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Classical 101

Learning Carl Orff's Carmina Burana

ONE AUDIO PIECE - MUSIC All the talk of BalletMet's upcoming performances of Dwight Rhoden's ballet Carmina Burana has taken me down memory lane, to when, as a fourth-grader, I sang in the children's choir of an OSU School of Music performance of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. Even if you don't know this work by name, I'm sure you've heard it. Its opening is iconic: [audio:o_fortuna_intro.mp3] Carl Orff used poems written by medieval monks in a particular German monastery as the texts for the songs and choruses in Carmina Burana. Some of these poems, like O Fortuna, the first in Orff's work, tell of the cruel whims of Fortune and her wheel, a trope in poetry and imagery of the war-and plague-fraught Middle Ages: O Fortune, like the moon you are changeable, ever waxing and waning; hateful life first oppresses and then soothes and fancy takes it, poverty and power, it melts them like ice. (All translations by Yehuda Shapiro and copyright Decca International) Other poems in Carmina Burana, like Veris leta facies (The merry face of spring), use pastoral imagery to bespeak the joys of the world - and the flesh - in verdant spring: In harp-like tones sings the sweet nightingale, with many flowers the joyous meadows are laughing, a flock of birds rises up through the pleasant forests, the chorus of maidens already promises a thousand joys. Ah! This talk of maidens promising a thousand joys brings me to the point that still other poems in Orff's masterpiece are just downright raunchy, real lowbrow stuff about gambling and drinking and virgins and . . . what happens to them. In fact, some of the texts the children's choir sings are enough to make you blush. It was not until years after I sang those selfsame texts with the little children's choir that I pieced together what they meant and what Orff's exciting but really rather wacky composition was really about.  But learning this stuff as a kid was quite a process. So here's how it worked. The choir was assembled of students from several local elementary schools, and it met a few times at Evening Street Elementary School in Worthington to rehearse. After school one day I arrived among a passel of youths at the designated classroom for our first rehearsal. We took our seats.A music teacher taught us the words for one of the choruses we were to sing. She wrote them on the chalkboard and had us repeat them after her in call-and-response fashion. Cool, I thought as we limped our way through the old-sounding and strangely beautiful Latin words, we're speaking Latin. "Amor volat undique," the teacher said. "Amor volat undique," we chanted in cherubic unison. "Captus est libidine," said the teacher. "Captus est libidine," said we, who knew not what a "libido" was, much less where to find one. "Juvenes, iuvencule/coniunguntur merito," chanted our teacher, and, ignorant of conjugal visits, we dutifully repeated after her. I don't remember that anyone asked our teacher for a translation, though some scalawag might have. Then the teacher taught us the melody Orff composed to go with that poem, and after rehearsal I skipped home singing the pretty tune and the ancient, liquid-sounding words. When I got home, my mother, a medieval historian, looked at a handout our teacher had given us containing the Latin texts we were learning. "Hmmm," she said as her eyes skated along the page, her face betraying what I now know must have been bemused recognition. "Pretty loose stuff, some of this." I knew not exactly what she meant, but I had a sense. She smiled and passed the handout back to me without offering to translate. At our next rehearsal we learned one of the other moments for children's choir in Carmina Burana. The same teacher led us the same way through this text: Oh, oh, oh, totus floreo! Iam amore virginali totus ardeo, novus, novus, novus amor est, quo pereo! (three times) Translation (to which we, the singers, were not privy): Oh, oh, oh I am bursting out all over! With first love I am burning all over, new, new love is what I am dying of! The "oh, oh, oh" stuff went right over my head, but I remember feeling that "virginalis" was somehow familiar. I also remember, frankly, not really caring about it. My mother the medievalist must have loved that I and my classmates were, through this experience, being exposed to Latin and what monks were and what a monastery is and that people even many, many centuries ago wrote poems like (or, more likely, not like) we often had to write in school and that we were learning this great musical work that Carl Orff wrote in our own time to showcase these old monks' poems. Still, she kept me ignorant of the meaning of the texts we were singing, enshrouding me in my own little Dark Ages to protect me from the worldly vice those monks knew all too suspiciously well. Of course, by today's standards this little story is embarrassingly old fashioned. Nevermind. And this blog post notwithstanding, all these years later, it's not the titillation of having sung dirty songs in a school program that has locked itself inextricably in the core of my being. Those beautiful Latin texts and Orff's esoteric music for them are what have stayed with me. Every school kid should have a chance to do something like perform Carmina Burana with students and faculty of a music program like OSU's. I know my life would have been much the poorer had I not learned Carmina at such a tender age. So, strange though it may sound, there's a soft spot in my heart for Carmina Burana. Though beautiful, indeed intoxicating, this work isn't exactly a feel-good piece. But the gobsmacking rawness of it will absolutely dazzle you. Let it. And remember: those monks were school kids once, too.