A Quick and Dirty Guide to Carmina Burana

It’s concert week once again!  For the next four days, the Choral Union is performing Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, so it’s looming large in my mind.  Last night, as we went to dress rehearsal, I read the translation of the Latin and Middle High German choruses to my brother.  Wouldn’t you know it: I then had an easier time singing the words, knowing more or less what they meant.  So I thought I’d share.

Go here to see the live-stream of the performance, 7:30 PM Eastern TONIGHT!

When I was in college and our choir director announced that we’d perform Carmina Burana, I was nonplussed as I’d never heard of it before.  But, as he then pointed out, every single one of us had probably heard its first movement, “O Fortuna,” at least once.  It’s very popular for any given Moment of Epic Import, so much so that it’s a bit cliché.  Typically the folks using it ignore the fact that it’s crying out at Fortune, lamenting and snarling in anger at the whims of cruel Fate.  This is how Carmina Burana begins, and it’s also how it ends – angrier than ever at the Wheel of Fortune for spinning onward.

But what about the other 23 movements?

Well.  That’s why I’m here.

2 Fortune plango vulnera takes that theme – rage at Fortune for being so changeable – and expounds on it.  First it mentions that Opportunity has hair on the front of her head and not on the back – a sort of reverse mullet – such that you must catch her as she approaches, because you can’t catch her by the bald patch once she passes.  Furthermore, the singer has held a high position but THEN the wheel of fortune turned, depriving him of his erstwhile glory.  So, it sings, caveat ruinam!  Beware of ruin!  For great kings and queens (Hecuba among them) are not exempt.

Then it all switches gears.  The choir starts singing 3 Veris laeta facies, rather quietly, about the springtime – ironic at this particular time of year, though we could make it out to be optimistic.  The army of Winter, conquered, is now put to flight!  This muted rejoicing describes several sights and sounds of springtime.  Against that backdrop, the baritone sings 4 Omnia sol temperat, about how ‘in the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,’ which is lovely until the beloved is far away, at which point that love becomes a wheel of torture.  Which is charming.  I do so love a touch of torture in my serenades.

The choir returns to rejoicing in Ecce gratumIam liquescit  / et decrescit / grando, nix et cetera.  Bruma fugit, / et iam sugit  / Ver Aestatis ubera. – Now turns to water / and flows away / hail, snow, and the rest.  Winter flees, / and now sucks / Spring at the breasts of Summer.

It’s still below freezing where I am.  I could go for that spring and summer business.  Likewise, being at the command of the Cyprian – Venus of Cyprus – sounds like a good time.

Movement 6 is instrumental, leaving you free to recite Chaucer to yourself (or what you will).

7 Floret silva nobilis, in my mind, takes the most effort to sing – partly because of the accents, the dynamics, the leaping intervals, the frankly bizarre time signature, and – most difficult – the mournful Eia, quis me amabit – Alas, who will love me?  Which is vexing, because normally singing distracts me from my dating life or lack thereof.  SIGH.

Right, so, onto 8 Chramer, gip die varwe mir, wherein a lady of easy virtue goes makeup shopping – Merchant, give me the colour to redden my cheeks so that I may make young men love me whether they wish it or not! – before calling all the men to her – Seht mich an, jungen man!  Lat mich iu gevallen!  Look at me, young men!  Let me please you!  It’s pretty sultry down at the marketplace.

9 Swaz hie gat umbe might be my favorite movement to sing, because the first half is a loud, strong, defiant attempt to use reverse-psychology on Fate.  Since Murphy’s Law says it doesn’t rain when we bring our umbrella along…all the single ladies sing Those who dance around here are all girls who wish to spend all this summer without men, hoping Fate in its perversity will saddle them with menfolk.  Presumably they meet with success, because the second half goes Come, come, my beloved, I am awaiting you with desire.  Take THAT, Murphy!

10 Were diu werlt alle min involves jingling bells AND cornets, which renders it at least twice as majestic as it would have been otherwise – and it’s pretty majestic to begin with, name-dropping royalty and all:  If the world were all mine from the sea up to the Rhine, this I would willingly forego to have the queen of England lie in my arms.  Word on the street says that he’s talking about Eleanor of Aquitaine, which makes more sense than Elizabeth II.

At movement 11 Aestuans interius, the gears shift again.  A foolish, wandering, greedy man, “dead in [his] soul, attend[s] to the needs of [his] flesh,” which transitions neatly to the next movement, 12 Olim lacus colueram, wherein a swan (sung by a tenor, but also played by a mournful bassoon) laments how it had been beautiful, swimming on the lakes, before being roasted and served on a plate.  Dentes frendentes videoI see the gnashing teeth, the tenor sings, underscoring the fact that he, too, is dead in his soul, at the gates of hell.

13 Ego sum abbas is pretty entertaining.  In our performance tonight, expect the baritone to reel about and fling his arms around, for he is the drunken abbot of Cockaigne – a mythical land of plenty, like the Big Rock Candy Mountain for medieval folks.  This abbot hangs out with the drunks and gamblers, but the losing gamblers cry Wafna! (an untranslateable expletive, which I have begun employing in daily conversation) at Fate, for taking away all the joys of life.

Here’s a guy singing it in costume, which is sort of atypical but it’s a good time.  Here’s a more typical choral/orchestral performance.

