So, Carmina Burana translates as “Songs Of Beuren”, and refers to a collection of early 13th-century songs and poems that was discovered in Beuren in 1803 - although it has since been established that the collection originated from Seckau Abbey, Austria - and is now housed in the Bavarian State Library.
The songs (over 1000 of them) were written in a mix of Latin, German and medieval French by the Goliards, a band of poet-musicians comprising scholars and clerical students, who celebrated with earthy humor the joys of the tavern, nature, love and lust. Although Orff set the original texts, he chose not to use the primitive musical notation that accompanied some of the songs.
The collection was first published in Germany in 1847, but it wasn’t until 1934 that Orff came across the texts; a selection had been translated into English and formed part of a publication called Wine, Women And Song.
With the help of Michael Hofmann, a law student and Latin scholar, Orff chose 24 songs and set them to music in what he termed a “scenic cantata”.
Carmina Burana is divided into three sections - Springtime, In the Tavern and The Court Of Love - preceded by and ending with an invocation to Fortune. Written between 1935 and 1936 for soloists, choruses and orchestra, it was originally conceived as a choreographed stage work.
It was in this form that it was first heard on June 8, 1937, in Frankfurt, Germany, under its full title Carmina Burana: Cantiones Profanae Cantoribus Et Choris Cantandae Comitantibus Instrumentis Atque Imaginibus Magicis (Songs Of Beuren: Secular Songs For Singers And Choruses To Be Sung Together With Instruments And Magic Images).
Orff was influenced melodically by late Renaissance and early Baroque models including William Byrd and Claudio Monteverdi. Orff's style demonstrates a desire for directness of speech and of access. Carmina Burana contains little or no development in the classical sense and polyphony is also conspicuously absent. Carmina Burana avoids overt harmonic complexities, a fact which many musicians and critics have pointed out.
Orff’s masterpiece greatly appealed to the Nazi regime, to whom its rhythms, as one critic put it, were reminiscent of the “stamping columns of the Third Reich”. When Carmina Burana was first performed at La Scala, in 1942, it was as a showpiece for fascist values.
After the triumphant premiere of Carmina Burana, Orff, then 41, wrote to his publishers: “Everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately, published, can be destroyed. With Carmina Burana my collected works begin.” However, nothing Orff subsequently wrote ever came close to approaching the popularity of Carmina Burana.