The fickleness of fate,
The treacherous territories of greed, lust and gluttony
The joy of spring
These are the age-old, timeless themes of Carl Orff’s amazing secular cantata, Carmina Burana. All of the texts were written during the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. Orff selected only 24 poems and writings from a huge and beautifully bound volume of 254 poems discovered in 1803 when the monastery, Benediktbeuern, was secularized. The title, literally translated, means Songs of Beuern.
I find the backstory of every piece of music fascinating but this one has special intrigue. Who were the poets? The texts are NOT AT ALL religious. In fact, some are bawdy and lascivious.
WHO WROTE THE TEXTS?
Probably travelling minstrels, defrocked priests, students satirizing the Catholic Church and many, scholars think, were written by the Goliards.
The Goliards were known for their rioting, gambling and intemperance rather than their scholarship. They were often erroneously supposed to have been a religious order, an idea that arises from their satiric order of St. Golias, the fictitious patron saint of debauchery. The actual word goliard may derive from the Old French and means “big mouth.”
You’ve heard of the troubadours, right? Well, the Goliards were to the Troubadours what John Belushi was to Sir Lawrence Olivier. Both the Troubadours and the Goliards earned food, drink and lodging from their songs and poetry. The audience for the troubadours was the high and mighty, so they created sophisticated songs for connoisseurs of music and poetry. The audience for the Goliards was the middle and lower classes, so the Goliards, who tended to be rebellious and irreverent, created witty songs for the connoisseurs of cynicism and raunch. Although the goliards were initially tolerated and protected, their multiplying numbers eventually turned into a plague of beggars and their irreverence provoked an increasingly conservative church hierarchy, which began suppressing the movement.
The texts are in three different languages – Old Provencal French, Middle German and Medieval Latin. This fact has caused quite a bit of angst for our fabulous singers. These are unfamiliar languages to all of them and to me. Making sure that every syllable is correctly pronounced has been quite a task. Since languages continue evolving, you can imagine the changes and morphing that has taken place since the texts were written 900 years ago! Is the “v” pronounced as a “v” or an “f?” Is “que” pronounced “kvay” or “kvee” or “quay” or “quee?” You get the idea.
Even if you don’t think you’ve heard the piece, I’m quite certain you will recognize the opening lines of “O Fortuna.” It has been used in movies, trailers, advertisements and commercials. Even at the 2013 Superbowl, when San Francisco rallied and it looked like they just might trump the Ravens, I heard the main theme. The text at that point speaks about never being too cocky about your good fortune. The goddess, Fortuna, whose wheel continues to turn, will elevate you and then debase you on a whim. It appears there is no escaping that inevitable part of human existence.
Musically speaking, there is almost no polyphony in the work. Rather, rhythm is the central feature. The piece is easy to listen to but far from pabulum. Even without motivic development or harmonic complexity, the texts are fascinating and the music riveting in its energetic and driven pace.
Carmina Burana is one of those pieces you’ll never forget – from the opening and most famous, “O Fortuna” to the greatest drinking song of all time, “In the Tavern,” to the rapturous high D in the soprano aria, “Oh, Sweetest One.”
A favorite of the soloist arias is “O Trutina.” The music is so glorious and tender as it accompanies such an internal struggle between virtue and desire.
With more than 200 people on stage this will be quite an event!
Everyone is working so hard. When the music is great, hard work is the gift we give ourselves in order to experience the powerful transformative feelings that only music can give. A reward in extremely valuable currency!
As I study the score for Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, I am in awe of the creative genius of the composer, who wrote the piece for piano, and of the orchestrator, Maurice Ravel who transformed the piece for full orchestra. How does one take a brilliant piece written for piano and transform it into an orchestral masterpiece so perfect in color, character and variety?
For example, the very familiar opening Promenade is heard five times throughout the piece and represents the composer’s journey through an art gallery of works created by his friend, Victor Hartman. Could be boring to hear the same music five times, but on the contrary. Each repetition portrays a completely different mood. Ravel shortens or lengthens it, uses different instruments, changes keys, dynamics and tempi to create five completely different sounding iterations – proud, delicate, lumbering and tired, tranquil and finally triumphant.
