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et tunc curat
ludo mentis aciem,
dissolvit ut glaciem.
rota tu volubilis,
michi quoque niteris;
nunc per ludum
fero tui sceleris.
michi nunc contraria,
semper in angaria.
Hac in hora
corde pulsum tangite;
quod per sortem
mecum omnes plangite!
like the moon
you are constantly changing,
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;
it melts them like ice.
Fate – monstrous
you whirling wheel,
you are malevolent,
well-being is vain
and always fades to nothing,
you plague me too;
now through the game
I bring my bare back
to your villainy.
Fate, in health
is against me
and weighted down,
So at this hour
pluck the vibrating strings;
strikes down the strong man,
everyone weep with me!
–from the Codex Burana, ca. 1230 CE
Listen to a performance, with visual display of the text, of Carl Orff’s orchestral and choral setting of O Fortuna! from 1936:
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We instinctively associate Latin poetry with classical antiquity, but some of the greatest works come from other times and cultures. In 1803, an ancient manuscript turned up in the recesses of the cloister of Benediktbeuern near Bad Tölz in Upper Bavaria. It was an amazing collection of sacred and profane works, mostly in Latin but occasionally with the lingua franca that later evolved into French and German, compiled at some point around 1230. We don’t know the authors, though academic speculation has come to focus on three individuals whose background suggests they were scholars, minor clerics, or warriors. The songs themselves (and they contain rudimentary notation suggesting tunes to which they were to be sung) are at times spiritual, at times profane, filled with lust. Some of the pieces are in fact masterworks of studied ambiguity–their meaning changes radically depending on whether they are read in a pagan or Christian tradition.
Of all the works, one rose almost immediately to prominence, helped along the way by Carl Orff’s career-making setting: O fortuna! We are reminded of the conditions of life that the authors faced—for their life was indeed nasty, brutish and short. Men and women lived in a society that handed them a meager role, and few felt any control over their destiny. The song O fortuna! reminds us of all of this, even as it rings with a passion for life, a demand to seize and treasure the sweet moments that pitiful human existence affords.
Other than O fortuna! my favorite is Non est crimen amor (Love is no crime!), a song which challenges prevailing morality by insisting that all that springs from love is God-given and good, and any claim of immorality raised against it rings hollow. This is a theme that recurs in much medieval poetry, and its ultimate import is unclear—though it could easily be understood as a defense of romantic love (which was then being born from the literary tradition of which the Carmina Burana are part). Others have seen in its words a defense of the sexual conduct of clerics, sex out of wedlock, and homosexuality. One thing is certain—it is foolish to retroflect Victorian sexual taboos and norms on medieval society. Europe in the thirteenth century had strong sexual norms, but they might in many respects shock a modern audience.
Orff’s setting may have been spoiled by its popularization. His music for O fortuna! is used in movies and commercials often as a jingle, detached in any meaningful way from its powerful message. Nevertheless, it is a work of brilliance that deserves to be heard, but it also demands closer attention and respect for its artistic achievement.
Carl Orff taught that poetry must be prized for its sonic value; it must be intoned, and not left to sound internally as followed on the printed page. Orff worked hard to incorporate this into the curriculum for schoolchildren. I once was put through one of his drills when his daughter Godela taught me the value of practiced recitation for ballads (her dramatic recitations of Der Erlkönig or Der Handschuh would draw crowds almost spontaneously). I met Orff himself only once, at an early performance of his work Prometheus. I don’t understand why other than Carmina Burana so little of Orff’s work has passed into the canon. He deserves better. Prometheus, for instance, is no less powerful and emotive, its setting of texts a work of genius. But performances of Prometheus are extremely rare.
We can listen to O fortuna! as American elevator music, or we can really stop, hear and contemplate. It is a work that rewards those who bring patience, care and attention to the process. When the great master Rumi intones the word “listen,” this is what he means. And Carl Orff is a closely related spirit.
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