Carl Orff

Carmina Burana

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: Approx. 60 Minutes
Genre: Scenic Cantata
Time of Creation: 1935–1936
World Premiere: 08 June 1937 (Frankfurt am Main)

Table of Contents

Carl Orff's Carmina Burana in 5 Sentences

The scenic cantata Carmina Burana by Carl Orff is a setting of selected song texts from the 11th to 13th centuries, which Carl Orff took from the collection of texts of the same name. Orff came across the text collection in 1934. Law student (and later director of the Würzburg State Archives) Michel Hofmann helped Orff select suitable texts. In setting them to music, Orff concentrated on maintaining a sound that was archaic in places. The work is divided into three parts, which are framed by a powerful chorus in honor of Fortuna, the goddess of fate (“O Fortuna!”).

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana

Highlight 1: O Fortuna

A chorus that everyone probably knows. It is played in many different contexts because of its powerful effect, often as a single piece. Carmina Burana opens as well as ends with this chorus:

Highlight 2: Dance

In this dance Orff combines two levels: One level is a regular continuous rhythm, the other is the dance melody, which alternates between even and odd time signatures.

Olim lacus colueram

Now comes a whimsical piece of music. This number is about a swan. Now this is nothing unusual per se in classical music. Many great pieces are about a swan, just think of Swan Lake or The Carnival of the Animals.

However…with Orff it is a bit different. Orff’s swan is in fact…roasted. Yes, really! The roasted swan sings here. At the beginning of the number, it is still swimming around quite happily (marvelous how Orff implements this with a croaking bassoon in the highest register!), but after about 25 seconds, what has to happen happens…Listen for yourself:

Highlight 4: Tempus et iocundum

Finally, here’s an example of the many really great choral numbers in Orff’s Carmina Burana, whose textual emphases can sometimes get you quite out of step:

3 Questions and Answers about Carl Orff's Carmina Burana

Question 1: What does the name Carmina Burana mean?

“Carmina” is a development of the Latin name “Carmen,” which means “song of praise”.”Burana” is a place name: it refers to the community of Benediktbeuern in Upper Bavaria. “Carmina Burana” therefore means “songs of praise from Benediktbeuern” – because the manuscripts of these songs were found in the monastery library of Benediktbeuern in 1803. In 1934, Carl Orff became aware of the collection.

Question 2: What is the content of Carmina Burana?

The original Carmina Burana is a collection of song and drama texts from the 11th to 13th centuries. The collection contains Middle Latin, Middle High German, Old French and Provençal texts, which are divided into 4 groups: Moral/Spotic Songs, Love Songs, Drinking/Spiritual Songs, and two Sacred Dramas. Carl Orff set a selection of them to music in his scenic cantata “Carmina Burana”.

Question 3: What is a scenic cantata?

A cantata is a work for vocal voices and instruments that consists of several individual movements. Thematically, a cantata can be either sacred or secular. A scenic cantata is a special case. Here the music is supplemented with a scenic presentation, but it is not as detailed or elaborate as in an opera or musical. Although Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana can be performed as a scenic cantata, it is mostly performed purely in concert.

2 Recommended Recordings of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana

Recording 1: WDR Symphony Orchestra, WDR Radio Choir, Cristian Măcelaru (Live, 2022)

Romanian conductor Cristian Măcelaru takes some risks in his interpretation of Carmina Burana – of which I am personally a big fan. Some of the tempos are really snappy. The result is a performance that may not always be technically spot-on, but is all the more stirring and emotionally charged for it:

Recording 2: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Zurich Sing Academy, Paavo Järvi (Live, 2022)

A conductor who prefers the more classical tempos of Carmina Burana is Paavo Järvi in this Zurich performance:

1 Quote about Carl Orff's Carmina Burana

Everything that I have written so far and that you have unfortunately printed, you can now tamp down! My collected works begin with Carmina Burana!

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

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