soundstreamsunday #109: “O Fortuna” by Carl Orff

carminaburana_wheel-1When your local symphony wants to fill seats, a good bet after the annual Star Wars night is a performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Its pop power lies in a percussion both brawny and nuanced, and the clean melodic lines of the 23 songs bracketed by the thunderous chant of the opening and closing piece, “O Fortuna.” Orff’s success with Carmina Burana (1936) made his career, but its legacy is — must be — shaded by Orff’s less than courageous behavior in the Nazi era. The piece is thus endowed with a taint, a stink, and some feel this extends to its overt distillation of Stravinsky’s thornier Les Noces (1923) into symphonic ear candy.  Historians have judged Orff’s cowardice and originality to an uncomfortable draw, but listeners remain enthusiastic, sensing in it I think the same elements enriching Orff’s and Gunild Keetman’s Schulwerk project:  a simplicity of melody empowered by a rhythmic focus accenting drama.  Smart but not brainy, easy on the digestion but also moody around the edges, maintaining enough emotional mystery to keep things interesting.

Orff’s adaptation of the Goliardic text was in itself a meditation on life’s uncertainties — his successes were few at this point — and a statement of non-conformity in a fairly heavy-handed academic music scene.  The resulting hour’s worth of songs, combining the words of punk drunk monks and a faux medieval vibe, carries an anti-authoritarian ethic embraced years later by rock.  If you first heard “O Fortuna” waiting for your band to come onstage you’re not alone.  Goths and metalheads love this stuff, and Ray Manzarek, god bless him, went so far as to actually attempt the entirety of Carmina Burana on record.  Oh, fortune, indeed….

O Fortune,
like the moon
you are changeable,
ever waxing
and waning;
hateful life
first oppresses
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;
and power
it melts them like ice.
Fate – monstrous
and empty,
you whirling wheel,
you are malevolent,
well-being is in vain
and always fades to nothing,
and veiled
you plague me too;
now through the game
I bring my bare back
to your villainy.
Fate is against me
in health
and virtue,
driven on
and weighted down,
always enslaved.
So at this hour
without delay
pluck the vibrating strings;
since Fate
strikes down the strong man,
everybody weep with me!

There is no lack of recordings of Orff’s masterwork, and this primer by Jeremy Lee is highly recommended.  Including here the last two songs in the cycle, “Ave formosissima” building to the return of “O Fortuna,” as recently rendered live by the Munich Percussion Ensemble under Adel Shalaby.  It has a lean, un-stuffy quality that I think complements the spirit of the work.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.


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