Wine and Opera part 12: Carmina Burana

1st April, 2014 by Rupert Millar

Not so much an opera as a choral piece, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, weaves medieval morality with striking and incredibly famous musical accompaniment.

Orff,_C._Carmina_Burana_(München,_1959)The opening canto, O Fortuna, has become a staple of horror and disaster films and with its dramatic opening and the atmospheric, near-whisper of the first few lines of Latin, one can imagine it as setting the scene for a human sacrifice at a pagan/occcult ceremony.

Except, it’s not really at all. If you listen to the end of O Fortuna the closing music is triumphant, almost jolly – not as jolly as Holst’s Jupiter but with festive overtones.

The song is not a paen to some malevolent Babylonian demon. It’s a song about fortune and how fortune’s wheel can bring hardship – and the lyrics aren’t particularly jolly it’s true.

Although the cantata has what appear to be dark, satanic overtones in places the majority of it is about life, love, nature and dancing and so on.

When it was first performed in 1937, the Nazis were worried its overarching tone was too erotic.

The work is based on a medieval text of the same name written in the 11th or 12th century. The songs are written in a mixture of Latin, Middle German, Provençal and Old French and are thought to have been written by the Goliards, a group of clergymen from across Europe who wrote satirical poetry.

No less than 40 of the poems are specifically about drinking and gambling and usually point out the hypocrisy of religious types who call for those around them to abstain from “demon drink” while secretly indulging themselves.

Of the 24 poems Orff used for his Carmina Burana, parts 11 to 14 are set “In the Tavern”, with one song taking a first-“person” view of a swan which is being roasted on a spit for the revellers.

The song which should occupy our attention though is “In taberna quando sumus” – “When we’re in the tavern”.

It is both a drinking song and a complaint against those who scold others for enjoying a drink.

After all,

Tam pro papa quam pro rege
bibunt omnes sine lege
Bibit hera, bibit herus,
bibit miles, bibit clerus,
bibit ille, bibit illa,
bibit servus cum ancilla,
bibit velox, bibit piger,
bibit albus, bibit niger,
bibit constans, bibit vagus,
bibit rudis, bibit magus.”

“To the Pope as to the king
they all drink without restraint.
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.”

Next time: a souper in Die Fledermaus
Previously: Tales of Hoffmann

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