Carl Orff: “Amor Volat Undique,” “Stetit Puella” and “Dulcissime” fromCarmina Burana

Unlike most fans of classical music, I don’t necessarily compare performers and performances. Usually, whatever recording was the first I heard becomes the definitive performance for me. Of course there were exceptions: I listened to about 10 versions of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony-by Walter, Solti, Szell, Bernstein, Toscanini and others-before finally choosing one by Karajan. And that wasn’t for any profound reason; I just happened to prefer it because I could hear the oboe and English horn passage in the second movement more clearly than any of the others.

The definitive performance of Carmina Burana for me is the one with Michael Tilson Thomas, in which the soprano, Judith Blegen sings the arias mentioned in the title of today’s post. This recording was one of the first ever done in quadraphonic sound, and so they spared no expense to making it a blockbuster. They had a chorus of 250 singers and used some of the best soloists of the day. On the liner notes it says that Blegen was a regular at the Met during this time period, and she was so good that all they needed was one take. The aria, “Amor Volat Unique” (love flies everywhere), requires the soprano to hold a note for a full 30 seconds. For a long time, Blegen’s was the only recording I heard in which the singer could sustain the note for that long. In some recordings, the sopranos actually took a breath midway through.  Unfortunately, this version has been removed from Youtube.

“Amor volat unique” has to be one of the most beautiful songs on the album. It starts with a musical interlude in which flutes waft along playing a melody that the soprano will sing at the end. A boys’ chorus then chimes in and with cherubic delivery sing about the rightness of young men and women joining together. Then comes that chillingly beautiful soprano solo:

“If a girl lacks a man
she misses all delight;
darkest night is at the bottom
of her heart.
This is the bitterest fate.

Blegen’s performance still sends shivers down my spine, these 30+ years later. The second soprano solo is called “Stetit Puella”.

The poetry has an almost Haiku-like simplicity, but it captures perfectly the feeling of being dumbstruck by love:

There stood a maid
in a red tunic;
when it was touched
the tunic rustled.
Ai!

There stood a girl,
like a rose;
her face was radiant;
her mouth bloomed.
Ai!

Sometimes, however, you can get burned even by a good orchestra and performer. When I lived in Italy five years after first hearing Carmina Burana, my girlfriend bought a copy on Deutsche Gramophon with Eugen Joachum conducting and Gundula Janowitz singing. Not only did Janowitz break the note into two with a huge breath, on the aria, “Dulcissime” where the soprano has to slide up to an impossibly high note, her voice actually cracked. It sounded like a cross between a squawk and a scream.

Here’s Kathleen Battle singing “Dulcissime” another piece that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Depending on your point of view, Carmina Burana may or may not be the perfect music for an adolescent virgin male to listen to in the Spring. Back then (circa 1975 at the ripe age of 20) I found the songs devoted to love quite poignant and used to just sit around listening to them and dissolve into self-pity. I wonder now at how I could have missed the exhortation in the words to just go out and get on with it. There I was living in a dorm among women who shared similar tastes in music, art and literature, and I was still too tongue-tied to do anything about it. Perhaps it goes back to having formed a warped notion of Romantic love from reading too much Dostoyevsky. Remember, a number of his women characters are fallen women, whom the protagonist worships from afar and sees the means to salvation.

They really should teach you how to fall in love high school.

Orff Biography

Buy CD or Download MP3s of Carmina Burana

George Frideric Handel: Watermusic

During my senior year of high school, my best friend was named Gary Endicott. Gary had been on the swim team and he was a year older than I. He spent his freshman year going to the local community college, and so we hung out together. We had a number of common interests and were both terminally shy around girls. Thus we spent many a long, drunken hour commiserating with each other.

Gary’s father worked for a meat wholesaler and the family lived in a small house at the corner of a large farm that had belonged to Gary’s grandfather. Gary’s mother worked at home for the local photo studio hand colorizing high school portraits using tiny tubes of oil paints. It seemed like every time I went by the house, Gary’s mom would pull out the picture of some local beauty and say “You should ask her out.” Gary would groan, “Aw, mom,” and we’d invariably go out, get drunk and commiserate some more.

Mr. Endicott liked to make Martinis using Gilbey’s gin, and he’d often offer us one with a twinkle in his eye. He once told us that in high school he and his buddies had wired their shop teacher’s chair up to the electrical outlet. They’d gotten expelled for that. I liked Mr. Endicott: he smoked El Producto cigars, encouraged us to do so, and always had a joke to tell.

Gary was good in math, and because I was reading a lot of literature and philosophy my senior year, he would ask me to help him with the mandatory English classes he had to take. Maybe interpret a poem or edit a term paper he’d written. Often we ended up in a bar over the state line in Michigan, where the drinking age was 18. We’d discuss literature or philosophy and lust after the local lass.

Gary would always be game to go out when I’d call on weekends. Even better, he equally game for some new intellectual pursuit and I once dragged him out to see Fellini’s “Roma.” For weeks afterwards, we would walk around reenacting scenes from the film in fake Italian accents and get into shouting matches in bars pretending we were actors in the film.

On a couple of occasions, when his parents were away, we had small drinking parties at his house or at his deceased grandfather’s barn. One night we entered his grandfather’s house and went through all the papers, calendars, and objects left behind from a hardscrabble Methodist farm life. Another time, drunk out of our minds, we jumped around in the hay loft of the barn, and cat-walked along the beams about 15 feet above the floor. I don’t know how we managed to keep from falling and impaling ourselves on some piece of farm equipment.

Once, when his Gary’s parents were out of town, we stayed over at his house. In the living room sat an old console hi-fi record player. I went through the records on the shelf and discovered a boxed set of the Time Life “Great Works of Classical Music.” I noticed a copy of Handel’s Water Music. The piece was not totally unfamiliar to me since the great trumpet flourish from it, marked “Alla Hornpipe,” often got played on the local classical call-in request show. I was surprised however: Gary’s parents never talked about classical music. However, they owned classical records while my parents did not. I asked him if I could borrow the set, and Gary let me.

The fanfare turned out to be just one short movement out of twenty written. They have been arranged into three suites, and the “Alla Hornpipe” appears in Suite Number II in D major. Handel wrote the music for King George I as a way of displaying the monarch’s munificence to the populace. He was a very unpopular king, being German and speaking no English. The king listened from his royal barge while 50 musicians conducted by Handel performed on another. The pieces in the suites are based on popular dance forms of the time period-bourees, minuets, gavottes, etc.

Handel was a great innovator in music, not by breaking off in a new direction all his own, but by mastering, building upon and synthesizing the different musical traditions of the day. Born in Germany, he did his musical apprenticeship in Hamburg. In his twenties, he moved to Italy where he became close friends with Domenico Scarlatti. There he learned and quickly mastered the Italian style of opera. He was invited to London to premiere his opera “Rinaldo” and was invited to stay, eventually becoming the court composer. There he transformed English music and became one of the greatest composers of vocal music of all times.

Biography
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