By Dennis D. Rooney
It was a Saturday in the spring of 1957. I was at my high school, doing some sort of extracurricular project, which took place in the auditorium.
The Glee Club director had put on a recording of music I didn’t recognize but whose sound and character were captivating. From time to time, someone would tap out one of the catchy rhythms that sprang up as the work progressed. It was Carmina Burana, a scenic cantata based on Goliard poetry. The composer, Carl Orff (1895-1982), was unknown to me.
The first recording of it had been issued in the U.S. the previous year. When I read the notes on the back of the LP jacket, I learned that the text was from a collection of poems from the 11th-13th centuries that was housed in the Benedictine Monastery of Beuren, in Bavaria, hence the title, which translated as Songs of Beuren. The poems were in a mixture of medieval Latin and Middle High German, the work of unattached clergy and wandering scholars of the time known as Goliards, who journeyed from monastery to monastery. The poems were published in 1847. Orff set 24 of them in 1935-36; the first performance was in 1937.
The progress of Carmina Burana in the subsequent 65 years has been extraordinary. Its ready use (and misuse) in popular culture has almost completely obscured the work’s joyful character due to its acting in a succession of films as musical accompaniment to dystopian imagery, frequently with computer-generated monster armies marching with heavy tread. None of that has anything to do with what the songs are about: mostly in praise of spring, and pleasures of the flesh. The only solemn moment is the paean to Fortune, “Empress of the World,” that frames the rest.
Orff’s original intention was for a stage work, with choreography and visual design. Nevertheless, it has now become almost invariably a concert work. The composer approved an arrangement by his disciple Wilhelm Killmayer for a reduced version for soloists, SATB mixed choir, children’s choir, two pianos and six percussion. That seems to have been the version performed May 8 at the FAU University Theatre by the Master Chorale of South Florida conducted by Brett Karlin. The choristers occupied the back half of the stage, with the vocal soloists, percussionists, and pianists in front, flanking the podium.
The primary rhythmic impetus was in the capable hands of pianists Susan Dodd and Anita Castiglione, who supported the well-trained chorus. Its Latin diction, and that of the soloists, was variable. Their German was better. John Taylor Ward, who sang the baritone solos, negotiated the occasional high tessitura of his music very comfortably but had little in the lower register.
His only fault was a quickly suppressed false entrance in “Tempus et iocundum.” Soprano Nola Richardson, despite some insecurity in her very highest notes, had an attractive voice that she used most expressively. Tenor Brian Giebler, substituting for the previously announced Marc Molomot, had the task of singing the lament of the roasted swan, “Olim lacus colueram.” The high tessitura produces a strained sound from the soloist, to intentionally achieve a comically grotesque effect. Giebler sang with admirable enterprise, but to produce the pitches it seemed that he punched out each one individually. However, he didn’t flag anywhere in the three taxing stanzas.
The meager effect of the reduced percussion and the dry acoustics of the room intensified an impression of the performance as a monochromatic print of a richly colorful original. Sorely missing from the percussion battery was the tam-tam. What kind of Carmina Burana is it with no tam-tam?
Preceding Carmina Burana on the program was As Long As We Are Here, composed by Jake Runestad (b. 1986) in 2020, on commission from the Chorale. Its premiere was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic until this performance. The text, by Todd Boss, was not printed in the program. Had it been, more of the words might have been grasped. Nevertheless, it proved to be a euphonious amuse-gueule.