Coming soon: Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana

Everything you need to know about the parts of Carmina Burana that aren’t “O Fortuna”.

By Ben Coleman

Art depicting several boats heading out to sea. Time to set off on a voyage of discovery about one of orchestral music’s best-known pieces (illustration from the original Carmina Burana manuscript)

Lust, fate, wine, and roasted swans are celebrated in the choral extravaganza Carmina Burana. You can hear the TSO perform it live on June 19, 20, 22, and 23.

Part 1: Fortune, Empress of the World

Carmina Burana starts and ends with “O Fortuna”, which has been described as “the most overused piece of music in film history,” which means you’ve almost certainly heard it. Notable appearances include Jackass: The Movie, the trailer for Paul Blart: Mall Cop, NBC’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the entrance theme for The X Factor, commercials for Applebee’s and Domino’s Pizza, during driver introductions at the Daytona 500, and at the graduation ceremony for the University of Oslo. The lyrics were even used for the final boss theme in the Final Fantasy VII video game.

All of this pop-culture exposure has surely ruined the highly artistic roots of this piece, which is to say, highly satirical and bawdy poems from the Middle Ages about drinking, flirting, the joys of spring, and how life is cruel and short.

A stadium full of fans watches the Daytona 500 racing event.Clearly these people need to wear headphones at the Daytona 500 so that they aren’t overwhelmed by Carl Orff’s epic choral forces.

Part 2: In Spring

In Toronto, we like to celebrate the end of winter and the beginning of spring (or as some know it, “construction season”). This part of Carmina Burana, which is probably the most wholesome, celebrates the coming of flowers, bird song, finding new love, and the return of sunshine—all in three poems.

Favourite lyric (“Ecce gratum”):

Behold the pleasant / and longed-for
spring brings back joyfulness, / violet flowers / fill the meadows,
the sun brightens everything, / sadness is now at an end!
Summer returns, / now withdraw / the rigours of winter. Ah!

Part 3: In the Meadow

The end of winter brings new opportunities for love and courtship, and this section has it all covered. It starts with a dance number, and goes through four poems, including one from someone who has lost their lover (“Floret silva nobilis”), someone on a mission to buy some makeup (“Chramer, gip die varwe mir”), and one about having a crush on the Queen of England (historians think it was written about Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife of Henry II).

Favourite lyric (“Chramer, gip die varwe mir”):

Shopkeeper, give me colour / to make my cheeks red,
so that I can make the young men / love me, against their will

Part 4: In the Tavern

Consuming alcohol can lead to a number of different emotions and behaviour, many of which can be observed in any Toronto bar on the weekend: despair and self-loathing, the desire to “cut loose” (in this case, from the lifestyle restrictions of being a monk), and the wish to not be judged for all the drinking and gambling you like to do. Three poems in this section demonstrate all these extremes.

This section also famously features the lament of a swan who is being roasted for dinner (“Olim lacus colueram”), which requires the baritone to sing very high, out of their range, to demonstrate the extreme suffering of becoming someone else’s meal.

Favourite lyric (“Estuans interius”, literally “Seething Inside”):

I am carried along / like a ship without a steersman,
and in the paths of the air / like a light, hovering bird;
chains cannot hold me, / keys cannot imprison me,
I look for people like me / and join the wretches.

According to this illustration from the original manuscript, “cutting loose” involves a lot of drinking and backgammon.

Part 5: Court of Love

This section expands on the themes of love in Part 3, entering into the territory of lust. With nine whole poems, it dives deep, talking about the despair of having no one to love, the pursuit and joys of sex, and questions of commitment. Bawdiness is front and centre, with “Dulcissime” essentially being a When Harry Met Sally moment sung by the soprano.

Favourite lyric (“Tempus est iocundum”):

My virginity / makes me frisky,
my simplicity / holds me back.

Part 6: Blancheflour and Helen

After a long section talking about the joys of love and lust, what better ending than an ode to two beautiful literary figures—Helen of Troy and Blancheflour (from Floris and Blancheflour, one of the most popular romance stories of the Middle Ages).

Part 7: Fortune, Empress of the World (reprise)

Carl Orff clearly knew “O Fortuna” would be popular, putting it in twice—at the beginning and end. As you listen to its dramatic melody, feel free to think fondly of your favourite B movie or pizza commercial.

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