Songs of the Small House
We now move from the salacious to the spiritual, or at least the sublime.
Today’s post was originally going to be about pop songs that are woefully overplayed and overused in TV and movie soundtracks, but which still grab me emotionally or spiritually. Two in particular are Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Tears for Fears’ “Mad World.” Each has been covered innumerable times by worthy artists, and each version has its following. But the problem with their having been done to death is that it would be difficult to say anything interesting about them.
Another piece that is no less overplayed in popular culture is “O Fortuna,” from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Here’s a sampling of where it’s been used:
- In John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur, which introduced the piece to a mass audience. It enjoyed tremendous popularity among the public following the movie’s release and was for a time thereafter frequently incorporated into various cinematic and musical works for dramatic effect.
- At a number of Ozzy Osbourne’s live shows, since the mid-1980s.
- By Ray Manzarek, the keyboard player from The Doors, who recorded the complete Carmina Burana with rock arrangements; Oliver Stone included “O Fortuna” in his films The Doors and Natural Born Killers.
- At all large events staged at the new Wembley Stadiumin the UK; it’s also the music for the pre-game video intro of the University of Houston football team.
- In the opening segment of conservative talk show host Sean Hannity’s radio program, immediately after the show’s main theme (“Independence Day” by Martina McBride).
- And numerous times on Late Night with Conan O’Brien as the background music to a sketch titled “Evil Puppy,” concerning a satanically evil yellow labrador puppy.
Here’s my favorite version — a 1989 performance of Seiji Ozawa conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, with the amazingly precise Shin-yu Kai Chorus:
Much of the composition’s structure is based on the idea of the turning wheel of Fortune. Within each scene, and sometimes within a single movement, the wheel turns, joy turning to bitterness, and hope turning to grief. “O Fortuna” begins:
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 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 string man, everyone weep with me!
Carl Orff wrote Carmina Burana in Nazi-controlled Germany in 1937. Was he a Nazi collaborator? It’s a hotly debated question. On the one hand, he was one of the few German composers under the Nazi regime who responded to the official call to write new music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream after the music of Felix Mendelssohn had been banned (others refused to cooperate), and his Carmina Burana was hugely popular in Nazi Germany after its premiere, receiving numerous performances. On the other hand, Orff was a personal friend of Kurt Huber, one of the founders of the resistance movement Die Weiße Rose (the White Rose), who was condemned to death by the Volksgerichtshof and executed by the Nazis in 1943. After World War II, Orff claimed that he was a member of the group, and was himself involved in the resistance, though there was no evidence for this other than his own word.
I find the music itself more interesting. Orff’s Carmina Burana is a scenic cantata based on twenty-four of the poems found in the medieval collection of the same name. Its full Latin title is Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanae cantoribus et choris cantandae comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis (“Songs of Beuern: Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magic images.”) “Beuern” — the town of Benediktbeuern — literally means “small house,” which referred to the medieval abbey located there.
The poems were written around 1230 in Latin and Middle High German (with some traces of Old French) by students and clergy who lampooned and satirized the Church. They cover a wide range of popular topics: the fickleness of fortune and wealth, the ephemeral nature of life, the joy of the return of Spring, and the pleasures and perils of drinking, gluttony, gambling, and lust. (Hmm, seems we weren’t quite finished with our recent run of salaciousness. . . .)
Because I love the whole piece so very much, and because the YouTube vids are fairly large chunks, I’m not sure what to have you see. One bit you shouldn’t miss is probably the opening segment of In the Tavern, “Burning Inside,” featuring baritone Thomas Allen (just sample the first three minutes or so, unless you find yourself entranced and want to hear a wicked counter-tenor singing about a swan):
The other essential section, I think, is the end of The Court of Love. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, the musical equivalent of lovemaking:
- The YouTube snippet starts with the poem “If a Boy with a Girl” (“If a boy with a girl / tarries in a little room, / happy is their coupling. / Love rises up, / and between them / prudery is driven away, / an ineffable game begins / in their limbs, arms and lips”).
- It moves on to the urgent interplay between two lovers (“Come, come, O come, / Come, come, O come, / do not let me die!”) and continues with all the different moods and attitudes that love seems to draw from us.
- And it ends with soprano Kathleen Battle singing “Dulcissime” (“Sweetest One”), forty-nine seconds of the purest voice and sweetest sounds you’ll probably ever hear in your lifetime. I believe the word “orgasmic” has been used to describe it. Be sure to watch the violinist just off Battle’s right elbow during her performance.
Orff’s composition is in seven sections, and YouTube, bless ’em, has the entire cantata, if you want to listen to the whole thing:
- Fortune, Empress of the World
- On the Lawn, part 1 and part 2
- In the Tavern
- The Court of Love, part 1 and part 2
- Blanziflor and Helena and
- Fortune, Empress of the World (#6 and #7 in one video)
If you’d like to look at the lyrics (both the original and the English translation, help yourself.