Already 38 when he began composing Carmina Burana -- Songs from Benediktbeuern -- Orff was nearly 42 when it finally was produced. Despite the co-title "Secular Songs," he designed the work as a theater piece, a "scenic cantata" to be danced as well as sung and played. In addition to soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists, large, small, and boys' choruses, Carmina Burana is scored for triple winds and brass, five timpani, percussion for six players, celesta, two pianos, and strings. Bertil Wetzelsberger conducted the premiere on June 8, 1937, at Frankfurt am Main.
The texts were written mostly by goliards, itinerant scholars, and lapsed clerics during the Middle Ages -- medieval hippies, as it were, with skinheads mixed in. Preserved in a thirteenth century manuscript, these were discovered at a Bavarian monastery near the Passion Play town of Oberammergau in 1803 (Burana is a Latin neologism for Beuern, later Bayern: Bavaria in English). Written in low Latin, old German, and medieval French, most of the texts -- variously bawdy, sensuous, comic, mock-tragic, but usually erotic -- mock government and the church.
Carmina Burana is comprised of 26 sections in mostly major keys. A two-song choral Prolog, "Fortuna imperatrix mundi" (Fortune, Empress of the World), is about the ever-turning Wheel of Fortune that lifts man up only to cast him down. The next 22 sections are divided into three unequal parts.
First comes "Primo vere" (In springtime), nine frolicsome numbers that begin with small choir, then baritone solo, then full chorus. The concluding six are subtitled "Uf dem Anger" (On the lawn), commencing with a dance for orchestra; then a languorous waltz in for large and small choruses; another amatory adventure for both choruses to the accompaniment of sleigh bells and plucked violas; an ABA round dance that becomes Allegro molto midway, and finally a brief Allegro introduced by brass fanfares.
Next the music moves indoors -- "In taberna" (In the tavern) -- for a quartet of secular songs in praise of gluttony and drunkenness. A besotted goliard enumerates his amatory history, followed by a swan bewailing its mortality (in the person of a high tenor) while roasting on a spit. A tipsy abbot comes forward next, leading to a seditious melee for tipsy male choristers.
The concluding third is "Cour d'amours" (The court of love), whose ten parts tend to brevity; yet even when the music seems chaste, texts or subtexts are sexual, beginning with boys' chorus and a lovelorn soprano. After them, the solo baritone voices a courtier's despair. The soprano follows with "Stetit puella," about a pretty girl in a red tunic. The baritone sings a tale of planned seduction with choral punctuation, setting up the comedic encounter of male choristers and a maiden, a cappella. A lovestruck double chorus follows with piano/percussion accompaniment. The soprano's "In trutina" is torn between love and modesty, only to be overwhelmed by an erotic concatenation of everyone (excepting roasted solo tenor), pierced by the soprano's stratospheric "Dulcissime" (most sweet one, I give my all to you). The culmination of "Cour d'amours" is "Banziflor et Helena," another paean to Venus triumphant over virtue. Finally there's the repetition of "Fortuna, imperatrix mundi."