Next up is my favorite movement: 14 In taberna quando sumus.  When we are in the tavern, it says, we drink and gamble and don’t think about death, but drink toasts to everyone.  Then follows a list of everyone who drinks: The mistress drinks, so does the master, the soldier drinks, so does the cleric, that man drinks, that woman drinks, the servant drinks with the maid…It ends with a rousing exclamation: Damnation to those who sponge on us! Put not their names in the book of Just.  Which might sound a bit harsh, but if a thousand people sponged on you, you might demand the same.

With movement 15 Amor volat undique, we leave the tavern and return to love songs – or, at least, lust songs.  First the ragazzi – the children’s choir – sings about how love is in the air, people are conjugating right and left, and she without a fellow is without joy – which makes me ponder how I can be without myself, but anyway.  16 Dies, nox, et omnia expounds on the lovelorn theme: day and night, everyone’s talk, everything is hostile, but the singer could be restored with a single kiss.

17 Stetit puella is a quiet little lyric.  A girl stood in a red dress; if anyone touched it, the dress rustled. Eia!   A girl stood like a little rose; her face shone and her mouth bloomed, Eia!  I will leave you to whatever conclusions you wish to draw about the subtext there.

18 Circa mea pectora is most certainly a lust song.  At first the fellow sings the beauty of his beloved…but then he reveals that all he really wants to do is eius virginea reserassem vincula, that is, unlock the chains of her virginity.  Classy, sir.  Meanwhile, the ladies of the chorus sing Manda liet, manda liet, min geselle chumet niet: Send a message, send a message, my beloved does not come.  Guess the trope of guys not calling is older than I thought.

19 Si puer cum puellula is a variation on that theme: If a boy lingers with a little girl in a cellar, their meeting is fortunate. As Love increases and for both boredom is dispatched far from their midst, an indescribable game occurs with limbs, shoulders, lips.  Then we get an idea of what they might say to each other in 20 Veni, veni, venias: Come, come, please come, don’t make me die, hyrca, hyrce, nazaza, trilirivos.  Words which defy translation and analysis, I’m afraid, but I’m sure you can gloss them as appropriate.

21 In trutina features a woman wavering between wanton love and chastity.  Her decision is made apparent enough, I reckon, in 22 Tempus est iocundum, which repeats the line Oh – oh, totus floreo,/ iam amore virginali  totus ardeo, / novus, novus amor est, quo pereo – Oh, oh, I am all aflower, now with my first love I am all afire, a new love it is of which I am dying.  This, by the way, wins the Earworm Alert Award.  Be ye wary!

23 Dulcissime follows on the heels of 22 with a soprano’s very short, very high declaration:  Dulcissime, totam tibi subdo me!  Sweetest of men, I give myself to you wholly!  When he’s got his breath back – or otherwise feels like writing really superlative love poetry – the man responds with 24 Ave formosissima, comparing her to Blancheflour, Helen, and even Venus.

It’s such a glorious swelling movement that the reprise of the first movement, O Fortuna, is even harsher than before.  Joy turns to bitterness, love to loss, and hope to grief.  But, of course, the wheel keeps turning, and so even this shall pass.

So.  There you have it.  Enjoy the performance, and, as Chaucer would say: may Fortune not be a Lombarde unto thee!

10 thoughts on “A Quick and Dirty Guide to Carmina Burana

  1. I’ve heard this performed live a couple times, read the translation a couple times, and this made everything ever so much better. I loved reading this 😀 ❤

  2. Man, I am uber-tempted to skip small group tonight (starts at 7, usually is an hour at least) to watch this, because not only does it sound just awesome, but I would enjoy it much more, now knowing what each movement means beforehand.

    It’s settled. The next time I set foot in Sephora, I’m going to say, “Merchant, give me the colour to redden my cheeks so that I may make young men love me whether they wish it or not!”

    And “The army of Winter, conquered, is now put to flight!” makes me think of Game of Thrones. OF COURSE.

    • Well, I’ll tell you what. The concert starts at 7:30, but if I read the website correctly, the orchestra is performing Gould’s “Spirituals for Orchestra” first, and *then* we’re all singing Carmina. So mayhaps you can catch it!

      Absolutely brilliant idea. I wonder what the folks at Sephora would make of that!

      Gotta say, the army of Winter makes ME think of Frost Giants…so…there’s a switch, I guess 😛

  3. Thank you for this post. It was super helpful for when I watched it and got lost and/or mixed-up about which movement I was hearing and what was going on. I enjoyed the performance so much!

    • Hurrah! I was wondering whether it would help with the movements or not, since I didn’t really describe what the music itself was doing very much. So glad you enjoyed it! ^_^

  4. “and now sucks / Spring at the breasts of Summer.” My brain is saying “but doesn’t Spring come first? Shouldn’t it be the other way ’round?” and distracted me for some minutes before I finished reading the rest. Ah the ‘joys’ of obsessive compulsive tendencies and an over-literal mind…

    I have this on my ipod, but now I actually know what they are singing about!

    • Oh my gosh. I skipped over examining that before and now I’m thinking about it. On one hand, Spring DOES come first…but on the other, Spring seems younger…but…AUGH.

      At any rate…glad to be illuminating about the rest of it! 😀

    • Okay, so, I know it’s literally three years later, BUT I’ve thought about this further. My mind has now presented me with the image of Summer being a full-grown mother, whereas Baby Spring has to grow up to be a summer.

      • Hi there! Lol! This is the first time I’ve logged in in a long time (I do so want to get back to blogging and reading blogs!). I’ve missed this. ^_^

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