Brussels Philharmonic | Carmina Burana

Carmina Burana

There is a lot of depth in this seemingly simplistic hit

O For-tu-na
ve-lut lu-na
sta-tu va-ri-a-bi-lis …

Even if you don’t understand one iota of Latin, you can probably sing along to the opening measures of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. And without further ado, let’s get started: that’s hardly surprising. But why?

Well, it has to do with the absolutely distinctive style of this German composer (1895-1982). Completely unlike his contemporaries, and by extension unique in all of music history. Though that does not mean that Orff was eccentric or an unguided projectile. On the contrary, as a student at the State Academy of Performing Arts in Munich, he was well aware of the developments in contemporary music. He was familiar with the theories of Arnold Schönberg and had a weakness for the style of Claude Debussy – this inspiration is tangibly present in some of his early works, such as Gisei, das Opfer.

Orff quickly realized, however, that his own path lay in a different direction. ‘He had the greatest possible admiration for Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and other great masters from the past, but was not at all tempted to follow in their footsteps,’ as to the American musicologist Everett Helm summarised in a biography published in 1955.

Two elements were crucial to this decision. First, after the First World War, Orff discovered the music of Claudio Monteverdi, which proved an extremely inspiring encounter. As a conductor, Orff brought his operas (at the time, largely forgotten) back to the stage, and as a composer, he immersed himself in the original ideas about musical theatre. But Orff’s passion soon surpassed the pioneer of the opera and culminated in a general obsession with ancient times: not only for Renaissance music but for the Latin language and the medieval mystery plays.

More or less parallel to these discoveries, Orff worked out his theories about (musical) education alongside Dorothee Günther. At their jointly founded Günther School, gymnastics, movement, music and dance flowed together. Their research was an attempt to capture the elemental expressive capacity of a body and of music. The duo thus naturally ran counter to the accepted ideas of the day about expressive dance (Ausdruckstanz), in which dancers sought to use their movements to express their emotions. For Orff and Günther, movement existed for the sake of movement alone. Music had to embroider on that and ‘start with movement’, which led principally to a very primitive, percussive musical language.

"May I ask you to reduce to a pulp everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately, printed? With Carmina Burana, my collected works begin."

– Carl Orff in a letter to his publisher (1937)

Pared down to the bone

The two elements combine fluidly in Orff’s masterpiece, Carmina Burana. In the first place, there is the original source of his music, found in a medieval manuscript from the Benedictine abbey of Benediktbeuern (Bavaria). Naturally, that is an essential element in the genesis of this work, and yet it is almost a negligible detail in the total picture of Orff’s inspiration. For his plans with the Codex Buranus were much grander than a simple appreciation of an age-old culture.

With his composition, Orff wanted to give fresh impetus to the opera and musical theatre scene of his day. For the composer, that was possible only by moving away from the ideas current in his time and reaching back to the early 17th century. Concretely, this meant: a drastic simplification of the musical material. The ideas of Monteverdi were closely linked with those of the Günther School in this regard. There, too, the deliberate goal was utter simplicity, primal expression in rhythm, harmony and musical development. Elements that Orff would strip down to the bone in Carmina Burana.

In terms of rhythm, he used elemental patterns that he repeated maniacally – and often sorrowfully. Percussion instruments logically play a key role in such a rhythmic language, far beyond what his contemporaries were then asking demanded of their percussion section. Thus, Orff called for an immense orchestration in which less commonly used instruments such as bass drums, cymbals, sleigh bells, castanets and a celesta are given an important role. Just like the rhythms, the instrumentation is also built up block by block. Orff sought to milk a distinctive musical colour to the maximum before letting a new instrumental combination loose on his listeners.

Orff used the same trick in his melodic writing. He worked mainly with short motifs that he linked together to form longer phrases, without any development of the original motif – unlike what was always the case in previous centuries. And so it should come as no surprise that Orff’s harmonic development was also very rudimentary. The composer seldom got beyond the use of a tonic, subdominant and dominant. Those are but the elementary parts of harmony: from home base to the highest degree of tension, and back again.

The words used to describe Orff’s compositional language may come across as critical of this great simplification. This no doubt has to do mainly with the fact that in our language and culture, we are not particularly fond of sustained repetition, and that we are always looking for novelty and change. Although Orff’s music can, indeed, sound extremely simple, we must never forget that he had chosen this very deliberately. It reflects a desire to strip away all ballast and go straight to the essence. ‘For some critics, who focus mainly on musical style and idiom, Orff is a simplistic fellow, whose voluntary dissociation from the most important stylistic trends in contemporary music was a cardinal weakness. For others, he was an innovator and a prophet, whose new methods and primitivism were intended to save the musical stage from decline,” noted Everett Helm.

For Orff – and so we come at last to the explanation of why Carmina Burana is so singable – as for his great model, Monteverdi, the essence was the text. If the melodies are catchy, they will make it easier to remember the text. The music merely serves as an illustration or ornamentation of the libretto and has little reason for existence apart from the words on which it is based – just as music in the Günther School had no purpose other than the movement it aroused. According to Orff, the road to renewal of musical theatre passed through the word.

Whether the composer succeeded in achieving his lofty ambitions is open to debate. He could certainly be said to have done so if you consider that there is a famous Mama apple juice commercial that features the opening movement, ‘O Fortuna’, but with entirely different words. In any event, it is no coincidence that the work has become a cornerstone of the classical repertoire: with harmonies that foreshadow the basic structure of pop music, and with primal, catchy rhythms and song lines that quickly stick in your mind as earworms. That may not have been his original aim, but Orff has, in his completely unique manner, written a sensational work.