Music Monday #6: Wheel! Of! Fortune!

If that’s an apt way to describe Carmina Burana, then Carl Orff is Pat Sajak and the chorus is the announcer guy.

“Tell him what he’s won, Bob!”

“Iiiiiiiit’s a lifetime of struggle and miseryyyy! Interspersed with periodic excitement and falling in love with flirtatious young maidens, or at least lusting after them, you’ll endure a lifetime of hardship! mayhem! and mental anguiiiiishhh! Happiness may be fleeting, but it’s still worth the ride! And! You get to get drrrrunk!”

That is a decidedly less artistic and poetic way to sum it up… but still valid. And not altogether far off from Orff’s approach, really, come to think of it.

Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is a litany of Nots: It’s not an opera. It’s not that old (Orff wrote it in the 1930s). It’s not even all in one language. Some of it is in Latin, some German (and not even just plain German… Middle High German), and allegedly, some of it’s in French, though I can’t find it identifiably in my score. Which means… it’s not all one cohesive work.

What it is is a rip-roaring good time.

Carmina is actually a conglomeration of old poetry that Orff found and cobbled together and made work in a comprehensive form. And he wrote it to showcase dancers, not singers.

Wouldn’t know it by listening, I can tell you that. Or singing. This is some exhausting stuff. It is relentlessly rhythmic. It requires a ridiculous amount of concentration. Nobody gets a break, ever. Orchestral percussionists least of all. One of the times I performed this work was on a stage too small for the full orchestra and 120 voices needed to carry the piece. I stood on the percussion section. There was a bass drum about six feet from my right ear. The little drummer boy (as I called him) kept stealing my water bottle. Thought he was funny.

He was wrong.

One of my singer friends and I once drove the percussionists crazy with questions. They have to pull out all the stops (and, seemingly, all the intstruments) for this piece, so we were loaded with inquiries.

“What’s that?”

“A cabasa.” 

“A keilbasa?”

Unamused glare. “No. A CAbasa.”

“Oh. What’s that?”

“A vibraslap.” 

(Cue giggles.) “A vibraslap?!?!”

(Another unamused glare.) “Yes.”

“C’mon (gasp) you made that up.” 

“No. I didn’t.” 

“What’s that thing that looks like an egg?”

“That’s an egg shaker.” 


I’ve been fortunate enough to perform four runs (three- to five-performance series of concerts) of Carmina, with four different conductors. The first time, it was sans dancers. Second time, mit dancers. Third and fourth time, non dancers. When I found out about the dancers the second time, I was flummoxed. Wouldn’t they just be… distracting? How would they handle the 5/4 time in the “Raia” movement? That’s a dance movement, but in 5/4 time it’s pretty damned tricky to count for dancers. It must be a nightmare for choreographers. Dancers count One-Two-Three One-Two-Three or One-Two-Three-Four One-Two-Three-Four or One-Two-Three-Four-Five-Six One-Two-Three-Four-Five-Six or the ever-popular Five Six Seven Eight!

But… One Two Three Four Five One Two Three Four Five…?

That’s just messed up.

Not the point, though, today.

The point is, Carmina features one of the most recognized but least understood pieces of music in the “classical” realm, in my opinion: “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi.”  Commonly known as “O Fortuna.”

Which I’ve always thought sounds a bit like an ode to a canned fish.

 Carmina is a powerhouse work. I mentioned it’s exhausting stuff, and it is; singers run through the vocal ringer on it. It’s more than an hour long and we almost never stop (“Raia” being the only brief movement out of 22 that doesn’t have a vocal scoring). It’s worse for the men than for the women; the men have an entire sequence (subtitled “In Taberna”) about a rousing drunken festivus of drunkenness and what happens after that.

It features a soliloquy from a black swan as he’s roasting on a spit (which is evoked by an intentionally squeaky clarinet) and a dude who’s won some sort of King For the Time Being Contest… until the people who are presently celebrating him eventually kill him.

Also there’s something about riding a horse.

Told you it was wild.

Like life. Which is, of course, Orff’s whole point.

“Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi” serves as a bookend for Carmina. Not only is it sung in the beginning of the work; it’s sung at the end, too. Thereby completing the cycle. Closing the circle. Rounding out the wheel.

You’ve heard it in movies, commercials, viral videos, etc. etc. etc. But you may never have known what it was about.

A portion of they lyrics and translation:

O Fortuna O Fortune,
velut luna like the moon
statu variabilis, you are changeable,
semper crescis ever waxing
aut decrescis; and waning;
vita detestabilis hateful life
nunc obdurat first oppresses
et tunc curat and then soothes
ludo mentis aciem, as fancy takes it;
egestatem, poverty
potestatem and power
dissolvit ut glaciem. it melts them like ice.
Sors immanis Fate – monstrous
et inanis, and empty,
rota tu volubilis, you whirling wheel,
status malus, you are malevolent,
vana salus well-being is vain
semper dissolubilis, and always fades to nothing,
obumbrata shadowed
et velata and veiled
michi quoque niteris; you plague me too;
nunc per ludum now through the game
dorsum nudum I bring my bare back
fero tui sceleris. to your villainy.
Sors salutis Fate is against me
et virtutis in health
michi nunc contraria, and virtue,
est affectus driven on
et defectus and weighted down,
semper in angaria. always enslaved.

It’s intense.

There are astounding variations in dynamic (volume). That’s on purpose, to reflect both intensity and the changing winds of fate. Do not adjust your speakers… unless you want to really hear the words, which are damned difficult to articulate well sometimes. If you want to download a version, I highly recommend the Bournemouth Symphony and Chorus, Marin Alsop conducting, if you can find it. Without further ado… “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi” from Carmina Burana, written by Carl Orff and performed, in this case, by Chor der Deutchen Oper Berlin, and the Orchester der Deutchen Oper Berlin. Video here is irrelevant; I try to find the best musical representation of the work, not the best visuals.

Hang on tight, close your eyes and listen. Happy Music Monday.

Featured image from Angela Sterling/


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