Carmina Burana

On Saturday 28th October 2017, due to popular demand, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana returned to the Royal Albert Hall for a one-off performance. Presented by Raymond Gubbay, a leading promoter of classical music, 400 voices took to the stage to deliver a sensational cantata, beginning and ending with the familiar movement, O Fortuna.

Based on 24 medieval poems, Carmina Burana is sung in a mix of Latin and Middle High German, languages that the majority of the audience would not be familiar with. However, this did not put people off, resulting in an audience large enough to fill the entire hall who provided vociferous applause and a standing ovation.


Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

The scenic cantata’s full Latin name is Carmina Burana: Cantiones profan√¶ cantoribus et choris cantand√¶ comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis which translates as “Songs of Beuern: Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magic images” – Beuern being the place the poems originated. Although this performance lacked “magic images”, the singers were accompanied by the exceptionally talented Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, made up of an impressive amount of string players, a handful of woodwind and brass, and a wide selection of percussion instruments. 

Of course, the entire performance would not have been possible without the presence of Andrew Greenwood, the conductor, whose important task was to keep both orchestra and choir in perfect harmony. Since his debut in 1990, Greenwood has conducted numerous operas in England and other theatres across the world and held the position of artistic director of the Buxton Festival from 2006 until 2011.

Although Carmina Burana is written for both voice and instruments, the RPO had far more to do on the spectacular night than anyone else. Since the headline performance was easily contained to one half of the event, the orchestra began with a recital of Gioacchino Rossini’s (1792-1868) William Tell Overture. The opening lines showed off the celli and basses as they began to set the Alpine scene. The rolling timpani and staccato woodwind introduced a gathering storm, coming to its height with the uproarious trombones and vibrant strings. As the tempest died away, the cor anglais (an Alpine horn in the original manuscript) plays its solo, eventually joined by the uplifting flutes representing birdsong. Finally, the trumpets burst forth with the memorable galloping theme and, in due course, the conclusion of the overture.

Following the overture, the RPO continue to show off their skills with the lesser known Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor by Max Bruch (1838-1920). This particular piece guest-starred Jennifer Pike with her 1708 violin made by Matteo Goffriller. Pike first came to fame at the age of twelve after winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year award. She has since gone on to perform as a soloist with orchestras all over the world, making her an excellent choice of violinist for this concerto. Both Pike and the RPO professionally played the lengthy piece, finishing with the more recognisable movement.

However, it was Carmina Burana the audience came to see and the second half finally began with the long-awaited singers taking their places in the raised seats behind the orchestra. Since a 400-strong choir is unlikely to be easily obtainable, the performance was given by a mix members from a range of groups: English Concert Chorus, Highgate Choral Society, Royal Choral Society, and The Southend Boys’ Choir – the latter, despite having the least to sing, getting the greatest applause.

Beginning with the magnificent Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi, the choir and orchestra put all their effort into producing an impressive sound and enjoyable performance. The 24 poems were almost seamlessly delivered to an enraptured audience, the orchestra getting no break between movements. The choir was carefully choreographed so that only the ones singing remained standing, giving the others a welcome rest. Despite the rising and sitting of the singers, the performance was not disrupted thanks to the careful timing of the composer and his clear signals.


This is the front cover art for the manuscript Carmina Burana written by Carl Orff.

When Carl Orff (1895-1982) originally composed the music for Carmina Burana, he intended for it to be performed in the theatre. Nowadays, as it was in this production, it is shown in concert halls without any acting. However, there was an occasion when the baritone soloist, Grant Doyle, had the audience laughing at his facial expressions and body language.

Due to the lack of action, it is unlikely that the audience would grasp the storyline, however, if someone could understand Latin and Middle High German, they would probably still be baffled by the lyrics. It is the melodies that Carmina Burana is remembered for, particularly those that have been used in advertisements and programmes on our television screens, for example, Only Fools and HorsesThe Simpsons, and an advertisement for Domino’s Pizza.

In 1847, Johann Andreas Schmeller (1785-1852), a German philologist, published the selection of 13th-century songs that he had stumbled across in a monastery at Benediktbeuern – hence the name Carmina Burana, “Songs of Beuern”. The authors of the poems remain unknown, however, it is believed they may have been scholars or minstrels. The poems cover a variety of themes that mostly deal with human behaviours, for instance, the fickleness of fortune and wealth, nature, and the enjoyment and risks of drinking and gambling.


Codex Buranus (Carmina Burana)

When Orff came across the book of poems, he was not only inspired by the thought-provoking verses. It was the illustration at the beginning of the text that caught Orff’s attention and remained in his mind throughout his composition process. The drawing depicts a Rota Fortunae, or Wheel of Fortune, which is a symbol of the temperamental nature of Fate. The goddess, Fortuna, spins the wheel causing some mortals to suffer severe bad luck or tragedy, whereas others would hit the jackpot in life.

