Carmina Burana is the iconic secular work for chorus and orchestra. Its opening and closing moments have been used in countless films and commercials – they make any situation sound epic. The texts come from a collection of 12th- and 13th-century poems of the same name. Although they were found in a Benedictine monastery at Beuern, Bavaria (the title translates as “Songs of Beuern”), they deal exclusively with secular subjects, from the unpredictability of fortune to the moral failings of the Catholic Church of the time to a catalog of all the people who drink (hint: everyone). They were written by the Goliards, a group of vagrant students, clergy, and poets who satirized the church through their writings. German composer Carl Orff (1895-1982) discovered the poems for himself in 1934 and spent the next two years setting 24 of them to music. The result was so successful that Orff wrote to his publisher: “Everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately, printed, can be destroyed. With Carmina Burana, my collected works begin.”
Here is the full piece in a 1994 BBC Proms performance:
So, what business does this piece have being in a wind band blog? In 1967, John Krance took the choral/orchestral work and, with the composer’s enthusiastic blessing, transcribed a big chunk of it (12 movements) for band, incorporating the vocal parts into the instrumentation. It works spectacularly well, as proven by this performance of Jerry Junkin conducting the 2011 California All-State band:
The wind ensemble version allows for movements to be selected out for a shorter program. This year in the Columbia Wind Ensemble (at the request of senior trumpeter and Festival guru Thomas Callander ’13), we are doing the following:
- O Fortuna (just the famous intro)
6. Were diu werlt alle min
Carl Orff is famous in the world of music education as well, where his Orff Schulwerk method of teaching children music remains hugely influential. Read more about him at his own very informative and up to date website, Wikipedia, Naxos, and, for something slightly more probing and political, look at this article about music and the Holocaust as it relates to him.
Finally, if you’ve read this far, you might as well hear my favorite Carmina Burana joke (although you may not like it):
Carmina, Carmana, Burina, Burana,
Let’s Carl the whole thing Orff.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. And I can’t take full credit for this one: I first heard it from my Dartmouth classmate, now an operatic soprano, Laura Choi Stuart.