Why People Who Hate Choral Music Love Carmina Burana

Conductor Tom Hall on Why Its So Exciting

Since its premiere in 1937, Carl Orff's bawdy rollick through the fields and swamps of Love, Lust, and Booze has commanded the kind of following that rock bands dream of. Among the zipped up, stiffly starched giants of the choral repertoire, Carmina Burana is the bad girl who can't seem to keep her blouse buttoned.

Even if you've never been to a performance of Carmina, you can't escape the music. It's everywhere. Countless commercials have co-opted "O Fortuna," dozens of movies use Carmina songs in their soundtracks, from the King Arthur biopic Excalibur to the horrific Natural Born Killers to the frat-house dumb Jackass: The Movie. And don't forget TV shows that love Carmina—"The Office," "Friends," and "South Park," to name a few.

Love at First Sing

"It affects people the way pop music does. It goes straight to the gut, straight to the heart and that is because it really is pop music."

Choral singers encountering Carmina for the first time often swoon. One blogger learned of Carmina while taking a seminar in medieval German literature and then, of course, had to sing it—with the Southern Illinois Choral Union and Wind Ensemble. "It's the first piece I've sung in a while where most of the notes weren't too hard to find, but the words are almost impossible to spit out correctly," writes Ann at Geek Buffet: "I found the performance particularly exciting since I got to stand directly behind the tympani, which was the best seat in the house as far as I was concerned."

Among singers who regularly perform the piece, the adulation for Carmina is not quite as unbridled. Rare is the choral singer who picks Carmina as his or her "desert island disc." But then again, if you're alone on that island why get yourself all hot and bothered? Most singers, if not in love with Carmina, do think it's good for a few laughs. Just don't make us sing it every single year, please.

Conductors seem to get a kick out of Carmina, too. Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony, in a 2006 interview with National Public Radio, confessed that it is the one piece of music she would take on a long trip—if not to the island. "Its 25 tracks offer something for every mood," she said. "From a conductor's point of view, Carmina is an absolute blast—so many people, so many textures, so much variety."

Another conductor, Tom Hall, music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, has presented Carmina about a dozen times. Hall sat down with us to talk about some of the subtleties of this none-too-subtle work.

Chorus America: So what is it about Carmina Burana that inflames such passion?

Tom Hall: It really does have a hold on people as no other piece has. I think people like Handel's Messiah because it's familiar and they become attached to it as a religious observance. But Carmina Burana affects people in a different way. It is very visceral. It affects people the way pop music does. It goes straight to the gut, straight to the heart and that is because it really is pop music. It has many of the same structural elements that pop music does. Its individual movements are strophic—there are verses, just like pop songs, and the verses repeat. The music is not particularly complicated, nor is it long. It's not like listening to a Brahms symphony, that has an exposition and a lengthy development, and is very complicated and the scope and span of it takes 20 or 30 minutes. In Carmina Burana it takes seconds.

Do you know when Carmina really started taking hold of people like this?

Pretty much right when it came out. It was very popular in the 1930s when Orff premiered it and he had many performances of it, all of which were danced.

"The key to Carmina as a singer is to remember that it is more akin to musical theater than it is to so-called classical music."

Ah, many choral singers may not even know that it is a dance.

The music exists to animate movement. That's why there is all this repetition. Of the three basic materials in music—melody, harmony and rhythm—he's big on rhythm. Orff never did a performance of it himself that didn't have movement to it. It's a relatively recently phenomenon, in the last 30 years or so, that has it being a concert piece. It's not an oratorio. He calls it a scenic cantata. He invented that term. But by scenic, he means that there is a visual element. When you hear it with an orchestra and a chorus, without any movement, you're listening to it in a different way than Orff intended.

When you have conducted Carmina, did you do it as a dance?

Most of the performances I have done, I have eschewed the orchestra in favor of Orff's own arrangement for two pianos and percussion, so that you have room on the stage for dancers. Unless you do it in an opera house with a pit where you can put the orchestra underneath, you have to figure out something to get everyone on stage. One option is to get rid of the orchestra altogether.

You would rather do it as a dance?

If I had my druthers, yes, because it makes more sense as a ballet than as an oratorio. It is in three very distinct parts. The first part is general flirting between girls and boys. The second part is lots of drinking with lots of defrocked monks. And the third part is a love duet between a boy and a girl, who eventually, of course, do the deed.

To see Carmina depicted visually, it's easier and it makes more sense, because the music is so basic, so direct, and almost puerile. Orff never really meant for the music to stand on its own.

I wonder what Orff would think of it being done as an oratorio?

