Showcase May-June 2014 - page 33

june 26, 27, 28, 29
Program Notes
et us begin with the title.
Carmina burana
—with the accent
falling on the first syllable—means “songs from
Beuern,” which is itself a variant of Bayern, the German
name for Bavaria. After that, Latin: “Secular songs.”
The title
Carmina burana
was invented in 1847 by Johann
Andreas Schmeller, Court Librarian in Munich, when he
published an edition of the most remarkable of his library’s
acquisitions from former monastic libraries. His source
was an ample and richly illustrated parchment of some
300 poems from the monastery in the Bavarian village of
Benediktbeuren—most of them in Latin, but some in Middle
High German with an infusion of French and Greek.
Orff encountered
Carmina burana
in Schmeller’s edition
and enlisted the help of the poet Michel Hofmann in
organizing 24 of the poems into a libretto. The work
experienced a riotously successful premiere in June 1937,
in a production staged by Otto Wälterlin at the Frankfurt
Opera, conducted by Bertil Wetzelsberger. Orff promptly
told his house of Schott, his only publisher since 1927,
“Everything I have written to date, and which you have,
unfortunately, printed, can be destroyed. With
my collected works begin.”
He was just about to turn 42 when he wrote that
letter. It had been a long, long upbeat. He composed
prolifically—pieces, one infers, of large ambition and
originality of coloring; he worked in theaters as conductor
and coach; he studied Renaissance and early Baroque
music and also African music; he followed eagerly the
development of modern dance and co-founded a school
for music, gymnastics, and dance, making imaginative and
productive contributions to music education that were
eventually codified in the
published bit by
bit since 1930.
Carl Orff
July 10, 1895, Munich
March 29, 1982, Munich
Carmina burana,
cantiones profanae
His allegiance was to Expressionism. He absorbed every note
of Schoenberg’s
Five Pieces for Orchestra
and transcribed
the Chamber Symphony No. 1 for piano duet. Franz Werfel
was the center of his literary universe. A photograph from
1920 presents Orff to us as the embodiment of W.S. Gilbert’s
portrayal of Oscar Wilde in
A most intense young man,
A soulful-eyed young man,
An ultra-poetical, super aesthetical,
Out-of-the-way young man.
All his life, Orff sought privacy. He insisted that
biographers working during his lifetime should stick
to the music and exclude the life—which is known to
include deception during the Nazi regime about his
Jewish grandmother, and afterward about his supposed
victimization by the Nazis. As for his artistic development,
over which he also insisted on drawing a veil, we still have
no clear knowledge of just what happened in 1935 when
he came across Schmeller’s
Carmina burana
and saw what manner of music he had to invent for these
poems. He was instantly converted from his previous
compositional concerns to the audacious simplicities of
Carmina burana
. And it was a conversion for life.
a new chapter
The “collected works” that begin with
Carmina burana
almost all for voice and most of them for the stage, are
varied in substance, intent and effect, and they all stand
upon the common principle that directness of speech and
of access are paramount.
Carmina burana
was an instant success, and though its
international circulation had to wait until after World
War II, it has kept its hold on audiences. Undeniably, the
constellation of aesthetic and historical considerations that,
so to speak, “place”
Carmina burana
—its popularity and
the courting of that popularity in part by the avoidance of
complexities in harmony and rhythm, and the matter of the
composer’s political past—has made it a controversial piece.
the music
Orff was captivated by
O Fortuna, velut Luna
(O Fortune,
like the moon), the first poem in Schmeller’s
, and its accompanying Wheel of Fortune miniature.
He saw this bitter meditation as a strong frame, inside
which he groups poems in three chapters:
In Springtime
On the Green
In the Tavern
; and
The Court of Love
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