Carl Orff did not call "Carmina Burana" an opera or a choral symphony or an oratorio or a song cycle. He called it a "scenic cantata" - a clue, says Tom Hall, music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, that he intended it for the theater, not the concert hall.
Choral Arts' production of "Carmina" grants the composer's wish. Co-conceived with the Kimberly Mackin Dance Company, the production offers a "Carmina" for the eyes as well as the ears, the senses as well as the spirit.
First performed by Choral Arts to a sold-out house in 1995 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, "Carmina" will be revived May 17-20 for four performances at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills. And its early curtain (7:30 p.m.) and one-hour running time make it perfect for children, even on school nights.
Orff's popular cantata is based on poetry and graffiti found among the manuscripts - dating from A.D. 1280, published in 1847 - in the Benedictine monastery in Beuren, Bavaria. "Carmina Burana" means "Songs of Beuren."
The anonymous writers were probably galliards: itinerant monks, students, unemployed scribes and unfrocked priests who wandered about the Frankish and Saxon countryside in the tumultuous Middle Ages, when plague, war, famine and crusades uprooted populations and sent them searching for places to resettle.
The texts, written in Latin, Old French and Middle German, deal with common preoccupations of the young: love and sex, food and drink, fun and folly. Orff and two collaborators, Michel Hofmann and Wolfgang Schadewaldt, organized these marginalia into a three-part paean to the delights of the flesh. The cantata is framed and solemnized by the stern hymn "Fortuna imperatrix mundi" ("Fortune, empress of the world"), which is actually about the implacability of fate and the eventuality of death.
Since its first production in 1937 at the Frankfurt Opera, which was choreographed by Inge Haertling, "Carmina" has been staged as often as not. Mary Wigman, the German expressionist choreographer, staged it in 1943, and other notable dance settings have been made by Kurt Jooss, Heinz Rosen and Norman Walker. The most famous ballet version was made in 1959 for the New York City Opera by John Butler. Now that it's in the public domain, "Carmina" has found its way into the commercial world, including the soundtrack to John Boorman's film "Excalibur," where the implacable rhythm of "Fortuna imperatrix mundi" accompanies the combat of knights on horseback in Arthurian England.
Orff (1895-1982) was a noted German music educator whose Orff-Schulwerk system of specially designed rhythm instruments and musical exercises for children are used around the world today. As a composer, he was dissatisfied with the methods found by other 20th-century musicians to the problems of writing contemporary music. Rather than the atonal harmonies of Arnold Schoenberg or the folk-based complexity of Bela Bartok, he espoused a return to primitivism.
The materials of "Carmina" are very basic: bold rhythms, brute repetition and texts that pile verse upon verse and sound upon sound until the poem can bear no more.
When he published "Carmina" at the age of 42, Orff withdrew all his previous works from the catalogue of his publisher, believing that he would be judged by history on this work alone. He was right. "Carmina" is the first part of a "Trionfi-Tryptichon" ("Triumph Tryptich") that includes "Catulli Carmina" ("Songs of Catullus") (1943) and "Trionfo di Afrodite" ("Triumph of Aphrodite") (1950); but neither these, nor anything else he wrote, comes close to it.
The 100-voice Choral Arts Society will perform "Carmina" with the 70-member senior ensemble of the Children's Chorus of Maryland and the two-piano/percussion reduction Orff wrote in 1955, to make the work possible for choirs who could not afford an orchestra. Pianists Eric Conway and Maurice Murphy will be joined by a squad of five percussionists.
"They fit into the pit quite neatly, and they make a full complement of noise," Hall says. "This is a piece where the rhythm is first and all else comes after. If anything, the two pianos and percussion make the sound more raw, more visceral."
When the choir sang this work in 1995, "it was wild," Hall says. "There were people standing outside Meyerhoff with hand-lettered signs saying 'NEED 2 TICKETS.' I had a call at home one night from a guy who said: 'Remember me? We played in a tennis tournament together in 1986, and can you get me some tickets? I'll pay double.'"
The Gordon Center, a charming 550-seat theater in a wooded area of Owings Mills, should be an even better venue, Hall believes. "If they enjoyed seeing it from the center terrace in Meyerhoff, 200 yards away from the stage, they should like it even better here.
"Plus, we're gonna blow the roof off."
Composer: Carl Orff
Who: Choral Arts Society, Children's Chorus of
Maryland, Kimberly Mackin Dancers
When: 3 p.m. May 17;
7:30 p.m. May 18-20
Where: Gordon Center for Performing Arts,
3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills
Tickets: $9 Sunday,
Pub Date: 5/10/98