I'm sure he wouldn't mind. Every composer wants his or her works performed. This was far and away his most popular piece. As a matter of fact, when Orff published it, he ordered his publisher to destroy everything that had come before. Then he wrote two other Carminas—the others are Catulli Carmina and Triumph of Aphrodite. And both of them flopped. They are basically the same kind of thing as Carmina Burana, but Carmina was the one. You would not have ever heard of Orff if it had not been for Carmina Burana.

Is there a set choreography for Carmina?

Everyone does it somewhat differently. I believe the Philadelphia Ballet used to do Carmina every year in the way you would do the Nutcracker. The Washington Ballet has done it. A lot of companies have done it in different ways. I have commissioned choreography for it—Kimberly Machin—and we had 12 dancers. Even with just 12 dancers, it gets crowded on the stage.

What do you hear from people about what they like about Carmina?

People do like the spectacle of it. People do relate to old fashioned, slightly silly views and takes on young kids falling in love. It's something that, with any luck, every human being gets to experience at some time in her or his life. People like that. Old people like it. Young people like it. The music is hummable and because of its use in modern media, commercials and such, it is even vaguely familiar. What's very funny about its use in popular media is that it doesn't appear that anybody read the words. The first movement, "O Fortuna," is talking about fortune in a very, very pejorative way. The fact that the wheel of fortune keeps spinning to the detriment of anybody who is subject to its fate seems like an odd way to sell coffee or automobiles.

I did a commercial one time for a company called Icon Office furniture and they wanted a score that basically sounded like Carmina Burana. They didn't want to pay the royalties to get the real Carmina Burana, so we commissioned a score that sounds awfully much like Carmina. If you didn't know Carmina well you would probably think that it was Carmina. Why they wanted to use it to sell office furniture, to this day, I have no idea.

Well, did it work?

I guess. It ran on the Super Bowl. It was a big deal.

So Carmina does have a hold on people who don't know much about classical music. They may recognize that and Beethoven's 5th and maybe the opening to the Grieg Piano Concerto in A Minor and that's it.

What else about the structure makes Carmina approachable?

It's rhythmic. It's loud, clangy, and powerful in the sense that it has a lot of different percussive timbres to it. It's like a great rock drummer...like Buddy Rich or Ginger Baker. It's got a good beat. And because the music repeats, our brains deal with things that are familiar in a different way than they deal with things that are unfamiliar. What makes pop songs so effective is that you hear a verse and the next time you hear that verse you have a different relationship with that music. You know what to expect now, and then the third time, the connection to it is even stronger. So that is something that pop musicians have used to great effect from time eternal and Orff had a good sense of that.

As I singer, I sometimes badmouth Carmina, because I've just sung it so many times. But really, there are some beautiful sections, unforgettable really.

The soprano aria in the third part, "In trutina," could be a pop hit. It's kind of like "O Mio Babbino Caro" from the Puccini opera, Gianni Schicchi. It's got that lilt. It could be a Mariah Carey song. It could be a sexy love ballad, because it is a sexy love ballad. It's got a kind of tune that could easily be adopted as pop song. Kind of surprised nobody has thought of it yet.

And that baritone solo in third part, "Dies, nox et omnia," goes from very low to very high...it's pretty electrifying.

And the point of that is that this guy is lovesick. He's literally out of his mind, crazy about this girl. He literally loses his mind, so he starts singing this high high falsetto, a melisma ecstasy, up and down and all around, just for the chance of a kiss. When you see that happening, when that is depicted in front of your eyes with a male dancer and a female dancer, it reads a little easier than just listening to a guy all of the sudden break into this high singing. You'd think, "What the hell is he doing?"

And I imagine the tenor solo of the dying swan, "Olim lacus colueram," reads differently as a dance too.

Yeah, the duck is being roasted on a spit. The music is about that. You can literally see in your mind's eye, the spit turning over and over and this swan is stuck to it and being roasted.

Are there any tips you'll give the singers this summer when you do Carmina?

The key to Carmina as a singer is to remember that it is more akin to musical theater than it is to so-called classical music. It has much more to do with Oklahoma than the B Minor Mass. If people approach it in that spirit, then it's really a fun, it's not serious music. It's purposefully lighthearted and it's flirty, and silly and outrageous. The big mistake a lot of people make is trying to be too heavy with it, too sober and somber with it. It just ain't.

And that must affect how a singer puts the piece across too?

It means being theatrical. It means pouring yourself into the character. When the girls sing in Part 1, "Chramer, gip die varwe mir," they are prancing around the town square, showing off their lipstick and talking to the make up guy: "Put some rouge on my cheek so the boys will think I am cute." You have to be in the mind of a 14-year-old girl who is flirting. This is a junior high dance. This is not some great heavy love duet. It's silly little kids having a good time dancing around with their arms behind their backs, their hands clasped, smiling, running away. It needs to be done with that kind of playfulness, not like the B-Minor Mass.