Carmina Burana Program Notes 2023

The program notes are written by Rena Roussin, Musicologist-in-Residence.


Carmina Burana opens with epic music and astute commentary: “O Fortune, like the moon, you are changeable, ever waxing and waning.” All of the repertoire featured in tonight’s concert interacts with this insight, ruminating on fate and fortune through different texts, proverbs, mindsets, and perspectives. Together, the pieces take us across different times, communities, languages, and ideologies, showing numerous musical interpretations of changing fortune.

Dr. Tracy Wong, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s 2023-24 composer in residence, is a Malaysian-Canadian composer and Assistant Professor of Choral Studies at Western University. Her newly-commissioned piece, “Patah-Tumbuh” (Broken-Renewed), demonstrates optimism in the midst of change and fate, and features the TMChoir as well as the Toronto Children’s Chorus. The piece is based on two Malay proverbs that reflect resilience and renewal, and Wong combines folk musics, word and vocal play, and vocables inspired by Malaysian Gamelan music to interpret the proverbs. Her composition is making history tonight as, to the best of our knowledge, one of the first Malay pieces to be performed at Roy Thomson Hall.

Brahms’s Schicksalslied (“Song of Destiny”), op. 54 was composed between 1868-1871. Though Schicksalslied is, at sixteen minutes, a much shorter work than Brahms’s much more well-known deutsche Requiem, the composer started writing this small-scale work while revising his most infamous choral work, and arguably wrote Schicksalslied as a Requiem in miniature. Such a choice would be fitting, as the “Song of Destiny” sets the text of Friedrich Hölderin’s poem “Hyperions Schickalslied,” which compares the destinies and fates of the immortal Greek gods and titans with that of humanity. Hölderin stresses the eternal, placid, “fateless” existence of the mythological beings, metaphorically comparing the fate of mortal humans to being like water flowing from cliff to cliff. In the clutch of fate, the waves—like people—never know precisely what is coming next. Notably, Brahms was deeply inspired by Hölderin’s use of the sea as metaphor, and anecdotally began composition of Schickalslied while watching waves at the seaside. Brahms’s depiction of the sea is clear in his music: like the waves, chords, instrumental colours, and musical sonorities overlap and interact, moving between placidity and frenzied bursts of musical activity. And yet, after musically and lyrically interpreting the stormy seas of mortal fate, Brahms ends the piece with an orchestral finale that rests firmly in peace and placidity, perhaps finding in humanity something of the essence of the gods.

In contrast from the philosophical elevation of Brahms’s reflections on destiny, mythology, and mortality, Carmina Burana, in Maestro Valleé’s words, “takes us on a trip to Las Vegas.” Full of musical showmanship and glamour, sexual innuendo, and bursting with drinking songs and lyrics about games of chance, Carl Orff’s 1937 choral work would not be entirely out of place on the Vegas Strip, which perhaps makes it all the more surprising that the work’s text was authored almost entirely by medieval clergy members. Written between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, the Burana Codex—also referred to as Carmina Burana—consists of 254 poems and dramatic texts that were largely compiled by Goliards. These wandering clerical students and priests drew on satirical poetry to critique and express disaffection with theological conflicts in the Catholic church, with plentiful asides about drunken debauchery. The collection was rediscovered in 1803, and Orff encountered it through Andreas Schmeller’s 1847 edition.

In selecting 24 pieces to form a libretto, Orff honed in on the Codex’s central theme of fortune, addressed throughout the collection as the mythological Roman goddess Fortuna, who could change the situations and experiences of people by spinning her wheel and changing their positions. Orff hones in on this motif of circles and cycles: Carmina opens and closes with the same music and lyrics, and the pieces in between depict many different states of being around Fortuna’s wheel, musically and textually conflating depictions of grief, hope despair, joy, the sacred, and the profane in adjacent sections and sometimes even in the same movement. Musically, deception also abounds: on the surface, Orff’s music sounds simple. Carmina Burana does not feature complex harmonies or dense polyphonic textures. Much of its music is modelled on concepts of medieval chant, and unlike much early twentieth-century music, is readily accessible to listeners. Yet this simplicity is deceptive, for a great deal of less audible—and arguably metaphorical—complexity is embedded into Orff’s score. Like Fortuna’s wheel, Orff’s meters are ever-changing from moment to moment, never entirely reliable or lingering for long in the same place.

Yet perhaps the biggest challenge of the piece is what it takes to tell a story as immense as humanity’s changing fortunes in life, love, and luck. Orff’s goal in writing Carmina Burana was for the work to be a piece of music theatre, with stage design, dancing, and staged action interacting with the story inherent in the music. The unstaged, concertized version most audiences are familiar with would likely be unrecognizable to him. Yet the concert version of Carmina Burana still abounds in musical drama and storytelling through the work of the choir, orchestra, and soloists, whether they’re singing of springtime, imitating a dying swan (as is the case in the countertenor solo), or singing of Fortuna’s fickleness.

May she be in your favour.