Story by Barbara and Manos Angelakis
Photos courtesy of the National Chorale

Carmina Burana Chorus 1

Carmina Burana,
Cantiones profanae

Carmina Burana is the title of a collection of early 13th century low-Latin, low-German and Medieval French verses and songs in praise of drinking and debauchery. The original 13th century manuscript is in the possession of a Bavarian Benedictine abbey and remains the richest source of secular poetry from the period. The verses were ‘sung’ by goliards, i.e. itinerant university scholars and clerical students active in Europe (mostly Germany) from the late 10th to the early 13th centuries. They moved from tavern to tavern supporting themselves by entertaining tavern patrons in exchange for free drinks and food.

In 1935, the German composer Carl Orff (1895-1982) encountered the collection. He used some two dozen of the texts to fashion one of the 20th century's most popular works for soprano, tenor, and bass soloists; four-part male and female mixed choruses and orchestral accompaniment. Originally conceived as a Scenic Cantata or choreographed stage work, it is now frequently performed without dancers.

The subject covered by this beloved masterpiece is at times irreverent and even bawdy and forms a symphonic exploration of love, lust and earthly pleasures. The music's style ranges from a simple chant to almost rock-opera rhythmic sections. The opening and closing segments, both titled "O Fortuna," mirror each other; between them lays music of diverse styles, with repetitive elements, from the intense purity of a solo soprano to the boisterous quality of an all-male chorus. What Orff envisioned when he wrote Carmina Burana was much more than a simple, straightforward, musical experience. In fact he considered it his crowning musical achievement and had all plates of his previous works destroyed to build his reputation starting with the huge success of this work.

The three principle soloists represent a rowdy, drinking, gambling ex-monk (the old Abbot); a Young Girl (soprano) who is on the receiving end of the Abbot’s nefarious attentions but who expresses her own lascivious desires for a young lover; and a Swan (countertenor) who sings his swan song while being roasted to feed the tavern’s hungry patrons.

The performance we attended at the Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall by the National Chorale was beautifully presented and also included members of the Professional Performing Arts High School Alvin Ailey dance program performing during the opening and closing song O Fortuna (Fortune, Empress of the World). While Carmina Burana is supposed to be a work for a good sized chorus and large orchestra, sometimes having a chorus of 200 or more performers – we saw such a large chorus in performance in London in the early 1990s – here the chorus was considerably smaller, but with much more powerful vocalists compared to some of the other Carmina productions we’ve seen. In addition, in this performance the orchestra consisted of only 2 pianists and 5 percussionists, without any brass or string sections (in the libretto, Orff specifically indicates where and when one or the other of these sections should be excluded from the performance).

Exceptional was the Soprano, Rochelle Bard, whose voice was clear as a bell and the old Abbot, Ricardo Rivera whose remarkable range effortlessly varied from Baritone to Tenor. Countertenor Matthew Truss as the Swan gave an exceptional performance as well with exaggerated comedic nuances.

It was not until 1954 that this work was first heard in America but it has become a much loved and often performed piece of music, no doubt due to its ability to stir the listening audience to sway head and/or body to the melodic movements and to shock awake anyone foolish enough to doze off when the percussion instruments go at it, no holds barred.

 

 

 

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