Monday, June 16, 2014

Bumping into Secular Poems from the Middle Ages

by Gary Berg-Cross

Movies can be an art form mix of cultural elements. I probably heard the chanting song of German composer Carl Orff’’s  "O Fortuna" from his  cantata Carmina Burana first in a movie. Perhaps it was the film The Doors.  Since then that rhythmic tune has become a recognized staple in pop culture. Harper's Magazine columnist Scott Horton has commented that:

 "Orff’s setting may have been spoiled by its popularization" and its use "in movies and commercials often as a jingle, detached in any meaningful way from its powerful message.”
Orff’ intended the work as a staged work involving dance, choreography, visual design and other stage action. It seems pseudo medieval. It has monkish parodies of chanting and primitive percussion that provides a background to many situations depicted in movies including pain and misfortune. It does include the words ‘examine the cycle of life and question the source of life’s pain’s’.

 The piece is now usually performed in concert halls as a cantata, but also as Modern Dance.

Only recently did I learn a bit of the background to Carmina Buran setting message which comes out of 13th-century poems. According to one source the Carmina Burana “is the largest and greatest collection of secular lyrics from the Middle Ages. It has proved useful in understanding the (minstrels( goliards, and it has demonstrated that music flourished widely in medieval times beyond the confines of the Church.” 
More on the Goliards later.
Orff subtitled "Carmina Burana" a 'scenic cantata'. The scene or setting comes from dozens of poems and various student songs in Medieval Latin and low German. The additional subtitle tells us an interesting bit more. "Cantiones profanae cantoribus et choris cantandae comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis (This has been translated as – ‘Secular songs for soloists and chorus, accompanied by instruments and supplemented by scenery)'.
Secular songs??  This makes it a bit more interesting.  What is the background to this work from the Middle Ages?

One thinks of medieval poetry being like at - it is religious in nature.  But it turns out to be more interesting than that.  A notable exception to being religio-centric is the work of the what is called troubadours and minstrel singers (minnesänger).  They got into celebrating the ideal of courtly love. And among the most famous of these is the manuscript collection of  Carmina Burana, ˈkɑrmɨnə bʊˈrɑːnə/; Latin for "Songs from Beuern." (The manuscript was discovered in 1803 at Benediktbeuern, a Benedictine monastery in Bavaria from which the term "burana" is derived. So monks were involved at discover as well as creation.)

Well there is a courtly tradition but these quasi-vernacular poems and pieces in in Medieval Latin were organized by someone into parts that deals with topics like mortality and fate (That is O Fortuna mixed with some mockery in the Introduction) and nature in its first part.  So we have Fortune plango vulnera (Fortune's blows do I lament)", with following three parts:

Part I: In Springtime (Primo vere) with the songs "Veris leta facies (Of Spring's fair-countenanced delight)"; "Omnia sol temperat (The sun rules over everything)"

Sunlight warms all the fields

gently now and purely,
to a new world it reveals
April’s face completely;
to love itself now yields
the spirit of mastery,
and the boy-god wields
the power to make all happy.

, and "Ecce gratum (Anticipated)"; and On the Lawn (Uf dem Unger) with an orchestral dance, then "Floret silva nobilis (The noble woods bloom)"  These are quite a contrast with the drummed warning of fortune. 
Chramer, gip die varwe mir (Shopkeeper, please, a bit of pink)" is a charming musical piece, a very peaceful Round Dance (Reie) and Songs consisting of "Swaz hie gat umbe (Here are maidens in the round)", followed by "Chum chum geselle min (Come, pretty maid of mine)", and "Were diu werlt alle min (Were the enitre world mine)".
“Were the entire world mine” seems to set a rambunctious, sensual tone for the rest of the work. In it, the Chorus sings:

"Were the entire world mine from the ocean to the Rhine, the whole of it would I forsake that mighty England's queen awake in my arms intertwined"!

The next part deals with tender, romantic & courtly love but also but also up close, explicit, and highly sensual love. Reality intrudes into the medieval fantasy and there is plenty of it - 131 love (CB 56–186). An example is Sleep and love:

Come, come keep me company,
I beg you, please be kind to me.
I beg you, please be kind to me,
come, come keep me company.
Red lips have me under a spell.
Come, kiss me and make me well.

The poem and story collection (you can read translations here) concludes with bawdy tavern life and drinking which adds a tasty, irreverent, and satirical sauce. It’s a bit more like the Canterbury tales than one suspected and Orff’s music is much more varied than the monkish images associated with O Fortuna.

What do we know about some of the people who created these poems?  Among the anonymous authors of Carmina Burana were frocked and defrocked priests and monks, reverent and irreverent  students, and wanderers.  Some we know  including Peter of Blois, Walter of Châtillon and an anonymous poet, referred to as the Archpoet. 

Collectively they have been called 'Goliards' and were defrocked monks and minstrels who, according to a webpage who info is attributed to the Charles Cave's "Carmina Burana" webpage, were:

 "better known for their rioting, gambling, and intemperance than for their scholarship."

 And this source continues to inspire creative source david Bintley, for example provided a modern interpretation of "Carmina Burana" - an “Everyman” story that follows three seminarians as they reject their faith and explore the pleasures of the flesh, including lust, love, greed and gluttony.
“It’s really about what can happen if you abandon your spirituality and seek gratification in temporal appetites,” Bintley explained in a 2011 interview about the ballet.

Bintley premiered "Carmina Burana" in 1995 as his first work as artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB).

“It is beyond sensational, beyond moving, beyond thrilling,” said The Shropshire Star writer Andy Richardson in a 2011 review:

 “BRB director David Bintley has created a masterwork that will live long in the memories of those who witnessed his electrifying, tender and deeply intelligent work. The dancers, set alongside Carl Orff’s spellbinding choral tour de force, were a feast for the senses. Live entertainment does not get better than that.”

No comments: