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:

  1. Fortune, Empress of the World
  2. Springtime
  3. On the Lawn, part 1 and part 2
  4. In the Tavern
  5. The Court of Love, part 1 and part 2
  6. Blanziflor and Helena and
  7. 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.


~ by Craig R. Smith on 18 September 2007.

13 Responses to “Songs of the Small House”

  1. Amazing.

    I had only heard that song by Cohen last night. For the first time.

    “Mad World” I heard last year and only now know it was originally by Tear for Fears.

    As far as Orff, funny, but I was just discuusing Orff (and Orff Instruments) at a bluegrass jam this last Sunday.

    I like to keep my copy in the truck and, when folk stop at lights and I can see their (car) booties shake from overpowered nondefinable bass or the ‘music’ is so loud I must figure they are making an attempt at getting my attention for the purpose of sharing their culture with me, I turn on Carmina Burana as loud as I can get it.

    Or Arrogant Worms.

    “Carrot Juice is Murder”
    “I am Cow”
    “History is Made by Stupid People”

  2. I’m glad you’ve moved on from salacious to orgasmic. Much more satisfying.

    I was going to say don’t forget the Big Ad which used the music from O Fortuna to sell beer, but I see it’s been yanked from Youtube.

  3. Adamus, if you like the Cohen song, and you like k.d. lang, you’ll go nuts over this:

  4. That is magnificent. Amazing. I just want to sit at her feet, look up, and listen.

    What a song to have been written by a Jewish Zen Monk. Jikan. “Silent One.” Buddhist names. Our downfall and our aspiration all in one.

  5. Leonard Cohen is a Zen monk? I had no idea.

  6. He took his vows in 1996.

  7. What sort of vows does a Zen monk take?

  8. I know there must be a trick in that question. I just don’t see it.

    The first five: the first five lay vows of Buddhism:

    I vow to abstain from taking life.
    I vow to abstain from taking things not given.
    I vow to abstain from lying.
    I vow to abstain from misconduct done in lust.
    I vow to abstain from intoxicants taken to induce heedlessness.

    I asked a Rinpoche once. He said that was it. Even for monks. But that, for a monk or nun, it was taken to a bit further in practice. Thee is no VOW of chastitity, for instance, but it is an understanding that allowing onself such divergent behaviour would rather derail onself from the task at hand.

    The vows are rather universal of Buddhism. Once a monk, the monk may choose to practice Buddhism in any form. S/he may also leave the monastery and monkhood to no lessening of the self or his or her status in society. Only those who fit should stay. Many men and women become monks/nuns once the children are grown and their beloved spouse has passed on.

    A priest need not be celebate, however. He has greater contact with the community and needs to have more in common with that community.

  9. Ah :for me this is the most sacral version as it has all the geist of the central line: ‘you don’t really care for music do ya?
    Also I commend this early music version of the original Latin songs
    if you cam find them…..

  10. Everything sublime.

  11. Adamus emailed me this fascinating history from writer Michael Barthel of the multifoliate versions of “Hallelujah” that have evolved. It’s interesting reading: how it got to be where it is, who sings it, how it has changed and in what it appears. It includes clips — and graphs!

  12. Sublime? Here is the ridiculous because Australians, well.

  13. That was nothing short of brilliant, Mrs. Slocombe.

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