“When I was in high school and first heard the piece I immediately fell in love with it. It was sexy, naughty and little dangerous. By the time I got to college, I had dismissed it as cheesy trash. Now that I am older, it’s all of the above.”
That’s Grant Gershon, music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, summing up the paradox that is Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” The choir is performing the work for the 17th time in its 50-year history Saturday and Sunday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, along with the L.A. Children’s Chorus and three soloists.
Audiences love it. If you’ve ever seen a movie trailer or played video games, you’ve heard “O Fortuna,” the opening of “Carmina.” If there were a Giants of Choral Music Club it would have been a top member since its premiere in 1937.
“Carmina Burana” doesn’t quite fit in with its cousins — the masses, requiems and oratorios. The reason comes down mostly to a case of the wrong trousers. At club meetings, everyone is milling about discreetly in fine navy wool while “Carmina Burana” shouts “How you doin’?” in red polyester.
“It’s just right there,” says Gershon. “There’s obviously not a lot of depth to it. I actually remember very clearly [Esa-Pekka] Salonen doing the piece about 15 years ago and he said something like, to him, growing up in Finland, this piece was like ABBA. Something would never admit to your intellectual friends that you enjoyed.”
Spiritual transcendence, the territory of masses and requiems, is put to one side in “Camina Burana” in favor of a boisterous exegesis on love, the pleasure of drinking with friends and the promise of spring. Long phrases and soaring lines meant to bounce around a cathedral become short, repetitive motives made more urgent by extensive percussion.
Orff chose to paint in broad strokes not because he lacked the skill to create something more detailed but because he intended “Carmina” to be the beginning of a new musical idiom. He rejected the Romantic excesses of Mahler, Brahms and Bruckner in favor of something that would more accurately reflect the modern man.
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In the early 1930s one of Orff’s friends showed him a collection of poems called “Carmina Burana,” written by 12th century theology students. He immediately chose 24 to set for choir and orchestra.
If not for a small wrinkle in medieval ecclesiastical law, Orff would probably have been at work on some bad religious poetry. History is in the wrinkles, however, and it turns out that in the 12th and 13th centuries, theology students traveled freely among universities and were exempt from serving in the military, paying taxes and trial by secular courts.
Imagine hundreds of students roaming France, Spain and Germany not overly troubled by the strictures of religious life, distinguishable from, as one academic put it, “penniless vagabonds drinking, dicing, wenching” only in that their actions had few consequences.
The most notorious of these scholar tramps, the Goliards, are thought to be the authors of the “Carmina Burana.” Their secular poetry is rough and unsophisticated, and talks about things like what is feels like to be in love right this second, instead of Love with a capital L and its nature.
That sort of spirit suited Orff. His larger goal was to use primitive, instinctive gestures to free listeners from their quotidian lives and turn their attention to the oneness of the universe.
“I have never been concerned with music as such,” he wrote, “but rather with music as ‘spiritual discussion.'”
In terms of overarching philosophy, “Carmina” shares much with its more overtly religious cousins. Legacy-wise, Fate had other ideas. “Carmina Burana” is played at Wrestlemania, the Daytona 500 and Pittsburgh Pirates games. And, while we’re at it, it’s been heard in “Shrek,” “The King of Queens,” “Capitalism: A Love Story,” “Glee,” “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “The Howard Stern Show.”
“Carmina Burana” is the sound of epic.
“His idiom has become so part of the underscoring of our lives, says Gershon. “Every epic fantasy film adventure or salad dressing commercial seems to evoke it.”
Even if the actual music isn’t used, the gestures of “O Fortuna” in particular — loud percussive opening and then a patch of quiet but energetic chanting — are everywhere. “My 11-year-old son is really into video games,” says Gershon, “and I’m struck by the soundtracks. They all sound like ‘Carmina Burana.'”
Fortunes change, but it seems safe to mark Orff’s new music movement as unrealized. That said, with his music under copyright until at least 2052 and his system of music education for children in use worldwide, his estate can’t be unhappy with how the wheel has turned.
The other piece on the Master Chorale program, Verdi’s “Te Deum,” will provide most of the concert’s redemptive material, but Orff’s version of universal oneness is not without its own moments of tenderness.
“There’s some really ravishingly beautiful love music for the baritone and soprano soloist,” says Gershon. “That’s the music that I think is the most evocative and what stays with me the most after a performance.”
As for the guy in red polyester, sometimes it’s nice to have a break from discussing the transcendental implications of one more canapé and share a raunchy joke already.
“I don’t lay awake at night ruminating on the mysteries of Orff,” Gershon said, laughing. ” ‘Carmina Burana’ exists while it’s being performed, and then it’s gone. I have to tell myself that not every piece has to be profound as Bach’s B minor mass. Sometimes it’s OK to just have fun.”
Words to warm a Goliard’s heart.
First printed in the Los Angeles Times