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;
poverty
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,
shadowed
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.

soundstreamsunday: “Vier Stücke für Xylophon” by Gunild Keetman

kettmann_trommelOn Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen rode the violent edge of Americanness that coursed through rock and roll, consciously plugging into Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and the legacy of Charlie Starkweather’s and Caril Fugate’s 1958 killing spree across the midwest.  Springsteen was inspired towards Misfit-style murder ballad by Terrence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands, a thinly-veiled fiction of the Starkweather/Fugate rampage, and went so far as to write a song called “Badlands” for Darkness on the Edge of Town before going all in with the spare Nebraska.  As a source of influence on Springsteen’s work and, by association, those of Springsteen’s acolytes, Malick’s film is profound, and yet it achieves its own dark power partly through a music almost entirely unrelated to its subject matter.

Music für Kinder.  Music for children.  Given the youth of Starkweather and Fugate, this may have been the connecting tissue Malick was looking for when he used the work of Gunild Keetman in his film.  Keetman and her collaborator Carl Orff created volume upon volume of educational texts and compositions from the 1930s into the 1960s under the name “Schulwerk” and “Music für Kinder.”  While Orff, as the composer of “Carmina Burana,” was the high-profile name attached to the project, Keetman did the heavy lifting.  At times interpretations — as in the first of the four pieces presented here, “Gassenhauer” (which Malick used throughout Badlands), composed by Hans Neusidler in 1536 and recast by Keetman in 1952 — the work tends towards the percussive and rhythmic, with simple starts building progressively in complexity.  The results are lovely, spritely even, but, as in this performance by the Karl Peinkofer Percussion Ensemble in 1995, maintain a meditative quality lending a potential for darkness, not of childhood but of perhaps lost childhood.

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.