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Essential Orff

A Musical Riddle
By Gary Barton

Alright music lovers, here's something to riddlefy (no fair looking ahead): What do Spicy Pringles Potato Chips, Michael Jackson's 1993 Dangerous tour, the films Cheaper By The Dozen 2003, Detroit Rock City, The Doors, Excalibur, Glory, Jackass: The Movie, Natural Born Killers, Nobody Someday, The Omen, My First Wife; "Old Spice", Reebock Athletic Shoes, South Park, the 2000 S-Class Mercedes-Benz, the Capitol One Prime Lock Card, the opening of Ozzy Osbourn's stage show & the television show X-Factor have in common?

O.K., here's another clue. There are 63 available recordings of the complete version of the music in question, 460 (!) recordings containing the opening section of the work, and 143 other excerpted and "highlights" versions. There are 2 non-classical "treatments" of the music, one by Ragnorok the other by Ra Manzarc. Barbara Streisand recorded one section as part of her Classical Barbara album. The answer: the entire above have used music from Carl Orff's 1937 "Scenic Cantata" Carmina Burana.

When Orff took it to his publisher he said essentially, "Forget everything I wrote before this." It's described in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians as a "work of driving rhythm and exultant hedonism." Carmina Burana was designed as a theatrical experience, with pictures, dancing and song, revolving around the primitive idea of the wheel of fortune.

When Orff was once asked to write down his curriculum vitae, he did so with six words: Born 1895 [July 10th] in Munich - lives there." Orff, we can add, died there March 29, 1982.

Karl Schumann wrote of Carmina Burana in his notes for the Philips LP of Der Mond ("The Moon"), saying that it symbolized "the concept of fate, originating in the ancient world which runs through the whole of Carl Orff's dramatic works, sometimes as inscrutable destiny, sometimes as the pleasure or displeasure of the gods, stemming inevitably from the characters or harmonizing with the cosmic design. Like all writers of tragedy Orff is a pessimist, skeptical as regards human limitations, satirical in the face of arrogant folly, and resigned in contemplation of the unending cycle of birth and death, growth and decay…The fundamental idea is the fatalistic perception that everything must have its place and its order, otherwise meaningless turmoil will arise and cause hopeless confusion."

Carmina Burana, according to an unidentified annotator for a 1953 U.S. Decca LP of the work, is:

"so called after the Bavarian monastery Benedictbeuren [less than 40 miles from Munich], where in 1803 the famous song manuscripts of the 13th century were found, (and) is one of the most precious poetic documents of the Middle Ages. Its anonymous composers were among the wandering minstrels and goliards, a motley society of traveling scholars, errant students and monks who had left their orders. They had little respect for honor and possessions but were more devoted to play, women and wine, quarrel and fighting. Most of them were of anti-social character, the bohemians of the Middle Ages. They all possessed some knowledge of literature and theology, acquired at the universities, though they were no real scholars, in spite of the fact that there may have been some graduate specimens among them."

I'm recommending three CD's of Carmina Burana. At the top of my list is Telarc SACD 60575 ($17.00), a hybrid SACD which will play on standard CD players, but presents a gripping and exhilarating experience in Surround Sound SACD systems. Donald Runnicles conducts the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with soloists Hei-Kyung Hong soprano, Stanford Olsen tenor, and Earle Patriaco baritone & the Gwynnett Young Singers. Of the three recordings of Orff's "Scenic Cantata" I'm suggesting, this is the only one with complete original texts alongside English translations. It's easy and fun to follow along.

I cannot claim to have listened to all 63 of the "complete" recordings, but after nearly 40 years of playing classical music on the radio I've heard at least half of them. (Several are different issues of the same performance.) For contrast I suggest the overwhelmingly powerful 1965 recording with Raphael Frubeck de Burgos (EMI 74747), conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, the New Philharmonia Chorus, Lucia Popp soprano, Gerhard Unger tenor and baritones Raymond Wolansky & John Noble, along with the Wandsworth School Boy's Choir. There are no texts or translations with this CD, nor are there with the more lyrical and reflective performance on Decca 289 467 402 with Antal Dorati conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Brighton Festival Chorus and Southend Boy's Choir. Soloists on this disc are Norma Burrowes soprano (who sang the haunting wordless solos in Sir Adrian Boult's early recording of Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antartica (sic), Louis Devos tenor and baritone John Shirley-Quirk.

For a brief and informative discussion of Carmina Burana's structure (as well as 2 photos of the monastery) visit David Parlett's website. So you can talk about the work he offers a correct hint at pronunciation…it's KAR meen uh bur RAH nuh. Partlett's translation is quite splendid as it captures the scansion and meter of the original highly rhythmic Latin vulgate and Low German texts of the 23 individual sections of the work.

Richard Osborne points out regarding Carmina Burana in his introduction to Trionfi ("Triumph"), "Its unlooked-for status as the best known new composition to emerge from Nazi Germany has (also) helped compromise its reputation, not least because, in the wrong hands, it can sound obsessive rather than vital, militaristic rather than folksy."

Orff's Catulli Carmina, first staged in 1943 has been seen as an attempt to build upon the reputation of Carmina Burana. Catulli Carmina's text is rarely printed, even its original Latin, not to mention translation into English. The original texts are characterized by wit and eroticism and were written by Gaius Valerius Catullus (84 B.C.E.-54 B.C.E.) The work is bawdy and at times raunchy, to a degree our present Hamilton County Sheriff would certainly consider "obscene".

