Carmina Burana (Orff)

Carmina Burana is a cantata composed in 1935 and 1936 by Carl Orff, based on 24 poems from the medieval collection Carmina Burana. Its full Latin title is Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanae cantoribus et choris cantandae comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis ("Songs of Beuern: Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magical images"). It was first performed by the Oper Frankfurt on 8 June 1937. It is part of Trionfi, a musical triptych that also includes Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite. The first and last sections of the piece are called "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi" ("Fortune, Empress of the World") and start with "O Fortuna".

Carmina Burana
Cantata by Carl Orff
Fortuna Wheel.jpg
Cover of the score showing the Wheel of Fortune
Based on24 poems from Carmina Burana
8 June 1937 (1937-06-08)


Rota fortunae (Wheel of Fortune) from the Codex Buranus

In 1934, Orff encountered the 1847 edition of the Carmina Burana by Johann Andreas Schmeller, the original text dating mostly from the 11th or 12th century, including some from the 13th century. Michel Hofmann [de] was a young law student and an enthusiast of Latin and Greek; he assisted Orff in the selection and organization of 24 of these poems into a libretto mostly in secular Latin verse, with a small amount of Middle High German[1] and Old French. The selection covers a wide range of topics, as familiar in the 13th century as they are in the 21st century: the fickleness of fortune and wealth, the ephemeral nature of life, the joy of the return of spring and the pleasures and perils of drinking, gluttony, gambling, and lust.


Carmina Burana is structured into five major sections, containing 25 movements in total, including one repeated movement and one purely instrumental one. Orff indicates attacca markings between all the movements within each scene.

Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi Fortune, Empress of the World
1 O Fortuna Latin O Fortune choir
2 Fortune plango vulnera Latin I lament the wounds that Fortune deals choir
I Primo vere In Spring
3 Veris leta facies Latin The joyous face of Spring small choir
4 Omnia Sol temperat Latin All things are tempered by the Sun baritone
5 Ecce gratum Latin Behold the welcome choir
Uf dem anger In the Meadow
6 Tanz   Dance instrumental
7 Floret silva nobilis Latin / Middle High German The noble woods are burgeoning choir
8 Chramer, gip die varwe mir Middle High German Monger, give me coloured paint 2 choirs (small and large)
9 (a) Reie Round dance instrumental
(b) Swaz hie gat umbe Middle High German They who here go dancing around choir
(c) Chume, chum, geselle min Middle High German Come, come, my dear companion small choir
(d) Swaz hie gat umbe (reprise) Middle High German They who here go dancing around choir
10 Were diu werlt alle min Middle High German If the whole world were but mine choir
II In Taberna In the Tavern
11 Estuans interius Latin Seething inside baritone
12 Olim lacus colueram Latin Once I swam in lakes tenor, choir (male)
13 Ego sum abbas Latin I am the abbot (of Cockaigne) baritone, choir (male)
14 In taberna quando sumus Latin When we are in the tavern choir (male)
III Cour d'amours Court of Love
15 Amor volat undique Latin Love flies everywhere soprano, boys' choir
16 Dies, nox et omnia Latin / Old French Day, night and everything baritone
17 Stetit puella Latin There stood a girl soprano
18 Circa mea pectora Latin / Middle High German In my breast baritone, choir
19 Si puer cum puellula Latin If a boy with a girl 3 tenors, 1 baritone, 2 basses
20 Veni, veni, venias Latin Come, come, pray come double choir
21 In trutina Latin On the scales soprano
22 Tempus est iocundum Latin Time to jest soprano, baritone, choir, boys' choir
23 Dulcissime Latin Sweetest boy soprano
Blanziflor et Helena Blancheflour and Helen
24 Ave formosissima Latin Hail to the most lovely choir
Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi Fortune, Empress of the World
25 O Fortuna (reprise) Latin O Fortune choir

Much of the compositional structure is based on the idea of the turning Fortuna Wheel. The drawing of the wheel found on the first page of the Burana Codex includes four phrases around the outside of the wheel:

Regnabo, Regno, Regnavi, Sum sine regno.
(I shall reign, I reign, I have reigned, I am without a realm).

Within each scene, and sometimes within a single movement, the wheel of fortune turns, joy turning to bitterness, and hope turning to grief. "O Fortuna", the first poem in the Schmeller edition, completes this circle, forming a compositional frame for the work through being both the opening and closing movements.


Set design by Helmut Jürgens for a performance in Munich in 1959

Orff subscribed to a dramatic concept called "Theatrum Mundi" in which music, movement, and speech were inseparable. Babcock writes that "Orff's artistic formula limited the music in that every musical moment was to be connected with an action on stage. It is here that modern performances of Carmina Burana fall short of Orff's intentions." Orff subtitled Carmina Burana a "scenic cantata" in his intention to stage the work with dance, choreography, visual design and other stage action; the piece is now usually performed in concert halls as a cantata.

