What is about Carmina Burana that is so appealing to us, as musicians, and listeners? It is a scenic cantata with texts dating from the 1200s, calls for a large orchestra and chorus, as well as soloists, making it an expensive production, and even more expensive if you do it like Orff intended, with movement and “magic images.” Yet it is one of the most popular orchestral works of, probably, all time. Within the last year I’ve seen two performances of it. If a person who had never heard classical music before asked to me to recommend 1 work to start off with, I would probably suggest Carmina Burana. It is so easily listened to. But why do we all love it?
First, and probably most importantly (that is why it’s first), is it’s simplicity. The songs are almost completely strophic, meaning the different verses of the text are set with the same music. This is much more like Jazz or Rock than traditional classical music. This makes the listening much easier, and arguably more appealing to all. The harmonies are very simple also. It is, as far as I can tell, almost completely diatonic. There are no harsh dissonances. A large part of the choral writing is all unison, and when they do break into harmony, there is no Bach-ian polyphony. All of this draws the focus to the melody, which again is very simple and perfectly fits the medieval texts. It is pleasurable to listen to, whether you be a professional musician, or a complete novice in the orchestral field.
Secondly is the masterful, and massively colorful orchestration. With everything brought down to it’s simplest, Orff can do whatever he wishes with the orchestra. The real game-winner is the percussion. As in most of Orff’s music, there is a massive percussion section. The subtle use of the tambourine, or the sleigh-bells, or anything else, completely changes the color, which makes everything more exciting, and adds a big rhythmic drive. Orff made a reduction of the work for two pianos and percussion. One of the performances I saw, used this configuration, and it wasn’t the same without the full orchestra, but still, the percussion added so much (side note: the other performance I saw was the band version, which is better than the two pianos, but not the same as the original).
Lastly, the rhythm. Everything is set to the lowest common denominator. There is simple melody, harmony, and perfect orchestration. In a work like that there is one piece that makes or breaks it: the rhythm. That’s what makes Carmina Burana a winner, the unstoppable drive that pushes you from the opening O Fortuna to the very end.
In conclusion, that’s why everyone loves Carmina Burana. It’s too bad that everything else Orff wrote is now in the dustbin. Maybe it had something to do with his connection to the Nazi’s. Ironically being liked by the Nazi’s doesn’t really help one’s reputation. But either way, Carmina survives, so good for us. As a little editorial bit, my personal favorite song is Ave Formosissima. It is so triumphant, and it is so great when it goes straight from that song to the closing O Fortuna. That shows the turning of the fortune wheel so well. But my favorite section is the In Taberna, with two of the coolest solo pieces for male voice that I know.