The “Epic” Carmina Burana

The Michael O’Neal Singers will perform one of the great “epic” pieces of classical music on Sunday, October 14, at 3 PM.  Below are my program notes for the concert, offering a preview to one of the most unique works of the 20th Century. 

Carmina Burana is a scenic cantata composed by Carl Orff in 1935 and 1936.  It is based on medieval poems discovered in 1803 at the Benedictine Abbey of Beuren in Bavaria. The poems, written by clerics, poets and singers of the 12th and 13th centuries, recognized the fickleness of fortune and wealth as well as the ephemeral nature of life.  They even included some devout religious subjects!  Orff selected twenty-four poems from this collection and named his composition Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanae cantoribus et choris cantandae comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis (Songs of Beuren: Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magic images).

Carmina Burana is divided into three main groups: I – Primo vere (Spring) glorifies victory over winter, blossoming vegetation and stirring love; II – In taberna (In the tavern) is a sort of raving philosophy justifying pleasure, drinking, good food, gambling, human excesses and Bacchus’ glory; and III – Cour d’amours (Court of love) celebrates all aspects of human love: youthful, innocent, pure, erotic, and triumphant.  These three groups are surrounded by the well known chorus “O Fortuna,” which opens and closes the entire composition.  “O Fortuna” is one of the most instantly recognized pieces in the classical repertoire, having been used in hundreds of films and television commercials.

The music Orff composed to accompany his selected poems includes striking rhythms, tonal and straightforward melodies, simple harmonies, all bound together in disconnected bits of conversation and fragments of traditional songs.  The forces required for Carmina Burana are quite large, and our performance will include (in addition to the 130 voice MOS chorus) the Georgia Regional Girls Choir, dancers from the Roswell Dance Theatre, and vocal soloists Sherri Seiden, Adam Kirkpatrick, and Brent Davis.  Our performance will also feature projected screen images and the rarely heard chamber orchestration, authorized and approved by Orff, consisting of two pianists and six percussionists.

Following the enormously successful 1937 premiere of Carmina Burana by the Frankfurt Opera, the composer wrote this to his publisher: “You may now shred everything I have written in the past and that you have unfortunately published.  With Carmina Burana my Collected Works begin.”

  • Felton Dunn

    Aw, I know this will be so much fun–hate to miss it. WABE was playing Carmina Burana tonight, in fact; first night at Carnegie Hall, Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony. I didn’t realize he’s one of the rare persons to be music director of two of the Big Five (he was at Philadelphia some years ago).

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