A danced version of Carmina Burana was choreographed by Loyce Houlton for the Minnesota Dance Theatre in 1978.[2] In honour of Orff's 80th birthday, an acted and choreographed film version was filmed, directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle for the German broadcaster ZDF; Orff collaborated in its production.[3]

Kent Stowell choreographed the work for Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. It premiered on October 5, 1993, with scenic design by Ming Cho Lee.[4]

Musical styleEdit

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, such as Ann Powers of The New York Times.[5]

Orff was influenced melodically by late Renaissance and early Baroque models including William Byrd and Claudio Monteverdi.[6] It is a common misconception that Orff based the melodies of Carmina Burana on neumeatic melodies; while many of the lyrics in the Burana Codex are enhanced with neumes, almost none of these melodies had been deciphered at the time of Orff's composition, and none of them had served Orff as a melodic model.[7][8] His shimmering orchestration shows a deference to Stravinsky. In particular, Orff's music is very reminiscent of Stravinsky's earlier work, Les noces (The Wedding).

Rhythm, for Orff as it was for Stravinsky, is often the primary musical element. Over all, it sounds rhythmically straightforward and simple, but the metre will change freely from one measure to the next. While the rhythmic arc in a section is taken as a whole, a measure of five may be followed by one of seven, to one of four, and so on, often with caesura marked between them. These constant rhythmic changes combined with the caesura create a very "conversational" feel – so much so that the rhythmic complexities of the piece are often overlooked.

Some of the solo arias pose bold challenges for singers: the only solo tenor aria, Olim lacus colueram, is often sung almost completely in falsetto to demonstrate the suffering of the character (in this case, a roasting swan). The baritone arias often demand high notes not commonly found in baritone repertoire, and parts of the baritone aria Dies nox et omnia are often sung in falsetto, a rare example in baritone repertoire. Also noted is the solo soprano aria, Dulcissime which demands extremely high notes. Orff intended this aria for a lyric soprano, not a coloratura, so that the musical tensions would be more obvious.


Carmina Burana is scored for a large orchestra consisting of:

Woodwinds Brass Strings Keyboards Percussion


Carmina Burana was first staged by the Oper Frankfurt on 8 June 1937 under conductor Bertil Wetzelsberger [de] (1892–1967) with the Cäcilienchor Frankfurt [de], staging by Oskar Wälterlin [de] and sets and costumes by Ludwig Sievert. Shortly after the greatly successful premiere, Orff said the following 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."[9]

Several performances were repeated elsewhere in Germany. The Nazi regime was at first nervous about the erotic tone of some of the poems,[10] but eventually embraced the piece. It became the most famous piece of music composed in Germany at the time.[11] The popularity of the work continued to rise after the war, and by the 1960s Carmina Burana was well established as part of the international classic repertoire. The piece was voted number 62 at the Classic 100 Ten Years On and is at number 144 of the 2020 Classic FM Hall of Fame.[12]

Alex Ross wrote that "the music itself commits no sins simply by being and remaining popular. That Carmina Burana has appeared in hundreds of films and television commercials is proof that it contains no diabolical message, indeed that it contains no message whatsoever."[13]

Subsequent arrangementsEdit

The popularity of the work has ensured the creation of many additional arrangements for a variety of performing forces.

In 1956, Orff's disciple Wilhelm Killmayer created a reduced version for soloists, SATB mixed choir, children's choir, two pianos and six percussion (timpani + 5), and was authorized by Orff. The score has short solos for three tenors, baritone and two basses. This version is to allow smaller ensembles the opportunity to perform the piece.[14][15][16]

An arrangement for wind ensemble was prepared by Juan Vicente Mas Quiles [ca] (born 1921), who wanted both to give wind bands a chance to perform the work and to facilitate performances in cities that have a high quality choral union and wind band, but lack a symphony orchestra. A performance of this arrangement was recorded by the North Texas Wind Symphony under Eugene Corporon. In writing this transcription, Mas Quiles maintained the original chorus, percussion, and piano parts.[17]

