Carmina Burana – September 2011 by Nadia Essop

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Carmina Burana: quest for redemption?

By Nadia Essop


September 2011, Baxter Auditorium, Cape Town. Maestro Alexander Fokkens sweeps his baton and unleashes ‘O Fortuna’, a gateway to some primal energy. Goosebumps crawl across the flesh, the heart pounds, and there is no time to exhale. The choir falls from fortissimo to pianissimo, and a steady plea ensues. But nothing is as it seems. Below the surface of crisp words brews something unsettling, something urgent. The murmur steadily swells, until its force is let loose on one long breath: ‘Let us mourn together, for fate crushes the brave.

The story of the Carmina Burana begins over 700 years ago. The Catholic Church was the most powerful authority during the Medieval Times, and regulated all aspects of life. Even so, there was room for rebellion. The Goliards were groups of clergymen, poets, intellectuals and students who wandered through the landscape of the Dark Ages. They carried the flame of truth through their plays, poetry, and songs. Their poems, though in essence a form of resistance, reflected observations about life, love, debauchery, nature, and the fickleness of fate.

In 1803 an old manuscript (circa 1230) was discovered in a monastery in Bavaria, Germany. It contained hundreds of Goliard writings, and remains the largest surviving collection of medieval poetry. It had been waiting for573 years!

Carl Orff  the composer, was prepared when fate knocked at his door: he had a passion for the languages of antiquity, and he was experimenting with new forms of music. Much like the Goliard poetry was concise, Carl Orff wanted to simplify music to its basic components. From the  hundreds of poems written in Latin, old French and German, he selected 25. These he set to his own music, in an arrangement that was innovative for its time.

The Goliards roamed throughEuropein pursuit of their truth, vigilant of the power of the church. Carl Orff lived under Hitler’s reign. He had to navigate his artistic ambitions through the dangers of a horrific era. Conflict situations compel every individual to take a stand, to make choices and sacrifices – musicians are not exempt.

The Carmina Burana became Carl Orff’s greatest success, and O Fortuna its most recognizable tune, but it came at a price. Some of his personal choices during the war, continue to cloud his legacy: was he a Nazi sympathiser, was he a fence sitter, was he wracked with guilt, …

On the other hand, Carl Orff’s legacy includes an altruistic body of work. His Orff-Schulwerk is an integrated approach to teaching music and movement to children. It is still used and respected by educationists worldwide.

Above all else, his music speaks for him. Carmina Burana transcends the meaning found in words, but is paradoxically dependant on the energy of these words. The music speaks in turn of wrath, lyricism, hysteria, humour, divinity. O Fortuna in particular, has a pulsing life-force that begs the question: at what price redemption?