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About the Author
Andrew Fenner is a musician, electronic composer, and writer of poetry and prose. He currently lives in Cincinnati. He delivers his writings to Mistress McCutchan on the back of a domesticated dragon, which he rides through the night wind following the magnetic field of the Earth. Just kidding, he actually had his cat deliver the stuff.
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Carmina Burana
Andrew Fenner
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana must be the most sincerely flattered piece of classical choral music in history... at least when it comes to to being “borrowed” for gothic film scores. Its influence has, as if by osmosis, spread from film music into popular culture and modern rock music of various genres, such as “death metal”, “goth”, and other heavy ethereal varieties.
Oh yes, dear gothly reader, you no doubt know this music very well (KMFDM and Apoptygma Berserk have sampled it, to name a few bands). Perhaps you have never heard of Carl Orff or the titles Carmina Burana or Oh Fortuna (the movement most often borrowed or plagarized in filmdom), but you do know this music; most likely as “that cool devil music” from some daemonic horror film you have ingested or in the chilling soundtrack that opens Conan the Barbarian or many, many similar instances.
Though Orff wrote his musical work in 1936, the manuscript from which which the lyrics come was created sometime in the first third of the 13th Century and acquired, probably sometime in the 18th Century, by the Benediktbueren (the Benedictine abbey in Bueren, Germany) from whence comes the title “Carmina Burana”, which means simply “songs of Bueren” in Latin. The manuscript was discovered by the secular world in 1803 and collated into a complete edition (the original is simply a loose collection of about 250 poems) in 1847 by Johann Andreas Schmeller, who also gave the work its title.
Those who wrote these particular poems way back in 1230 or so were a very interesting bunch of educated bohemian types called Goliards. Goliardic verse provided an antidote to religion in Medieval Europe from about the 12th till about the 14th Century, when it disappeared, no doubt due to ecclesiastical supression. Many of the Goliards were university students (the early days of universities arose in the 12th Century) who dropped out of school and wandered the country in a carefree lifestyle. Indeed, many of their verses are mocking academia. There were also quite a few of them who were defrocked monks, lesser clerics, and minstrels, “better known for their rioting, gambling, and intemperance than for their scholarship”.
The poems are written mostly in Latin, with some being composed in Middle High German. They comprise something like a Medieval Teutonic version of “the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”, ranging from bawdy drinking song to tender love poem to spiritually edifying rumination, often containing explicit sexual references and other ostensibly indecent activities. Several of the poems are accompanied by music written in (rare for that time) unheighted neumes.
Carl Orff enters the picture in the 1930’s. He was a devout and active Roman Catholic who was known more as a music educator than as a composer at that time. Then he was exposed to that manuscript! Who can say what manner of dark side smoldered beneath his Catholic exterior and burst into full flame with his discovery, but the manuscript changed his life. Nowdays, although he is also known as a prominent teacher and composer for children’s orchestra, it is for Carmina Burana and its companion pieces, Catulli Carmina (based on the works of Catullus) and Triumph of Aphrodite (based on verses of Sappho, Catullus, and Euripides) that he will always be most famous. Be forewarned if you plan on exploring the second two pieces, as they aren’t as immediately appealing as Carmina Burana, though the sex gets very explicit in Catulli Carmina.
These works were originally concieved as an overwhelming, hedonistic multi-media experience involving dance and other forms of movement as well as imaginative sets along with the orchestra and chorus, but in these times they are usually performed as a sort of secular oratorio (Paul McCartney grab your knickers and run, heh heh!) sans dance and stage sets. The use of drums is quite heavy by classical standards, Carmina Burana involving five percussionists. The relentless driving rhythms of “Oh Fortuna”, the movement that opens and closes the work, have a hypnotic, mysterious, haunting, Bacchanalian effect that make it an instant favorite today, as it was with the Nazis at its premier in 1937.
After World War II it became a major international success and as early as the 1950’s began to be assimilated by Hollywood into numerous horror films, especially those involving the devil and/or any form of high satanic mass.
There are midi files of the complete work as well as midi and MP3s of “Oh Fortuna” available all over the web, but midi can hardly do justice to the full chorus. There are brief, and in my opinion much too short, clips available in wav, aiff, and RealAudio format available at Sony Classical or you can purchase a CD of Carmina Burana at Amazon.
The clips all seem to be of the start of “Oh Fortuna”, no matter what it says (the original Goliardic title is “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi”, by the way).
And now you know where that strange, unearthly music that pulses in the depths of your dark imagination was kindled from.