The 20th-century musical movement known as Primitivism went as far as it possibly could go in the music of German composer Carl Orff (1895-1982), whose "Carmina Burana" opens the Baltimore Choral Arts Society's 30th-anniversary season Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
"Orff called the piece a 'scenic cantata,' " says Tom Hall, music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. "It's not an opera, nor is it an oratorio. Orff meant for it to be staged, and we have chosen to stage it with dancers. So it resembles a ballet."
Such a presentation is fitting, since Orff himself made no effort to specify the scenery, costuming or staging his music required, leaving these matters entirely to the discretion of the producers. Every performance of "Carmina Burana" is, following the composer's instructions, "sui generis," a unique occasion shaped by the artistic sensibility of its performers and limited only by the imaginations of those who bring its score to life.
The music, one of the most oft-performed pieces of the 20th-century repertoire, has been used countless times as a ballet piece with recorded music, and as the score for live performances as a concert piece. But it is rare indeed for Orff's classic to be seen and heard live simultaneously as ballet and cantata as the composer intended.
"Clearly, he intended it to be heard and seen," says Hall. "He intended the music to illuminate the movement and the movement to illuminate the music. He does this in a quite conscious way, and that is what we are trying to capture."
To realize Orff's piece, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society chorus will be joined by the Morgan State University Choir, the Goucher College Chorus and the Children's Chorus of Maryland, bringing the total number of performers to nearly 200 in addition to the two pianists, five percussionists and eight dancers planned for the concert.
"Since this starts our 30th season, we wanted to do something with a big bang," Hall says.
"Carmina Burana" has plenty of bang by any measure. The piece, which premiered in 1937, was a spectacular success and earned Orff an international reputation virtually overnight. It was so popular that the composer later withdrew from publication everything he had written before, preferring to let history judge his stature by that work alone.
" 'Carmina Burana' is an amazingly popular piece, partly because it is so raw," says Hall. "One's reaction to it is almost always visceral. It's direct, easy on the ears and rhythmically very exciting."
That was exactly Orff's intention when, around 1935, the composer quite consciously decided to discard everything he had written in order to ex-plore completely new avenues of thought, form and expression.
Like many of his contemporaries, Orff believed that the conventions of the long-accepted classical and Romantic tradition of European art music had outlived their usefulness. But rather than adopt the atonal techniques of composers like Schoenberg and Berg, or the folkloric naturalism of men like Bartok and Janacek, Orff invented a primitive operatic world in which everything was reduced to barest essentials.
"Carmina Burana" was the first of three works that together form Orff's primitivistic trilogy "Trionfi." All three scores are concerned primarily with rhythm, with the lyric lines made up of rapidly repeated notes, often without any accompaniment.
The text of "Carmina Burana" is based on a group of 13th-century medieval poems of unknown authorship discovered in the Benediktbeuren monastery in Bavaria in the early 1800s. They are thought to have been composed by the so-called "Goliards," groups of wandering scholars -- including students, unfrocked priests, runaway monks and clerks -- who from about the 11th century to the 13th century begged and sang their way from place to place.
" 'Carmina Burana' is Latin for 'songs from the Beuren,' which was an area of medieval Germany where defrocked monks worked as traveling musicians and performers," Hall says. "Some of their lyrics were collected and published in the 19th century. Orff found them and set them to music. Most of the lyrics are in Latin, but some are in medieval German and French as well."
The songs are about all the things that have been on the minds of traveling young men everywhere and at all times -- love, sex, drinking, fate, destiny. Some of the pieces are actually quite racy -- in translation, at least -- while others are gentle and gracefully pretty.
"We express the character of each piece in the movements of the dancers, so this is a sight and sound piece, not just a sound piece," says Hall.
Orff organized the text into three main parts, framed by an ode to "Fortune, Empress of the World."
The first part tells of the glories of spring and the search for true love. The second part portrays a tavern scene in which the listener encounters a young man "caught up in vice, forgetful of virtue, caring more for voluptuous pleasure than for his health." The audience is also introduced to a swan who is being roasted and to an abbot who gets thoroughly drunk with his friends.
The last part, the "Court of Love," considers the merits of chastity vs. passion, with the latter winning out. The work concludes with a homage to the pride of virgins and a recapitulation of the Fortune ode.
"In all of my work, my final concern is not with musical but with spiritual exposition," Orff once wrote.
The piece will be performed in the version Orff scored for two pianos and percussion, featuring pianists Eric Conway and Maurice Murphy, soprano soloists Janice Chandler and Faith Okkema, tenor David Britton and baritone Lawrence Craig.
The choreography was created by Kimberly Mackin, director of the Kimberly Mackin Dance Company, and conducting chores will be shared by Hall; Nathan Carter, director of the Morgan State University Choir; and Andrea Nutter Macon, director of the Maryland Children's Chorus.
The program also will include "Four Spirituals," a work arranged by the contemporary African-American composer Adolphus +V Hailstork, and choral alleluias by American composers Kirke Mechem, Alan Hovhaness and Randall Thompson.
When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
$ Call: (410) 783-8000