Carmina Burana Program Notes

Toronto Mendelssohn Choir — Carmina Burana Nov. 14, 2012 at Koerner Hall
Dove: The Passing of the Year
Whitacre: Cloudburst
Orff: Carmina Burana
Concert Program Notes by Rick Phillips

The British composer Jonathan Dove (b. 1959) has composed in a variety of fields, including film scores, orchestral and chamber music and choral music, but he’s maybe best known for his operas and opera adaptations. As well as The Adventures of Pinocchio and Mansfield Park, based on the novel by Jane Austen, Dove has also created a two-evening chamber adaptation of The Ring of the Nibelung by Richard Wagner. The choral song cycle The Passing of the Year was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra in 2000 and is dedicated to the memory of Dove’s mother. The seven movements, set to poems by several prominent poets, trace a journey through the seasons, from the anticipation of summer and its eventual steamy arrival, to autumn’s sense of mortality, ending in winter with the promise of rebirth and hope to come.

One of today’s most popular composers of choral music is the American Eric Whitacre (b. 1970). After earning a degree in composition from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, he completed a master’s degree at the Juilliard School in New York. Cloudburst, for double choir, piano and percussion, one of his earliest choral works, was composed in 1992 while Whitacre was still a student at UNLV. The text is adapted from the poem “El Cantaro Roto” (The Broken Water Jug) by the Nobel-prize winning Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz (1914-1998). According to Whitacre, the inspiration for the work came from his reading of the poems of Paz, and experiencing a breathtaking Nevada desert cloudburst. He wrote, “The cloudburst is a ceremony, a celebration of the unleashed kinetic energy in all things.” Apparently, the finger snapping in the middle section, simulating the sound of rain, comes from an old campfire game.

Today, the influence of Carl Orff (1895-1982) is probably more as an educator than a composer. He was born into a wealthy and cultured Munich family and worked his way up as an opera coach and conductor in various German cities in the early decades of the 20th century. At that time, he composed music in a post-Romantic style, influenced by Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg and French Impressionism. But around 1920, through collaborations with dancers, Orff became interested in the Dalcroze method of music education, or eurhythmics, where music and our perception of music stem from the physical realization of its creation. By 1925 Orff and a colleague had established a music school that was based on the concept of teaching music to children in tandem with physical movement, using the basic rhythmic patterns and inflections of speech as the building blocks. Eventually Orff published his Schulwerke (literally School Work), which stressed these links between music, speech and movement. The method caught on in Germany until the Nazis came to power and forbade it, but the pedagogical approach survived and is still used around the world today.

About the same time as he was developing his pedagogy, Orff accepted the job of conductor of the Munich Bach Society and became interested in older choral music by the likes of J.S. Bach, Monteverdi and earlier composers. Orff’s interests were united in 1935, when he was introduced to a 13th century collection of poems and texts from the monastery at Beuren, near Munich. It had been published in the 19th century under the title Carmina Burana, or literally, Songs of Beuren, a rich collection of medieval secular poetry, with insights into the feelings and experiences of the people of the day. Orff was immediately drawn to its raw, earthy qualities and vivid imagery. He set about two dozen of the texts to music, resulting in one of the most popular 20th century works – the scenic cantata called Carmina Burana.

Orff grouped the poems into three categories: Spring, In the Tavern and The Court of Love, with the theme of Fate running throughout. The songs cover a broad range of topics and emotions – from the warmth of the spring sun, to rousing drinking songs, to the many facets of love from both the female and male perspectives. Orff’s aim was to strip away at what he saw as the over-sophistication and excesses of much 19th century Romantic and post-Romantic music. He hoped to introduce music that revealed more of its basic, primordial elements. As a result, there’s an emphasis on rhythm, simple repetitive melodies, basic harmonies, and uncomplicated forms with little counterpoint or interplay between musical lines. Orff was so convinced of his approach that he disowned all his previous music, claiming Carmina Burana as his Op. 1. He went on to apply the same principles to later works, like Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite, but Carmina Burana greatly overshadows them today. He was criticized with some feeling he had stripped away too much – that music was now too simplistic. “Neo-Neanderthal” was how it was once described, with Orff labelled as “a rich man’s banjo player.”

Carmina Burana is neither lofty nor intellectual, and it could never be called tiresome or dull. The appeal of the work has always been its down-to-earth, primal directness, making it one of the most human of all choral compositions.

Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, broadcaster, teacher, host and music tour guide.

You are welcome to use excerpts from these notes for your concert program or for educational purposes. If you do, please credit both Rick Phillips and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Also please advise TMC by email: Thank you.