Carmina Burana Synopsis

A large, extraordinary collection of medieval poetry came to light in 1803 at the southern Bavarian monastery of Benediktbeuern. This collection of 320 poems, known as Carmina Burana or “Songs of Benediktbeuern,”dates back to about AD 1230, and includes four basic categories of poems. These are satirical or moralizing lyrics (carmina moralia); songs celebrating springtime and love (carmina veris et amoris); gambling and drinking songs (carmina lusorum et potatorum), including goliardic verse; and poems with religious content (carmina divina). This collection of lyric poetry was first published in 1847 as the Codex Buranus and various aspects of artistic and handwriting styles in the manuscript indicate that it was created prior to 1250. This combination of clues has helped date the Codex Buranus at ca. 1230.

The miniature inserted at the beginning of the manuscript portrays Fortuna, the Roman Goddesss of fate, seated within the wheel of fortune and around the wheel is shown the stages of the rise and fall of a sovereign. By contrast, a cheerful springtime scene shows fanciful trees, flowers, and animals. Other illustrations portray scenes of revelers, and gamblers playing dice, backgammon, and chess; two scenes from Virgil’s Aeneid; and two lovers lying side by side with a bouquet of flowers. Much of the lyric poetry in Carmina Burana is frankly pagan and sensual in content. This includes the so-called Goliardic verse (named for Goliath, who served as a medieval symbol for unruly behavior), often employing graphic imagery.

The Carmina Burana collection owes its present popularity to the German composer Carl Orff (1895-1982), who wrote his famous opus of the same name in 1935-6 using twenty-four of the original texts. Themes include “in springtime/ in the meadow” (primo vere / uf dem anger), “in the tavern” (in taberna), and “the court of love” (cour d’amours), which he connected by choir passages with the motif of Fortuna, Goddess of fate, as empress of the world (fortuna imperatrix mundi).

Its full Latin title is Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanæ cantoribus et choris cantandæ comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis (“Songs of Beuern: Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magic images.”) Carmina Burana is part of Trionfi, the musical triptych that also includes the cantata Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite. The best-known movement is “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi” (“O Fortuna“) that opens and closes the piece. Carmina Burana was first staged in Frankfurt by the Frankfurt Opera on June 8, 1936 withstaging, sets, and costumes. Shortly after the greatly successful premiere, Orff wrote the following letter to his publisher, Schott Music:

“Everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately, printed, can be destroyed. With Carmina Burana, my collected works begin.”

(courtesy The Athena Review)