Especially outside Germany, the reputation of Carl Orff (1895-1982) hangs on a single work, the 1936 cantata Carmina Burana. In a way, that’s surprising—the long-lived Orff was an influential pedagogue, an important musicologist (several editions of Monteverdi to his credit), and a prolific composer. In another way, though, Carmina’s outsized stature is easily understood. It has clear predecessors (in particular, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Les Noces) and obvious progeny (one can argue that it contains many of the seeds of American minimalism). But there’s nothing else that sounds quite like it, not even the second and third works in the trilogy of which it serves as the first part.
How can you explain its impact? The overall technique seems so simple—Orff constructs a mosaic of short oft-repeated sections, built out of driving rhythms, coarse percussion-drenched sonorities, and catchy, easily memorable tunes. In fact, it seems so simple that detractors have derided the score for that very reason. Still, as conductor Larry Loh remarks, “it grabs your attention from the first note.” It maintains its grip because Orff is “really good at creating big builds. It’s not static, even though it is repetitive. The first movement”—familiar from widespread use in popular culture, including TV commercials—“is the perfect example of how much you can do with dynamics and building of tension”—even when you start out “with very little material.” So canny is Orff’s control of overall pacing that, when the opening returns at the end of the piece, it provides a staggering sense of closure, rather than a sense of déjà vu. Such unerring ability to bring your listeners along, to create a sense of inevitability, comes once in a lifetime, if that often. No surprise that Carmina Burana is the most popular choral work of the last century.
Orff’s choice of texts only adds to the music’s sensual appeal. The work is based on a collection of secular medieval poems in Latin, Middle High German, and Old French—and although the outer sections (“Oh, Fortuna”) talk of the power of fate in our lives, for the most part the texts center less on abstract philosophy than on the more immediate aspects of life: food, drink, and sex. Yet it’s not all rough-andtumble: at the very center of the piece is a curious episode in which a swan laments its fate while being roasted. It’s the only part of Carmina in which the solo tenor participates—and his part is extremely short, three verses of six measures each. Still, it’s one of the highpoints of the score. Why? Tonight’s tenor, Jonathan Blalock, points to the rightness of the setting. The tessitura (range) is extremely high, and while many virtuoso high tenors are proud of their high Cs, this piece pushes a whole step further, to high D. It’s hardly a comfortable note to sing—but, Jonathan says, that’s precisely the point: “There’s a reason for it: it’s a swan roasting in anguish.” It’s one of those moments that’s “supposed to make the audience feel a little bit uncomfortable.” Or, to put it in different terms, it’s one of those moments (found in many works, starting with some of Beethoven’s) where “the music goes one step beyond the humanly possible.”
It’s not easy to find a companion piece for Carmina Burana—anything even vaguely similar is going to result in aural fatigue, but anything entirely disconnected is liable to seem irrelevant. The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894) by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) seems like the perfect fit. Like Orff’s piece, it’s a fundamentally sensual score—but in virtually every other respect, it’s Carmina’s opposite. Where Orff depends on sharp rhythms and clearly defined musical units, Debussy creates a formally diffuse mist of rhythmic ambiguity; where Orff depends on clear, familiar harmonic progressions, Debussy continuously moves in unexpected directions; where Orff depends on brash colors, Debussy offers constantly shifting pastels; where Orff uses his huge battery of percussion primarily to drive his rhythms, Debussy uses a single pair of antique cymbals to provide delicate timbral touches; where Orff underpins many sections with the hard sounds of a pair of pianos, Debussy laces his sonorities with the delicate arabesques of two harps. There’s a parallel difference in their literary inspirations, too—in contrast to the immediate and earthy poetry that inspired Orff, the literary inspiration behind Debussy’s masterpiece was a suggestive poem by French symbolist Stephane Mallarmé. Whatever else you can say about Carmina, it’s not subtle; whatever else you can say about Prelude, it is.
You could hardly follow the Debussy directly with the Orff—Debussy’s fragile opus would be crushed and, besides, the concert would be too short. To separate the two, we have chosen the Fifth Symphony by Franz Schubert (1897-1828) — surprisingly, the first work by Schubert that Symphoria has programmed. Schubert’s two most popular symphonies, the Eighth (“Unfinished”) and Ninth, are massive works that, looking ahead to the romantic era, plumb the depths of the human spirit. The more intimate Fifth, which looks back to Mozart, reveals a very different side of Schubert’s art. Composed in 1816 and first performed by an amateur ensemble of his friends, this work finds Schubert at his most relaxed and genial, and although it’s full of sophisticated harmonic felicities and contrapuntal ingenuity, they rarely call attention to themselves. Neither as refined as the Debussy nor as rough as the Orff, it provides the perfect transition between them.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have comments or questions? Contact me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org