All About “Carmina Burana”

The genesis of the texts that Carl Orff chose to set to music is so very interesting. Paraphrased from Wikipedia: The Carmina Burana, translating from Latin to “Songs from Beuern”; (“Beuern” being short for Benediktbeuern, a town in the area of Bavaria, Germany, which has an 8th century monastery) is a manuscript of 254 poems and dramatic texts mostly from the 11th or 12th century, although some are from the 13th century. The pieces are mostly bawdy, irreverent, and satirical. They were written principally in medieval Latin, a few in Middle High German, and some with traces of Old French.

They were written by students and clergy when the Latin idiom was the lingua franca throughout Italy and western Europe for travelling scholars, universities, and theologians. Most of the poems and songs appear to be the work of Goliards, clergy (mostly students) who satirized the Catholic Church. The collection was found in 1803 in Benediktbeuern, Bavaria. It is considered to be the most important collection of Goliard and vagabond songs, along with the Carmina Cantabrigiensia.

At some point in the Late Middle Ages, the handwritten pages were bound into a small folder called the Codex Buranus. However, in the process of binding, the text was placed partially out of order, and some pages were most likely lost as well. The manuscript contains eight miniatures: the rota fortunae (which actually is an illustration from songs CB 14–18, but was placed by the book binder as the cover), an imaginative forest, a pair of lovers, scenes from the story of Dido & Aeneaus, a scene of drinking beer, and three scenes of playing dice, tables, and chess.

Older research assumed that the manuscript was written in Benediktbeuern where it was found. Today, however, Carmina Burana scholars have several different ideas about the manuscript’s place of origin. It is agreed that the manuscript must be from the region of central Europe where the Bavarian dialect of German is spoken due to the Middle High German phrases in the text—a region that includes parts of southern Germany, western Austria, and northern Italy. Several theories based on extant evidence exist as to the exact origins geographically, but it is less clear how the texts ended up in Beuern.

The manuscript contains songs of morals & mockery, love songs, drinking & gaming songs, songs about the Crusades, several spiritual plays, reworkings of writings from antiquity, critiques of corruption in the Catholic Church, numerous satiric descriptions of a raucous medieval paradise, and many other themes. The manuscript was discovered in the monastery at Benediktbeuren in 1803 by librarian Johann Christoph von Aretin. He transferred it to the Bavarian State Library in Munich where it currently resides.

About one-quarter of the poems in the Carmina Burana are accompanied in the manuscript by music using an archaic system of musical notation.

Of the 254 texts, Carl Orff set 24 of them to music in a scenic cantata. In 1934, Orff encountered the 1847 edition by Johann Andreas Schmeller. Michel Hofman was a young law student and an enthusiast of Latin and Greek, who assisted Orff in the selection and organization of 24 of these poems into a libretto. divided into five section: Fortune, Empress of the World; In Spring; In the Meadow; In the Tavern; Court of Love.  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, 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 “Libretto”

If you are curious about the texts used in the Carmina Burana score, here is a translation:


Our Big-Bang Season Ender: Carl Orff’s CARMINA BURANA

You may never have heard Carl Orff’s CARMINA BURANA in full, but we’re betting you have heard it’s opening , O Fortuna. Perhaps you weren’t even aware of its title or did not realize its origin. It has been used as a soundtrack in popular culture steadily –  just to name a few of the more recent instances in which you may have heard it – on television 2016, in the second-season episode of “Scream Queens”; in movies, 2009, in the Disney live-action film “G-Force”; 2018, in TV advertisement, an Applebee’s commercial for riblets and chicken tenders; 2013–2016, in sports broadcasts, used in the Drivers’ Introduction at the Daytona 500. That’s quite a range of genres! But the exciting, driving rhythms and powerful aurals of O Fortuna certainly lends itself to attention-getting!

The text of O Fortuna (which could also be translated as Oh, Fate) sets the tone for the entire cantata of Carmina Burana, bemoaning as it does the tricks and traps of Fortune/Fate, and of life under its influence, particularly as the sections of the work that follow explore the highs and lows of pursuit of the earthly delights!

O Fortune, changeable as the moon, ever waxing and waning. 
Hateful life first oppresses then soothes as fancy takes it.
Poverty and power, it melts them like ice.
Fate - monstrous and empty, you whirling wheel, you are malevolent.
Well-being is in vain and always fades to nothing, shadowed and veiled, you plague me too.
Now through the game I bring my bare back to your villainy.
Fate is against me in health and virtue, driven on and weighted down,always enslaved.
So at this house without delay, pluck the vibrating strings;
Since Fate strikes down the strong man, everybody weep with me!