The little old ladies of the choral society scream 'since Fate strikes down the strong man, everyone weep with me!' Later they are in a more cheerful mood: 'My virginity makes me frisky, my simplicity holds me back. Oh, Oh, Oh, I am completely coming to life'. The men strain their dinner jackets singing a bawdy drinking song. This is Carmina Burana, one of the most popular works for choir and orchestra of the 20th Century.
UK residents will be familiar with the opening and closing music of Carmina Burana. The 'O Fortuna' chorus with its dramatic chanting against orchestral backing was used for many years in television advertising for a well-known brand of aftershave lotion (Old Spice). And, since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there is more than a hint of the same chorus in the sound track of the film The Fellowship of the Ring, particularly to accompany the Black Riders.
But Carmina Burana is not all dramatic chanting - there is plenty of lyrical and gentle playing and singing, merry dances and of course the aforementioned drink and sex. The work lasts about an hour in performance and requires baritone, tenor and soprano solo singers as well as a boys' chorus, an adult chorus and a massive orchestra.
In 1847, a musicologist called Johann Andreas Schmeller discovered a collection of 13th Century songs called Carmina Burana, meaning 'Songs of Beuern', in the Benedictine monastery of Benediktbeuern in southern Bavaria, Germany. (Beuern is the name of the village where the monastery was situated.) Most of the songs were in Latin, but some were in an archaic form of German. The songs were about drinking, love, sex and the overbearing burden of fate. They appear to have been the work, not of the Benedictine monks, but of a roving band of monks and clerics known as the Goliards, who were rebels against the authority of the Church. They were more interested in drinking and debauchery than in prayer and sanctity. They lived by the principle, 'Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die'. The Goliards were outlawed by the Church in a series of edicts and laws over the course of the 13th Century, culminating in them being 'defrocked'; that is, stripped of any official status, in 1300 at Cologne.
Schmeller published the songs, but nothing much further was heard of them for nearly a century. In 1935, the German composer Carl Orff (1895-1982) came across the collection and was immediately intrigued by the songs. Reading through the words was a revelation. Orff decided to write a massive work for choir and orchestra with a selection of these songs as the basis. Rather than using the melodies from the manuscript, he wrote his own new ones to fit the words, and orchestrated the whole piece for a 20th Century orchestra.
The work was first performed in 1937 and has been enormously popular ever since - with choirs and audiences. The first few performances featured simple acting and dancing as well as music. Modern performances very rarely include any such actions, being confined almost invariably to singing and orchestral playing.
Orff's music is modern with an old feel to it. He achieved this by keeping away from innovations of the last 300 years such as modulation, development and chromaticism. Instead, each song is based on a simple tune and this is played virtually identically in each of the verses of the song. Interest is added by rhythm and orchestration. By choosing different instruments from the orchestra for different songs, wonderful contrasts are present in the music. Complex rhythms and irregular phrase lengths make the songs more difficult to sing than they appear, but add to the excitement. A fired-up band of singers is essential to any good performance.
The work is divided into three main sections: 'Springtime', 'In the Tavern', and 'Courtly Love'. The work as a whole is 'framed' by a short section at the start and end entitled 'Fortune, Empress of the World'.
'Fortune, Empress of the World'
The work opens with its most dramatic piece, the chorus 'O Fortuna' ('Oh Mistress Fate'). Starting with a roar from the choir, it develops into an almost inaudible chant about the tribulations of fate, which gradually gets louder and louder, ending again with an ear-splitting roar.
There is also a song 'Fortune Plango Vulnera' ('I Weep for the Wounds of Luck') which goes over most of same ground again in more detail.
The first main section of Carmina Burana deals with the arrival of spring and dances on the village green. Maidens sing about their true love (who has strangely ridden away). The woods are blooming. The maidens go to the shopkeeper to get new rouge for their cheeks. There is a generally hopeful air.
'In the Tavern'
The women take a well-earned rest while the men go down the pub. The baritone sings of how awful life is and how he copes with it by partaking of earthly pleasures. The tenor, in his only appearance in the whole performance, sings the tragicomic song of a swan who once swam serenely but now is roasting on a spit. The baritone sings the part of the drunk who has been stripped of his clothes in a practical joke by his mates and sent roaring 'Wafna!' ('Woe!') through the streets. The men of the choir sing a tongue-twister song about drinking, listing all the people who do it (in a word, everyone).
A selection of songs about love and sex follows, starting with courtly love and getting gradually more boisterous. The high points are the high-speed 'Veni, Veni, Veneas' ('Come, Come, Do Come') whose insistent off-beat rhythms drive onwards to a climax, and 'Tempus Est Iocundam' ('Time for Celebration'), in which all the singers (except the poor tenor) sing a verse, followed by the chorus sung in an ever-more-lascivious style:
Oh, oh, oh,
I'm completely coming to life
Now for the love of a maiden
I'm burning all over
It's a new, new love
'Fortune, Empress of the World'
The work is rounded off by a reprise of the opening chorus 'O Fortuna', reminding us that whatever has happened along the way, the Wheel of Fate continues to turn, laying low those it raised on high.