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 arctic and wet for the longest time and then one week in April it warmed up and every plant, tree, shrub and bush seemed to bloom in one great allergy fest.   There’s also been a lot of rain, with many flash floods in Virginia and Maryland.  The Potomac seems perpetually swollen.  Finally the heat and humidity hit us this past week.  Today, it was in the upper 90 degree Fahrenheit range.  Is this the effect of global climate change?  One nice thing though is that I won a lottery at our community garden and I have a 30 square raised bed.  I haven’t gardened for 10 year when my first marriage unravelled and we sold our house in the suburbs.  It’s nice to be back working the earth again and the cool, wet weather has made my kale, chard, snap peas, mint and arugula grow like mad and I’ve been enjoying the bounty.  I’ve been enjoying meeting my neighbors in the Adams-Morgan, Kalorama area of DC where I lived.  Many are young and new to gardening, but some are seasoned gardeners and we’ve been making some cosmetic changes, dressing the place up and the garden is looking great.  Though spring is almost over, I’ve felt a rebirth, which is what spring is about after all, and the garden brings me back in touch with the great wheel of life and the cycle of the seasons.

Every spring also 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 dorm mates’ 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 dialects of Latin that were becoming 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 piece 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:

“Behold, the welcome and desirable Spring brings back joys. The brightly coloured meadow is in flower. The sun brightens everything. Now let sorrows depart! Summer returns, now the rage of Winter retires.

Now hail, snow and the rest turn to water and flow away. Winter flees and already Spring sucks at the breasts of Summer. He bears an unhappy heart who neither lives nor plays under Summer’s right hand.

They who strive to enjoy the reward of Cupid rejoice and take pleasure in honey sweetness. Let us be at the command of the Cyprian (Venus), glorying and rejoicing to be the equals of Paris.”

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

<a href=””>Buy CD or Download MP3s from Orff’s Carmina Burana</a><img src=”; width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″ alt=”” style=”border:none !important; margin:0px !important;” />


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.)

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

  1. kvennarad says:

    Carmina Burana isn’t kitsch, it is intense, primary colour. Particularly ‘O Fortuna’.

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist this:


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