From monks to music, your guide to 'Carmina Burana'

In the 1930s, Carl Orff chose 24 poems and set them to a musically theatrical cantata.
In the 1930s, Carl Orff chose 24 poems and set them to a musically theatrical cantata.
Published Nov. 13, 2014

Odds are high you've heard Carmina Burana, or at least part of it. (Not sure? Click here to listen to a portion of it.) You might nod knowingly when the topic comes up at a chichi cocktail hour, but do you actually know anything about this musical behemoth?

Instead of slinking away to the cheese table in shame, read on for some facts about Carl Orff's masterpiece inspired by monks, which the Florida Orchestra performs with the 150-voice Master Chorale of Tampa Bay this weekend.

What's this about monks, now?

Scholars have debated the origins of Carmina Burana, but there are some solid findings. It's a collection of ancient poems, songs, biblical texts and writings discovered in 1803 in a Bavarian Benedictine monastery. But things get really interesting in the margins, where the monks jotted some controversial ideas.

"These men had given over their lives to the church, and you would think for a love of God and Christ, and they're writing in the margins about very non-Christian topics," said Master Chorale's artistic director James Bass, also director of choral studies at the University of South Florida. "They're writing about fate and fortune. O Fortuna, the wheels of fortune. If you believe in preordainment, you don't believe in fortune."

So what are the topics du jour? Carmina Burana is about fate and destiny, about love and mating and about heavy drinking. So, nothing too different from what we talk about today.

How did it go from monastery to music?

Carl Orff might be best known as a music teacher who created a system of percussion designed to help children understand music. But Orff was also Bavarian, and as such, became "nationalistically enthralled" with the Carmina Burana texts, Bass said.

"They were about Bavarians, written by Bavarians and stored in Bavarian homes and discovered in a Bavarian monastery," he said. "It was central to his entire familial experience."

In the 1930s, Orff chose 24 poems from the texts and set the writings to a musically theatrical cantata, with instrumentation and a choir. He was so convinced this was the most meaningful thing he had ever done, he insisted everyone forget about his prior works. Generally, he succeeded.

Wait. Haven't I heard this in a Hershey's commercial?

Yep. You've also heard it sampled by the rapper Nas. You've heard it in that holiday classic Shrek the Halls. You've heard it in Speed, on Glee, on Wrestlemania. You may have even heard the Tampa Bay Buccaneers run onto the field to it. O Fortuna, the opening to Carmina Burana, has been sampled in countless pop culture contexts, usually when something dramatic is about to happen.

The rest of the piece, which takes about an hour to perform, switches from orchestration representing a barn dance to all-male tavern toast to a soaring soprano section. And then it closes with the familiar sounds from the start, full of modern rock 'n' roll sensibility.

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"It's a little bit of simplified music, and the harmonies are simple, but the rhythms are so tribal in nature," Bass said. "And there's something about it that is just so base, and I think as a species we still respond to that."

If I've heard this a million times, what's new?

Carmina Burana gets performed quite a bit, but that doesn't mean there aren't original approaches. The difference lies in the conductor, who decides which parts to highlight. For this weekend's performance, it's Danail Rachev, who was born in Bulgaria and is in his fourth season as conductor of the Eugene Symphony Orchestra in Oregon. Watch for fresh takes from soprano Elizabeth Caballero, tenor Gordon Gietz and baritone Cameron McPhail.

The Master Chorale is tweaking the pronunciations this time to make the words sound more Bavarian. Orff would have approved. Maybe the monks, too.

Contact Stephanie Hayes at or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.