Catulli Carmina is the second of a three large-scale works for voices and instruments written between 1936 and 1953, the first being Carmina Burana and followed by Trionfo di Afrodite. It was Orff's intention that all three would be performed consecutively and would be presented with a certain amount of staged action. (Carmina Burana had considerable success and is now the one most likely to be heard.)
Written for choir, soloists, percussion group, and four pianos, it is made of settings of 11 poems by Catullus, a Roman poet of the first century B.C. The poems, written in Latin, are short, some only a few lines long, and addressed to a married woman called Clodia, whom the poet calls Lesbia. Audiences might well find the poems' literal meanings as impenetrable as those of Carmina Burana, even with a suitable translation, but each displays considerable invention and panache. Though the cycle of poems are not narrative in character, Orff links them in a loose sequence to tell a story of love and loss, much as Schumann did for his settings of Heine's poems in the song cycle Dichterliebe. There, however, the resemblance ends.
Orff is not in the least concerned with classical authenticity. His pulsing rhythms are uncompromisingly modern -- in places even jazzy -- and far from what would be expected by a Latin scholar for declaiming poetry. Orff was particularly interested in the dramatic possibilities of percussion instruments, and throughout Catulli he uses them, with the pianos, to great effect. The singers are occasionally called upon to use what is called Sprechstimme, a kind of vocal enunciation somewhere between speech and song.
In strictly musical terms Catulli may now sound less original and challenging than it did when first performed, and though the trilogy as a whole calls out for the choreography it no longer gets, it has something in common with the spirited iconoclasm of certain popular musicals of the 1960s.