Tom Forrester-Paton traces the origins of Carl Orff’s iconic Carmina Burana

In Yorkshire, the county in England where I grew up, there is a place called Mount Grace Priory. It is a partly ruined, but much-preserved Carthusian monastery with a physic garden, a fish farm, and cells for 17 monks living as hermits, engaged in devotional writing and pious contemplation. Except that they weren’t – at least not all the time. As the guides will gleefully tell you if ever so slightly pressed, there’s evidence that as night fell on the hilly woodland at the foot of which the Priory sits, a small army of good-time girls would descend upon the priory, bent on sampling its alcoholic brews and, in return, bestowing on the monks some very worldly entertainment.

I mention this because whenever, as a chorister, I open a Carmina Burana score, the monks of Mount Grace Priory come to mind.

Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanae cantoribus et choris cantandae comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis (Songs of Beuern: Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magical images) is the Latin title of the collection of verse we know as Carmina Burana, and from which Carl Orff constructed his cantata. They are the work of a clique of clerics and students who, centuries before Martin Luther’s time, became disaffected with the hypocrisy and corruption they saw in the church of Rome. They were called Goliards, and wrote in a variety of languages – chiefly late Latin, but also Middle High German, Occitan, and sometimes a mixture of all.

Nobody knows quite where the name Goliard comes from, but some suggest it is cognate with ‘gaillard’, meaning ‘a fun-loving, convivial fellow’. Certainly, the tenor and subject matter of the 24 verses that Carl Orff chose in 1934 to set to music are consistent with that etymology.

Carl Orff was born in 1895 into a Bavarian family with strong military connections, but even stronger musical ones. Conscripted into the German army in the Great War, he was badly injured when a trench collapsed on him, and the whole experience put him off music for the duration. His daughter later opined that the episode may have been sown in him the seeds of religious scepticism, and it’s easy to imagine that dissident streak informing his response to the Carmina. These are bawdy, relentlessly impudent verses, which take the ideals of monastic, and for that matter, Christian life, and invert them in a way that seems, and probably was, intended
to scandalise.

A dominant theme in his cantata is the primacy in human affairs of the wheel of fortune, itself a riposte to the notion of Divine Will. The work begins and ends with the movement which has most prominently established itself in popular culture, the famous O Fortuna, a profane prayer to the Goddess of Fortune who sits atop the Rota Fortunae. In a series of added scenes, the wheel rotates as the cantata sings the praises of immoderate drinking and carnal love, invokes the beauties of Nature, and indeed covers about every aspect of the human condition – except man’s duty to God. Within each scene, the operation of Fortune is depicted, as joy turns to despair, hope to grief, and so on.

Musically, the cantata owes much to Renaissance and early Baroque styles, although the hand of Stravinsky is also evident. This melodic straightforwardness has surely contributed to the perennial success of Carmina Burana at the box office.

Saturday 28 October at 2:30pm in Saturday Matinee: Choral masterworks

This article originally appeared in the October issue of the 2MBS Fine Music Sydney Magazine