For years I have played this piece and have met several saxophonists because or it. This work, along with precious few others, features the saxophone – BUT in only 1 of the 15 movements. We hear it in the movement entitled, The Old Castle. Hartman’s sketch evidently depicted a troubadour singing outside of a medieval castle. Once again, creative genius Ravel dreams up a brilliant idea and employs a rarely heard instrument with gorgeous, noble sound to portray this scene.
How do you musically portray a Polish ox-cart rolling along on enormous wheels? Ravel assigned the melody to the tuba! But, the part is written so much higher than in any other part of the piece. WHY? – Perhaps to put the figurative strain of the ox-cart onto the tuba player. It appears that, over the years, this strain has proved too much for tuba players because most often they bring a higher pitched instrument for this one solo. Many of us have heard it performed on the Euphonium – a beautiful instrument but the melody doesn’t have the strain of reaching for those extremely high, lip-busting notes!
There are movements that portray chicks popping out of their shells – high woodwinds, of course; There are women gossiping at a French market about a lost cow, false teeth and a drunken neighbor – lots of scurrying activity in upper strings and woodwinds; We hear a conversation between two Jewish men, one rich, one poor – brash, unison, slow, vibrato-rich strings for the rich bragger and a trumpet solo with an annoying, repetitive figure for the poor beggar. My favorite is The Hut on Fowl’s Legs, which is a musical portrayal of a day in the life of the Russian witch, Baba Yaga. She lives in a hut perched on hen’s legs and flies through the air in a black cauldron – the entire orchestra gets involved in chasing music to depict Baba Yaga as she lures her victims in.
In every movement there is magic! And I am the lucky one who gets to discover it every day!
I am excited about another WSO season, having been fueled by a wonderful summer of conducting and playing. For 25 years I have spent summers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming performing as part of the Grand Teton Music Festival. It’s a place where superb music making and majestic mountains inspire me to feel gratitude for the life I have. Musicians come from all over the country – New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, Detroit, Milwaukee, Colorado, just to name a few – to make music with life-long friends and to hike up arduous paths to crystalline mountain lakes. Donald Runnicles, in my opinion, one of the world’s great conductors, leads the orchestra. Each week is a different program, but a stand out for me this summer was a concert version of Wagner’s Die Walkure with soloists from the Met and Berlin Opera. Spellbinding!
In mid-July I flew home to conduct the showcase concert for The Young Artist World Piano Festival. A competition is held to choose winners to play with the orchestra. There are two categories: under 12-years-old and over 12-years-old. This year, the winner of the younger division was William Yang, the wunderkind who played with WSO in February 2012. He performed the 2nd and 3rd movements of Mozart’s most difficult concerto, K. 466. It was INCREDIBLE! The winner of the older division performed the 1st movement of Beethoven’s 3rd piano concerto in c minor (same brooding key as his 5th symphony, Coriolan Overture and Pathetique Sonata). The cadenza under the adroit musicianship of Evren Ozell had us all tearing up.
Then it was off to Brainerd for the Lakes Area Music Festival. This was my third year, the first two as clarinetist and this one as conductor and clarinetist. Unlike other festivals around the country this one pairs professional players from the Minnesota Orchestra, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago Symphonies with freshly graduated musicians from Juilliard, Eastman School and Music, Rice University and others. It is somewhat similar to the Teton Festival in that musicians are brought to a gorgeous area and housed in lovely abodes, but this festival provides mentoring for the young and some humble pie for the old! You can imagine how delightful it is to conduct an orchestra made up of both.
Now I’m ready to tackle the huge amount of study required for the WSO’s fourth season.
- Manny Laureano, principal trumpet, MN Orchestra
- ANCIA Saxohpone Quartet, Selmer and VanDoren sponsored soloists
- Kaleena Miller, tap dancer extraordinaire whose group, Rhythmic Circus, will be performing in New York City for a couple months this season
- Edina Chorale, Minnesota BoyChoir, Karin Wolverton, Gabriel Pressier – for our performance of Carmina Burana in Feb and March 2013
There will be a lot of familiar repertoire, some rarely performed jewels and a premiere or two.
I look forward to sharing the incomparable WSO experience with you.