Around the edge of the wheel are the words Regnabo, Regno, Regnavi, Sum sine regno (I shall reign, I reign, I have reigned, I am without a realm). Orff took the concept of the Wheel of Fortune and produced a piece with five main sections made up of 25 movements that start at the top of the wheel and gradually make their way around through hope, joy, bitterness and grief, eventually completing a full circle. It is for this purpose that Carmina Burana both begins and ends with the most well-known movement, O Fortuna.

The first section, Il Primo Vere, begins in the spring with a song praising the comings of brighter weather after a sharp winter (hiemalis acies). The baritone soloist (Grant Doyle) views spring as a positive season: Omnia sol temperat purus et subtilis (The sun warms everything, pure and gentle). The chorus continues the theme, adding in words of longing, expressing their desire for lovers.

The end of this section changes from Latin into Middle High German with Charmer, gip die varwe mir (Shopkeeper, give me colour) in which the women beg the salesmen to sell them rouge to make themselves attractive to the young men. Although a fairly positive section, these final movements suggest there are pain and heartbreak on the horizon.

Fate turns the wheel and the second section, In Taberna (In the Tavern), introduces the first major vice. The baritone sings of how he is swept away by the wicked and immoral activities, yearning for them instead of caring about more virtuous behaviour.

“I am carried along like a ship without a steersman.”
Estuans interius, II In Taberna 

Bizarrely, one movement titled Cignus ustus cantat (The Roast Swan) is sung from the perspective of a swan. In this performance, the tenor Mark Milhofer gave an expressive performance from a balcony, lamenting that he was once a beautiful swan, swimming on open lakes, but “now I lie on a plate … Misery me! Now black and roasting fiercely!” Forgetting for a moment that swans cannot speak Latin and the more pressing point that dead ones cannot make a sound, the metaphor of the roast swan is a suitable analogy for the troubles people find themselves in when letting vices such as alcohol take over their lives.

Unfortunately, the chorus is still determined to drink and begin listing a whole range of people who enjoy coming to the tavern in a humorous movement, In taberna quando sumus (When we are in the tavern).

“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 drinks, the settled man drinks, the wanderer drinks, the stupid man drinks, the wise man drinks, the poor man drinks, the sick man drinks, the exile drinks, and the stranger, the boy drinks, the old man drinks, the bishop drinks, and the deacon, the sister drinks, the brother drinks, the old lady drinks, the mother drinks, this man drinks, that man drinks, a hundred drink, a thousand drink.”
– In Taberna quando, II In Taberna 

The third section finally sees the soprano, in this instance, Jennifer France, take the stage.  Cour D’Amours is about love, encouraging young men and women to get together, with a warning that those who do not will never gain any pleasure. The soprano sings of a girl in a red dress in a short movement called Stetit puella (A Girl Stood) and later sings In trutina (In the Balance) faced with the choice of love or modesty; she chooses love.

By the end of the section, man and woman have both given themselves over to lust, whilst the Wheel of Fortune ceaselessly continues turning. The 24th movement, however, suggests that they are not completely happy with their impulsive decisions and are, perhaps, feeling guilty. Ave formosissima is sung like a prayer with lyrics such as “Hail, pride among virgins, glorious virgin, Hail, light of the world, Hail, rose of the world …”

Now the Wheel has turned full circle and the orchestra and chorus join together once more in a final rendition of O Fortuna. As impressive, if not more, this final movement ended with the audience on their feet, applauding the phenomenal voices of the choirs and soloists. The mix of voices with tenors, bass and altos on one side and sopranos and choir boys on the other, made a harmonious sound that was a joy to listen to.

Orchestras tend to get forgotten, the singers receiving the majority of attention, however, being able to watch the instrumentalists on stage revealed how much effort they put in and were equally praised in the final bows. The orchestra also had a movement they performed alone, Tanz (Dance), which would have been coupled with a dance when shown on a stage rather than in a concert hall.

Raymond Gubbay’s production of Carmina Burana was an excellent accomplishment and worth bringing back to the Royal Albert Hall for this particular night. It does not matter if the lyrics are not understood – besides, even though the programme provided an English translation, it had lost its poeticness – it is the music and the sound of different voices coming together in harmony that gives off the greatest impression.

By far, O Fortuna is the most spectacular of all the movements, with its well-known moving melody. Although it signalled the end of the performance, hearing it for the second time came as an absolute joy; it is a song that could be listened to time and again, never losing its splendour.

Regardless of who is presenting it or who the singers and musicians are, Carmina Burana is worth listening to. It is feasibly the strangest selections of poetry to be turned into song, however, Carl Orff’s manuscript is a phenomenal, unique piece of work.

Raymond Gubbay returns to the Royal Albert Hall with a Classical Spectacular on 15th-18th March 2018, a performance of the very best of classical music, including a rendition of Carl Orff’s O Fortuna.