Notable recordingsEdit


  1. ^ More precisely, Bavarian-colored Middle High German. Reconstructions of the pronunciation of the Middle High German texts in the Carmina Burana in John Austin (1995). "Pronunciation of the Middle High German Sections of Carl Orff's 'Carmina Burana'." The Choral Journal, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 15–18, and in Guy A.J. Tops (2005). "De uitspraak van de middelhoogduitse teksten in Carl Orffs Carmina Burana." Stemband, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 8–9. (In Dutch; contains IPA transcriptions of the Middle High German texts.).
  2. ^ Minnesota Dance Theatre celebrates 50 years with Carmina Burana
  3. ^ Carmina Burana by Carl Orff , Jean Pierre Ponnelle (1975)
  4. ^ "Carmina Burana, production details, Pacific Northwest Ballet
  5. ^ "Not Medieval but Eternal; In Its Sixth Decade, Carmina Burana Still Echoes" by Ann Powers, The New York Times (14 June 1999)
  6. ^ Helm, Everett (July 1955). "Carl Orff". The Musical Quarterly. Oxford. 41 (3): 292.
  7. ^ Liess, Andreas (1980). Orff. Idee und Werk (in German). Munich: Goldmann. pp. 82–83. ISBN 978-3-442-33038-6. Orff waren also zur Zeit der Schöpfung der Carmina originale Melodien nicht bekannt. (At the time of writing the Carmina, Orff had no knowledge of the original melodies.)
  8. ^ Bernt, Günter (1979). Carmina Burana (in German). Munich: dtv. p. 862. ISBN 978-3-7608-0361-6. Die Carmina Burana Carl Orffs versuchen nicht, die überlieferten Melodien zu verwenden. (Carl Orff's Carmina Burana do not attempt to utilise the traditional melodies.)
  9. ^ Various, vol. IV, 66.
  10. ^ Kater 2000, p. 123.
  11. ^ Taruskin 2005, p. 764.
  12. ^ "Classic FM Hall of Fame 2020", Classic FM
  13. ^ "In Music, Though, There Were No Victories" by Alex Ross, The New York Times (20 August 1995)
  14. ^ Chamber version of Orff's Carmina Burana
  15. ^ Tucson Chamber Carmina Burana
  16. ^ Carmina Burana (Edition for voices, two pianos and percussion)
  17. ^ "Juan Vicente Mas Quiles – Carmina Burana, published by Schott Music
  18. ^ Carmina Burana (1975) at IMDb
  19. ^ "Carmina Burana de Carl Orff" by Betrand Dermoncourt, 1 October 2014 (in French)
  20. ^ Deutsche Grammophon – Carl Orff: Carmina Burana / Catulli Carmina / Trionfo di Afrodite
  21. ^ – Trionfi / Review by Victor Carr Jr
  22. ^ – Orff, Carl – Trionfi: Carmina Burana; Catulli Carmina; Trionfo di Afrodite / Eugen Jochum
  23. ^ – Carmina Burana / C. Orff
  24. ^ CD Review "Building a Library": Carmina Burana, BBC
  25. ^ "Herbert Kegel – portrait by Rainer Aschemeier, 17 July 2006 (in German)
  26. ^ LP cover (back), BASF-Musikproduktion 2022050-8 (in German); Leitner: Carmina Burana at Discogs
  27. ^ "100 CDS for Building Your Library". Archived from the original on 18 July 2011. Retrieved 11 January 2022.
  28. ^ "Jeffrey Reid Baker's Website".
  29. ^ "Orff: Carmina Burana / Rattle", David Hurwitz,, at ArkivMusic
  30. ^ "Orff: Carmina Burana – Christian Thielemann". Retrieved 20 July 2018
  31. ^ Roca, Octavio; Critic, Chronicle Dance (1997-11-07). "Smuin's 'Carmina' Hits the Heart / Double bill at Fort Mason". SFGate. Retrieved 2019-10-04.


Further readingEdit

  • Abrantes, Miguel Carvalho (2020). The Carmina Burana of Carl Orff: Translated from Latin to English.
  • Babcock, Jonathan. "Carl Orff's Carmina Burana: A Fresh Approach to the Work's Performance Practice". Choral Journal 45, no. 11 (May 2006): 26–40.
  • Fassone, Alberto: "Carl Orff", in: The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, London: Macmillan 2001.
  • Lo, Kii-Ming, "Sehen, Hören und Begreifen: Jean-Pierre Ponnelles Verfilmung der Carmina Burana von Carl Orff", in: Thomas Rösch (ed.), Text, Musik, Szene – Das Musiktheater von Carl Orff, Mainz etc. (Schott) 2015, pp. 147–173.
  • Steinberg, Michael. "Carl Orff: Carmina Burana". Choral Masterworks: A Listener's Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 230–242.
  • Werner Thomas: Das Rad der Fortuna – Ausgewählte Aufsätze zu Werk und Wirkung Carl Orffs, Schott, Mainz 1990, ISBN 3-7957-0209-7.

External linksEdit