The Carmina Burana was composed by Carl Orff in 1935 and 1936. It is based on a series of 24 poems from the Middle Ages, but the musical piece is wholly original. It used lyrics from those poems, but set them to completely new music.
The poems dated from the 11th and 12th century, but they were compiled into several works of literature over the years. Carl Orff used one of these dated from 1847.
He had the help of a young student and together they went through all the effort palms and organize them into new Latin versus. They also use some German and a little bit of French, but not the modern versions.
Overall, the poems talk about many different topics, from fortune and wealth, to the nature of life, to happiness and joy and how it generally comes about in spring and to what most would call the joys, but some would call the sins, of life, like drinking, gambling, eating and sex.
You’ve probably heard the Carmina Burana before. At the very least you’re familiar with the most famous section called O Fortuna. Actually, O Fortuna is only one part of the first section, which actually has two movements and it. In total there are 25 movements spread across the five sections. The first and the second to last are the most famous, with the last actually just being a repeat of the first.
The structure comes from the idea of a wheel of fortune as it were. This is not the game show version, but refers to a wheel of fortune that turns for all of us. Sometimes we are on top and sometimes we are on bottom. Life is a series of highs and lows.
Is often said that many modern performances of the Carmina Burana do not meet up to Carl Orff’s high expectations. He wanted it to be a combined work that included dancing and choreography and other visuals and stage actions, but today it is mostly just performed with music.
But the music is great, at least in my opinion. A lot of critics consider it too simple, but it has a very high appeal among the masses. If a lot of people like something, you can’t really criticize it too much. It’s a great piece, even though it might not be as complex as some of the other great pieces.
Rhythm is first and foremost for Orff and that is definitely the case with the Carmina Burana as well. The thing that sticks out the most for the majority are the choir voices. They give the piece its signature sound. Some of the solo parts are actually quite difficult for many singers, but otherwise most professional singers handle it pretty well. Most of it is not too hard. Here, have a listen.
Though many critics did not like the Carmina Burana, it was well-received among the people at the time. And today it is considered one of the greatest works from the 20th century. Everybody knows it and it has been used in tons of movies and sampled in many other songs. There are even performances held at planetariums, similar to what goes on with Pink Floyd. I’ve been to one of those and it was amazing. The Carmina Burana will stand the test of time. There’s no doubt about that. And if you have a turntable, you owe it to yourself to pick it up on vinyl and experience this wonderful piece of music for yourself.