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Carmina Burana!

So as the last entry may have suggested, I went to the symphony to hear Orff's Carmina Burana, and it was amazing.

It's a cantata scored for choirs, small orchestra, and tenor, baritone, and soprano. Orff used medieval songs/poetry from Beuern (Latinized to Burana) as his libretto, most of which were written in Latin but also Middle High German. He grouped them into several categories: drinking songs, love songs, songs about spring, all centered on a theme about Fortune. And then he set them to music.

You are probably familiar with the very first poem. It's O Fortuna and it's a very, very famous piece, often scored for epic scenes in pop culture. Here is a slowish Youtube recording. I really, really encourage you to listen to it, because I'm sure you know the first few seconds:

There was a hundred-plus choir singing this alongside a children's chorus, in what had to be like ffffffff dynamic phrasing. It was also a lot faster and had some incredibly clipped, marcato enuciation, so the impact can hardly be imagined in the concert hall. This is music to bowl you over completely!

After the equally rousing Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi (Fortune, Empress of the World) is the Spring. The first two are rather dreary, even though the poems speak of "Zephr breath[ing] nectar-scented breezes" (from Veris leta facies) and "the sun warm[ing] everything" (Omnia sol temperat). But in Ecce gratum (Behold, the pleasant spring) the melody takes an unexpectedly sprightly air.

I especially liked #8, which was Chramer, gip die varwe mir (Shopkeeper, give me colour), which goes on to say

Shopkeeper, give me colour
to make my cheeks red,
so that I can make the young men love me,
against their will.

Look at me, young men! Let me please you!

I love the contrast between sacred songs and the secular songs in this period. Isn't it great?

The next section is the tavern poems. #12 is "The Roast Swan Sings", where the poor swan, roasting on a spit, is sung by a tenor, with the men's section backing him in a chorus of woe, woe, woe! The tenor was especially great in this role. He had memorized all his music (including a very long Benjamin Britten composition in the beginning of the concert) and he was so expressive with not just his voice but also his face and his arms and body language. As he finished his first verse and was joined by the chorus singing about him roasting, he fanned himself gently, which made the audience laugh. And at the end, as he finishes singing about his horror:

Now I lie on a plate, and cannot fly anymore,
I see bared teeth:

(Chorus singing):
Misery me!
Now black and roasting fiercely!

he fell into his chair limply.

The baritone hiccupped in the middle of #13, which is the one about the drunkard abbot with his drunkard flock, too.

I think my favourite was probably #14 though, which is In taberna quando sumus ("When we are in the tavern"). I want to quote you the entire passage, but here's one part, as the choir really gets into the swing of things:

The mistress drinks, the master drinks,
the soldier drinks, the priest drinks,
the man drinks, the woman drinks,
the servant drinks with the maid,
the swift man drinks, the lazy man drinks,
the white man drinks, the black man dirnks,
the settled man drinks...

This poorly conveys just how punchy it was. All the lines in Latin rhyme and have a definite meter. Here is the Latin--imagine this sung by a massive choir singing every note marcato, quick and definitively:

Bibit hera, bibit herus,
bibit miles, bibit clerus
bibit ille, bibit illa,
bibit servis cum ancilla,
bibit velox, bibit piger,
bibit albus, bibit niger,
bibit soror, bibit frater


Bibit pauper et egrotus,
bibit exul et ignotus
bibit puer, bibit canus,
bibit presul et decanus,

Doesn't it have the most amazing swing to it? The rhythm just goes. I loved the drinking songs. This one in particular seemed to have honed a very, very sharp edge of irony and turned it on everyone in the world.

Here is a Youtube version (my quoted bit starts around 1:50):

I also really loved #11, which was sung by the baritone. It's called "Estuans interius" (Burning Inside) about his bitterness at fortune, the way he's played by winds, how he finds solace in drinking and vice. He really gave an amazing performance, and the last line--"my soul is dead/so I shall look after the flesh" perfectly.

After the tavern songs are the love songs. I liked #17, "Stetit puella" (A girl stood [in a red tunic]), sung by the soprano, who got to luxuriate in some really high passages.

In general, Carmina Burana clothed a lot of the poetry with, well, life. It's not that the poems/songs aren't good; it's that Orff, by setting them to music, added so much definition to them. In a single moment as they sang, I understood the poem, whereas poetry usually takes several readings to sink in--and the musicians' interpretations added so many layers. The Burning Inside one (by the baritone) is one of those, as is the Roasting Swan--it lifted it from a mildly entertaining poem to a legitimately funny/tragic piece. I also thought that the setting went absolutely beautifully with the words--make the music slave to the music indeed (thank you Monteverdi). This is in contrast to Benjamin Britten's seranade for Tenor, Horns, and Strings. This was a contrasting piece, set to poems such as Tennyson's famous one from The Princess (The splendour falls on castle walls/And snowy summits old in story etc) and Blake's Elegy (O Rose, thou art sick!/The invisible worm etc). While I really enjoyed the Dirge (anonymous author from the middle ages), I thought that much of the text was elongated far too long, and lost a lot of impact because the tenor had to stand there and weave his way through the notes. I thought he wasn't even singing English at first!

Carmina Burana ends with a rousing rendition of O Fortuna again, which is only fitting. The pieces deal with the vagaries of fate--here bitterness, there love, now spring, now uncertainty. O Fortuna talks about Fortune's great wheel.

The other contrasting piece is the dances from Powder Her Face. The conductor, in his introductory remarks, said he chose it not only for itself but also how shocking it was, musically and in subject matter (as Carmina Burana was), and said the subject was actually unspeakable there on stage (it means what you think it means, yes. The libretto is about Margaret, Duchess of Argyll; Powder Her Face). The music itself was incredibly weird and dissonant. I don't know dance forms very well in music, except for the 3/4 time in waltz, so I think many of the intricacies of the forms' perversion were lost on me, but it definitely was very very weird. Full of strings doing unusual effects (lots of pizzicato, plucking the strings) and just jumping in with weird intervals, at weird times, all by themselves with no harmonic support from anywhere...

Altogether: AMAZING. I think the vast majority music is best heard live, but Carmina Burana is one of the pieces where the live version is leaps and bounds above recordings. It is flat-out amazing in person.

Crosspost: http://silverflight8.dreamwidth.org/141420.html.




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