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O Fortuna‘s good luck

After a long overdue cleanup I rediscovered and enjoyed listening to Carmina Burana, composed by Carl Orff. This is an operatic piece of music set to texts from a collection of 13th century Bavarian poems and songs, mostly in Latin.

The music is famous for its first (and last) section, O Fortuna, which has been used in an enormous range of settings in the last fifteen to twenty years. I first heard it in an advertisement in Australia in the late 1980s. However the work is much more then that, and no doubt serious music fans could provide a far more comprehensive discussion of its merits then I am capable of. But I find both the instrumental and choral sections very lovely.

The texts are sung in their original Latin/Low German that they were composed in, and refer to themes common to people of that age and ours- the pleasures of spring, the pleasures of the tavern, and the pleasures of love. In that respect, it is not so different from much of today’s music, although The Roast Swan suggests more imagination (it is the lament of a swan who has been roasted on a spit). When we are in the tavern ends on a strikingly modern note:

Six hundred pennies would hardly suffice, if everyone drinks immoderately and immeasurably. However much they cheerfully drink, we are the ones whom everyone scolds, and thus we are destitute. May those who slander us be cursed, and my their names not be written in the Book of the Righteous.

A complete translation of the text used in Orff’s Carmina Burana can be found here.

Orff himself was as much a music educator as much as a composer, and Carmina Burana is the only work of his that is widely known to the general public.

And of that work, it is O Fortuna that is most widely recognised, by its use in advertising and movies. Most recently, it was used as the base for The Big Ad in Australia, and it has been modified by all manner of musicians, in all sorts of styles. Given that US creative industries keep pushing to expand copyright protections over their works, people with a creative bent that wish to base their work on a familiar cultural item are going to look increasingly beyond US shores and beyond US culture. This trend in turn helps to devalue the value of the copyrighted material. Which once again underlines the delicate balance of rights management, a lesson rights holders seem slow to learn.

8 comments to O Fortuna‘s good luck

  • Claxton

    I love Carmina Burana.

  • anonymous coward

    Not Low German, but Middle High German, see voo play.

  • My first exposure to CB was the movie Excalibur.

    The National Chorale performs it every Christmas season at Lincoln Center in NYC. I highly recommend them.

  • mike

    Thank you Mr Wickstein! Your link to the Big Ad was immensely enjoyable!

  • O Fortuna has bounced around the courts relatively recently; I seem to remember Orff’s relatives getting into a legal stoush with a DJ in the mid 90s for producing a techno piece which featured O Fortuna.

  • “O Fortuna” is always a good one. The entire body of the Carmina is also fun…though I always end up humming “Gaudeamus Igitur” too!

  • Stronzo Squirelli

    Isn’t Carmina Burana famous for being premiered at a concert for Adolf Hitler? Which adds to its creepiness, of course.

  • Luniversal

    Stronzo: No it isn’t. In fact the Nazi press criticised its text for a fatalism which was not in tune with the onward-and-upward spirit of the new Germany.

    However, Orff kept his head down and never got into bother either with the Nazis or the post-war witchhunters of West Germany, who ended up burning more politically incorrect books than the Nazis had destroyed. (Little known fact for libertarians.)

    You may be thinking of Werner Egk, a pupil of Orff whose opera ‘Peer Gynt’ was attacked for using dissonance and being too modernist. On a later occasion, though, Hitler was present, liked it, invited the composer to his box and cleared the way for him to get more commissions and become head of the composers’ section of the Music Chamber. (Later Egk fell foul of the postwar regime for alleged obscenity in a later work.)