Carl Orff: “O Fortuna” and “Primo Vere” from Carmina Burana

This year in DC, we’ve had a bit of a schizophrenic spring.  It was so warm in March, for example, that the cherry blossoms popped well before the festival, which marked the centenary of the gift of the trees from Japan to the US.  The early weeks of May, by contrast have been wet an rainy and cool.  Today, however, it shot up to 84 degrees Fahrenheit.  Is this the effect of global climate change?  Will we ever have the cool, sunny days that allow the blooming plants and trees more time to wear their stunning raiment?  The azaleas and dogwoods are all bloomed out and not longer do you feel  like you sometimes do in the more picturesque parts of DC, i.e., like you’re walking around in an Impressionist paintings full of azaleas and dogwoods and pink, orange, magenta, purple, white, and dark red swatches of color.

Spring however always makes me remember the Spring of 1975 at the French House and today’s piece of music. As I mentioned before, our small dorm sat in a meadow through which a small creek ran. The meadow was planted with dogwood, hawthorn, quince, forsythia and other flowering shrubs and trees. Because I felt so happy to be here, having found a group of people who did not think of me as “different,” my eyes seemed to open up to the beauty of nature. I had help of course. There was a woman who lived in the French House named Liz McVeety. She hailed from Jeffersonville, Indiana, which is right across the river from Louisville, Kentucky, home of the Derby. Liz was majoring in something like horticulture or environmental sciences and lived upstairs. She was shy, but passionate about nature, good music, and plants. She used to hang out with the artsy crowd in the French House and on a number of occasions we all ended up in her room talking and listening to Joni Mitchell’s album, Court and Spark. That album became a kind of anthem for me because of the song, “Free Man in Paris,” which, hearing all the stories about my dormmates’ adventures in France, increased my desire to go abroad.

Liz had another friend who lived in a different dorm in our complex, who used to sit with us at the French table. Her name was Linda P******, and she was a very thin girl, with a shock–no a mane, really–of wavy red hair. Linda was majoring in Comparative Literature and also the string bass, which seemed an oddly incongruous choice for someone so slight in stature. She had a light, sing-songy way of speaking, and would passionately hold forth about some piece of music, novel, or poem she was studying.

I remember walking across the meadow one day with Liz and Linda at the height of Spring, and they identified just about every flowering plant for me. Ever since, Spring has been the season I look forward to and enjoy the most.

My memory isn’t what it used to be, but I believe Columbia issued a new recording of Carmina Burana during that Spring. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted and the soloists included the soprano Judith Blegen. It seems that PBS also broadcast a concert of this recording. This work completely overwhelmed me. Around this time, I was studying my second year of Latin, reading Virgil and Horace, and was just about getting to the point when I realized it was getting too hard. Along came this recording of poems by defrocked medieval monks and troubadours, written in proto-German and French. After the cool intellectual airiness of the Latins, this poetry full of love, lust, gluttony, and hymns to spring and drink provided a nice change.

But beyond that, the music electrified me. Musicologists sometimes call Carmina Burana “kitsch,” or say it’s kind of facile, like Broadway music. Truly, though, this work has given me so much joy that my life would have been poorer had I not heard it.

Orff worked from 13th century texts that had been discovered in 1803 in an old Bavarian monastery. Out of the 200 or so poems written by these voluptuaries and debauches, Orff chose 24, which he grouped into three sections, devoted to Spring, The Tavern, and Love.

A song for the entire chorus entitled “O Fortuna” frames the cycle of songs. This rousing piece, whose full title is “Fortune, Empress of the World” expresses the medieval idea that fortune is a wheel on which we ride. The lesson was: you may be on top now, but the wheel may turn and cast you down. I’m not sure if this was used to warn against pride or to convey the modern message of “what goes round, comes round.” Kind of fatalistic, but what do you expect from a time when the infant mortality rate was about 50% and the black plague wiped out nearly everybody else? Near the end this poem expresses a Carpe Diem theme as a kind of antidote to what otherwise is a downer kind of poem. Here are the words:

O Fortune,
variable as the moon
always dost thou wax and wane.
Detestable life,
first dost thou mistreat us,
and then whimsically,
thou heedest our desires.
As the sun melts the ice,
so dost thou dissolve
both poverty and power.
Monstrous and empty fate,
thou, turning wheel, a
art mean, voiding
good health at thy will.
Veiled in obscurity,
thou dost attack me also.
To thy cruel pleasure
I bare my back.
thou dost withdraw
my health and virtue;
Thou dost threaten
my emotion and weakness with torture.
At this hour, therefore let us
pluck the strings without delay.
Let us mourn together,
for fate crushes the brave.

Whew. Those word are really a downer. But in contrast the soars and ends with a triumphal blast. On its heel comes a men’s chorus singing a similar song, but with a kind of marching rhythm to it, almost like a drinking song. Considering that Orff wrote Carmina Burana in 1936, perhaps he was sending a warning to his countrymen embarked in the insanity of Nazism.

There follow three poems dedicated to Spring (Primo Vere), which run in mood from oriental, to mysterious, to a shout of joy at the rebirth of the world during this season. After quick burst of energy from the xylophones, flutes and oboes, a small chorus softly sings “Veris leta facies” (the bright face of Spring). It describes how spring blows away the cold and wakens the plants and animals from their slumbers. A baritone next sings “Omnia sol temperat” (the sun tempers all) describing how spring get the young man’s sap running and commands us all to be joyful. The last of these three poems, “Ecce gratum” (behold the spring) has a sparkling joy to it as the full chorus backed by chimes and anvils starts a chant that builds. The words describe how spring melts the ice, the flowers bloom and chides the man who neither loves or frolics:

Those who vie a
Taste the sweetness of honey.

And boy about this time, still being a virgin, I was ready for that. But my shyness delayed things for several more months.

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

One Response to Carl Orff: “O Fortuna” and “Primo Vere” from Carmina Burana

  1. jetgirlcos says:

    I love Carmina Burana ! It’s an epic work, but every time I hear it live I am enthralled for every single minute. Thanks for posting this.

    Like

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