising is that the medieval Church sometimes tolerated such “profane” outlets, most notably in ritualistic forms like the Feast of Fools and the Feast of the Ass, the latter mimicking the story of the Holy Family’s escape into Egypt, with young churchmen dressed in costume and riding wooden donkeys. (The now innocent-seeming children’s song “The Friendly Beasts” is the modern, tamed-down version of the hymn Orientis Partibus, alluding to the donkey used in the medieval Festa Asinorum.)
Despite Orff’s desires to be “scenic,” the songs created to match the Goliard verse do not have a clear “storyline,” except as we might imagine it, listening to the speakers in individual songs and to the progress of the work from beginning to end. Most medieval depictions of Fortune’s wheel focus on the rise and fall of kings, a crown being an icon easily interpreted even by the illiterate. Orff’s Dame Fortuna is a bit more modern in ruling more specifically over those mortals who “try their luck” in love (although the fickleness of love was also a popular poetic theme in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance). Ballet performances of Carmina Burana often impose a story: for example, the recent Atlanta Ballet’s imagining the amorous temptations of three seminarians. Still, however, Orff provides a basic overall “plot” movement, dividing the work into three major sections.
After the famous “O Fortuna” theme familiar from Old Spice aftershave ads and popular films (including numerous parodies), the first major section, Primo Vere (Spring), begins by describing the pleasures of re-awakening for both flora and fauna (including human), then sharpening the focus on individual young men and women as they begin their courting gestures. Part Two, In the Tavern, “turns up the heat” both in metaphors of sexual desire and in the remarkable, almost literal image of the Swan roasting on the spit, continuing into a catalogue of virtually every imaginable human character-type in his or her pursuit of pleasure, mainly drinking but in several other vices as well. Part Three, The Court of Love, brings the camera in even closer upon a representative pair of lovers: he, urging his burning passion; she, initially resisting but eventually giving in to their mutual fulfillment.
Orff’s music pairs the medieval poem texts with a variety of medieval-imitative musical styles, including numerous chantlike passages and open-chord harmonies, all heightened by the strong, percussive rhythms that recall medieval and early Renaissance dances. Orff’s style might be described as Neo-Medieval, but–like the mixed assortment of poems he sets to music–is too eclectic for a simple label. Described by BBC Music Magazine as “a composer in the Richard Strauss-Hans Pfitzner-early Schoenberg mold, Orff saw in his inspiration by the Beuern poems an opportunity to carve out his own distinctive modernist style” (though his style shows strong affinities to Stravinsky–especially Stravinsky’s 1923-premiered ballet score Les Noces [The Wedding], setting lyrics from Russian wedding songs–while still retaining some late-Romantic lushness, even Tchaikovskian, at points). Probably reflecting the influence of Wagner, Orff’s career also included composing for the opera, and several elements of the Carmina sound Verdi-like. Another example of opera influence may be seen in what may be the world’s most outrageous drinking song (In taberna quando sumus), reflecting not only the longstanding tradition of German beerhall singing but also the brindisi tradition of 19th-century opera. Yet, again in the words of the BBC magazine article, Orff’s unique voice developed as he “stripped back his style to its barest essentials. . . . So complete was his transformation from post-Romantic conservative to cutting-edge innovator that he instructed his publisher to destroy ‘everything that I have written so far and which you’ve unfortunately published. . . . My collected works now begin with Carmina Burana!’”
Though powerful on many levels, the music of Carmina Burana may sound simple, but is in fact often very difficult. Vocal ranges are extremely high, both for soloists and for chorus (the famous Roast Swan episode requiring the tenor soloist to sing in falsetto). Constantly shifting meters, rhythms, and tempi challenge conductor, singers, and instrumentalists alike. The text consists of unfamiliar languages (Latin, Middle High German, and Old Provençal), whose pronunciation difficulties are often compounded by breakneck speeds. Perhaps for some audience members (possibly even performers) exists the difficulty of the “morality” of the piece–including the knowledge that the piece was popular with the authoritarian regimes coming to power in Europe at the time of the work’s premiere in 1937. (Although Orff–with his one-quarter-Jewish background–did not compose the piece to curry favor with these powers, he made a complicated peace with their approval.) As with any work of art, however, we can still appreciate it apart from its “political” contexts (even if those contexts always exist). At least sometimes, we just want to have fun–as we of GCA have tonight and through these ten seasons to date.
Carl Orff has generally been regarded as a “one hit wonder,” but that one work is indeed a wonder. The enduring appeal of the Carmina Burana may lie in its inventiveness and joie de vivre. Probably its most memorable music–the dramatic opening “O Fortuna”–draws us into an experience we may feel a little guilty in entering but by which can’t help feeling swept away. When that “O Fortuna” theme returns at the end, we not only see that our experience has “come full circle” but that Orff has succeeded in readying us on many levels for that remarkable cycle to begin all over again. We may not be able to stop the Wheel, but we can enjoy ourselves immensely even as it turns.
Program notes by Bill Pasch (except as otherwise attributed) © 2017, with thanks to Steve Mulder and Lee Whitley.