Such is also the case with the work designed to be the 3rd piece of Trionfi, Trionfo di Aphrodite("The Triumph of Aphrodite"), which was first seen and heard in 1953 in Milan (commissioned by La Scala), when all three pieces were staged as an entity (a theatrical triptych.) The texts of Trionfo di Aphrodite are culled from the writings of Catullus, Sappho, and Euripides. They are combined to evoke the wedding night of an unnamed bride and groom. DG 474131 contains all three works, the complete Trionfi, recorded in quite respectable sounding mono. The great Orff interpreter Eugen Jochum conducts forces on this 2 CD set (the label on each disc indicates "Stereo", an obvious oversight as the spine of the folded packet clearly states "Mono" and the sound agrees) including the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, sopranos Annelies Kupper, Elisabeth Lindermeier, Elfride Trotschel & Elisabeth Wiese-Lange; Ratko Deloko, Richard Holm & Paul Kuen tenors; Hans Braun baritone & bass Kurt Bohme. The recording sessions, in order of the works grand layout, were recorded in 1953, 1954 & 1956. If you prefer stereo, there is a single disc containing the 2nd and 3rd parts of Trionfi, Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Aphrodite on the Arts Music label (43002) recorded in 1974. Ferdinand Leitner conducts soloists and the Cologne "West Germany" Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. I haven't heard it and cannot vouch for it, but it would make a nice compliment to the recordings of Carmina Burana I've recommended here. There is also a complete Trionfi on Supraphon 110321. Vaclav Smetacek conducts the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus & Prague Symphony Orchestra and soloists. If budget is no concern, you can buy the entire Trionfi triptych on Wergo 6275 with Muhai Tang & The Royal Flemish Philharmonic Antwerp and a cast of hundreds for about $42.00. (All digital.)

After all of this ribaldry you may find it surprising to learn that Orff had a particular interest in music and instruments for children. See the complete Schulwerk (School Music) on RCA's 6-disc set, RCA 68031. A far more economical sampling of Orff's Schulwerk can be found on 2 different CD's on Celestial Harmonies, 13104 & 13105. They are titled respectively Orff-Schulwerk Volume 1/Musica Poetica and Orff-Schulwerk Volume 2/Musik fur Kinder. To quote the blurb on Volume 1, "Carl Orff profoundly influenced music education throughout the world. His seminal studies -- carried out over half a century -- related dance and improvisation to the playing of music. This recording, made in Munich in 1994-1995 celebrates his unique achievements. By introducing jazz and world music elements, Orff's innovative views have inspired generations of students, musicians and music lovers."

The discs contain delightful pieces for recorders (wooden flutes held vertically rather than horizontally), a host of xylophones, cymbals, glockenspiels, tambourines, castanets, sleigh bells, drums and percussion instruments of all kinds (many of which were conceived of by Orff himself who commissioned piano maker Karl Maendler to construct special instruments that are extremely easy to play.) Music was also written for voices, as well as stringed instruments. The pieces often use ancient scales and intervals, and include pieces for all ages and levels of expertise. In the notes we learn that Orff was "inspired by the colorful instruments of the Indonesian gamelan tradition and by African musical cultures." Orff believed that all children possess musical talent and only need to be encouraged to use it. These companion discs were recorded to commemorate Orff's 100th birthday. The performers worked with Orff during his lifetime.

Orff was attracted to classic stories from the past as materials for many of his "total theater" works, from Sophocles to the fairy tails set down by the Brothers Grimm. His Weihnachtsgechichte ("Christmas Story"), written with his Schulwerk collaborator Gunild Keetman, comes from sources farther back than the Wakefield Cycle. Bayer Records 100292, available from www.amazon.de (which works exactly like www.amazon.com only in German. You can even use your same password to order) contains the Christmas story in Schwabisch, a south German dialect, sung by the Aurelius-Sangerknaben Calw, (the Aurelius Boy's Choir of Calw) conducted by Hans-Jorg Kalmbach, with spoken narrative passages. Also on the disc are 14 Christmas songs in settings by Orff such as "Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen" ("Lo how a rose er bloometh") by Michael Praetorius, and many others of earlier origin.

Orff's two most famous Grimm realizations, Der Mond, Ein Kleines Welttheater, ("The Moon, A Theatrical Microcosm") and Die Kluge ("The Clever Woman") are each short operas with spoken dialogue. (Conductor Erich Leinsdorf once suggested to me that the stories would be perfect material for "The Muppets"!) The two operas are available together in two different boxed sets. One, EMI 63712 presents soloists and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Chorus and Children's Chorus, Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting. The accompanying booklet gives plot summaries scene by scene with complete translations into English and French of the dialogue sung and spoken. The recordings were originally issued on Angel Records LP's in 1958 & 1956.

I also found a great picture book companion to Der Mond in a bookstore in Switzerland. It too can be ordered through www.amazon.de. If you've read the translation that comes with the CD's of The Moon and The Clever Woman, you'll easily follow the story of The Moon in the picture book; the text is the same and the illustrations rich and delightful.

Both of Orff's little operas are also available in a 2 CD boxed set on Berlin Classics 2104. These performances feature soloists and the Leipzig Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra, Herbert Kegel conducting. They are essentially the same performances that were on LP's on the Philips label in 1980 and 1976 and are quite good. This set's booklet gives some interesting background on the opera and does tell the story but it does not include a side by side German/English libretto.

There is more to Carl Orff than Carmina Burana. He is earthy and rich in expression and there is much delight to be found in his music. German is my second language, (I'm told I speak it as a semi-educated farmer), and it's hard for me to judge how his two Grimm settings will strike you in their original tongue. But following an Orff text is a waltz in the park compared to understanding Wagner's Ring Cycle. Give these works other than Carmina Burana a try. It will help you hear it with "new ears".

Many of the recordings mentioned above may be purchased at ArkivMusic.com, where a portion of your purchase can benefit WGUC.

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