There is no major choral/orchestral work more suitable for a chorus of young adults, full of the excitement of youth and love of singing, than Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Indeed, the sections of the work—“Fortune,” “Spring,” “In the Meadow,” “In the Tavern,” and “The Court of Love”—undoubtedly comprise most of what is constantly on the minds of people in that age group.
The German composer Carl Orff was introduced to the collection of “Songs of Bavaria” (one possible translation of Carmina Burana), which was discovered in the Benedictine Monastery of Benediktbeurn, Bavaria, in 1803. Written by students and clergy of the 11th through 13th centuries, the poems are mostly bawdy, irreverent and satirical.
Carl Orff set twenty-four poems from the manuscript to music in 1936. Orff’s composition quickly became highly popular and a staple piece of the classical music repertoire. In fact, the opening movement has been used in numerous films and television commercials.
Sixty springs ago, this writer, a college freshman and rookie in the Rutgers University Choir, found
himself rehearsing the hormone-ladened Carmina Burana in preparation for a concert with the Baltimore Symphony. Fresh from a concert of Christmas music with that ensemble, we were all supremely excited at the prospect of a trip to Baltimore (an escape from the halls and walls of university)!
At that time, the Baltimore Symphony was at best a “B” level orchestra, led by Massimo Freccia, whose lovely wife was a key financial supporter of the orchestra. But for this greenhorn, whose experience was limited to high school chorus and playing the cymbals in the high school orchestra, the Baltimore was a heavenly sound.
Carmina is a somewhat primitive work, musically speaking, with its driving rhythms and colorful orchestration. The percussion section calls for almost every possible instrument that can be struck. Melodies are not developed, but repeated. Nevertheless, there are sections of great beauty and tenderness, sung by the soprano and baritone soloists and the younger voices of a childrens' choir.
One of my vivid memories is the sound of soprano Ellen Faull (not a familiar name, even sixty years ago). Faull, who died in 2008 at age 90, was well into her fifties when she took the role of the young maiden in our performance. To an eighteen-year-old boy, she did not look the role but, upon hearing her solos, I concluded she perfectly sounded the role. That was a learning moment!
The women choristers were put up in a local hotel and the men were hosted in an army barracks at nearby Fort Meade. Such was the nature of a low budget trip! Everything worked out just fine and we made a triumphal return to Rutgers.
The “Big Time”
Sophomore year brought us back to Baltimore to sing the Verdi Requiem for the first time. A year later we entered the big time, singing the Verdi with the Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Eugene Ormandy, who invited us back to Philadelphia in 1960 to sing Carmina Burana and record it for Columbia Records (still available from Amazon in CBS Records’ Great Performances series). This thrill continued through two concerts in Philadelphia, one at Rutgers, and the last at Carnegie Hall.
Another Personal Connection
The director of the 1968 New Jersey All-State Chorus chose excerpts from Carmina Burana to perform with the All-State Orchestra. Several students from Plainfield, New Jersey High School, including my wife, Catherine (Kate) were among the two hundred and fifty singers at Convention Hall in Atlantic City. Carmina is made for high school kids, as one could see when almost being run over on the boardwalk by a huge swarm of singers wearing hats imprinted with the Carmina call of “Na Za Za” and singing away!
Our community chorus in Plainfield continued my Carmina tradition by performing the work in various versions, including the one for accompaniment by two pianos and percussion and a similar one that added a ballet troupe vividly portraying the scenes, including frolicking on the meadow and in the court of love!
It should come as no surprise that Kate and I were excited at the prospect of singing Carmina Burana one more time, with the Chatham Chorale and the Cape Symphony in May of 2015, my 60th anniversary with the work. Over a recent cup of morning coffee, we both came to the conclusion, after a long, hard rehearsal the night before, that Carmina Burana can be quite a challenge for many seniors. We both know the words and the notes, but our bodies now work harder to perform them!
My 1955 performance took place during what is now referred to as “March Madness,” and this one will be a form of “May Madness,” with the home stretch rehearsals and two concerts all in a short period of time.
Nevertheless, singing such major demanding works is a gift that keeps giving and we trust that we will continue to have the opportunity to be on stage singing for many years to come.
And for a taste of what is in store: