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

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 and she had 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=”http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001BJIDAI/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=themusalm-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B001BJIDAI”>Buy CD or Download MP3s from Orff’s Carmina Burana</a><img src=”http://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=themusalm-20&l=as2&o=1&a=B001BJIDAI&#8221; width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″ alt=”” style=”border:none !important; margin:0px !important;” />

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, 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.

<a href=”http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001BJIDAI/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=themusalm-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B001BJIDAI”>Buy CD or Download MP3s from Orff’s Carmina Burana</a><img src=”http://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=themusalm-20&l=as2&o=1&a=B001BJIDAI&#8221; width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″ alt=”” style=”border:none !important; margin:0px !important;” />

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