Carmina Burana – a history

As it is nearly thirty years since I last sang Carmina Burana, I thought it might be instructive to refresh my memory about the origins and history of both the words and the music, and then to share that with anyone else who might be interested.  With the wonderful resources of Google and Wikipedia to hand, it should be easy, or so I imagined, to find out much more than was readily available thirty years ago.

 That was the theory.  In practice, all the many websites devoted to Carmina Burana tell the same tale.  And they all leave one telling question unanswered.  So my research turned into more of a guessing game – a surmise of how things might have happened.

 But let’s begin with the facts.  In 1803, a portfolio of around one thousand poems was discovered at a Benedictine abbey in southern Germany.  They were written in Mediaeval Latin and Old High German, with smatterings of other languages.  The language enabled them to be dated to the 11th and 12th centuries.  About eight hundred of the poems form six religious plays, with the remaining two hundred or so having secular themes.  The latter are earthy, boisterous, bawdy and irreverent, although by most judgements they would not be considered profane.  These poems captured the imagination of a number of scholars, one of whom translated them into English.  In the 1930’s, the composer Carl Orff, noted for his musical education methods, came across the translations and decided to set a representative selection of the secular poems to music.

 Originally, the work was to be performed with dramatic tableaux adding to the sense of theatre.  This version was, after some hesitation, approved by the Nazi authorities, and played to full houses.  Orff disowned all the music he had written previously, and composed two further similar works, which did not receive the same popular acclaim.

 The music really came into its own as a concert piece in the 1960’s.  It is now performed frequently all over the world, both in the orchestral version such as Sydney Philharmonia Choirs gave recently, and in the version accompanied by two pianos and percussion, which Manly Warringah Choir will be presenting in August.

 Now for the unanswered question……Why were the poems written?  There is a huge contrast in the subject matter of the poems, from reverent depictions of Bible stories to a cursing of Fate and the celebration of wine, women and song.  It does not make a lot of sense.  All the websites say is that the poems were written by Goliards, students of theology who were probably itinerant.  But why would they write material in two such totally different genres?  It seems we can only surmise. 

 It seems that, at the time, the Church was becoming rather authoritarian, with Church officials wielding a great deal of political power.  Noble and wealthy families typically sent at least one of their sons to become priests, willingly or unwillingly.  As priests in training, these largely intelligent and gifted young men faced a lifetime of living under the Church’s authority, which involved strict codes of conduct and not being married.  So I wonder if the secular poems in Carmina Burana are the last fling of young men about to submit to a lifetime of obedience, moral rectitude and chastity.  Perhaps that made them the angry young men of their day, or perhaps the graffiti artists of their time.  Perhaps they were imagining what was not to be, or giving voice to their dreams.

 Maybe it does not matter why the songs were written.  Taken at face value, they are one of many possible commentaries on some of life’s basic facets.  And they are great fun to sing.  If early rehearsals are any indication, Carlos will once again bring out the best in the Choir, particularly in terms of tone and expression, which should make for a great afternoon on August 7th.