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Program Notes - March 16 and 17, 2019

Carmina Burana Carl Orff (1935-6)

Since its premiere in 1937, Carmina Burana continues to enthrall audiences with its gargantuan celebration of life, love, and the human condition. And yet, it has been equally mired in controversy: for its use as a propaganda tool by the most destructive political regime of the twentieth century; for its composer’s blithe willingness to act as an agent of German nationalism; and most simply for its utter irresistibility. Most Americans in 2019 have been exposed to Carl Orff’s most famous cantata not as an updated setting of antique Goliard poems, nor are most familiar with its controversial legacy as the #1 hit of the Third Reich. Chances are, you first heard Carmina Burana’s opening number, “O Fortuna,” as a television commercial, entrance music for a New England Patriots home game, or as a cinematic soundtrack shorthand for all things “epic.” Its successful use as an advertisement for everything from Domino’s pizza to Nazi ideology is proof that the piece’s marketing power is undeniable, if not always wholesomely applied.


For Orff, Carmina Burana represented a definite turning point in his musical style. In his earlier works, he demonstrated a closer allegiance to the spirit of expressionism, worshipping the pre-serial works of Arnold Schoenberg and the rhythmic vigor of Igor Stravinsky. But upon completing Carmina Burana at age 42, he turned his back on his previous creations, declaring that “Everything I have written before this should be destroyed.” His breakthrough cantata presents a striking vision of antiquity, setting a series of bawdy poems to a soundtrack of blood and thunder. 


The initial reaction of Nazi cultural ministers was not entirely positive; many were troubled by the frank eroticism in the piece. However, as performances continued, German youth were attracted to the bold energies of the work, and savvy propagandists soon realized its great potential as a rallying cry for their agenda of global domination. They were also able to frame its more erotic elements euphemistically as a celebration of the ideal German “life force.” Or more cynically, they realized that censuring Carmina Burana’s sexuality and broad appeal was futile, so why not redirect and exploit it towards the cultural prerogatives of the state? It became the unofficial anthem of not only Nazi youth culture, but of the Third Reich’s pseudo-religious brand. We must remember that Orff did not necessarily intend to create political propaganda, though he certainly did not put up any public resistance to the official adaptation of his music, or to the regime in general. The degree of blame that should be placed on Orff for his collaboration with the Nazis as his career flourished has been a subject of intense scrutiny and debate since the aftermath of the Second World War. 


Orff’s main musical (if not political) goal in setting these ancient poems was to amplify the direct appeal of the melody and overwhelming orchestration. This is music of action, not music of contemplation. He chose to organize his piece around three thematic groupings from the poems: the coming of spring; scenes from the tavern; and songs of love. These three sections are bookended on either side by the familiar “O Fortuna.” The whole work begins with a tense whisper and suddenly catapults into a frontal assault of timpani and an army of voices, bellowing with the utmost force. The lyrics deal with the vicissitudes of fate and how a sudden change in fortune can render all of our earthly labors futile. What is most striking about “O Fortuna’s” two minutes of cataclysmic intensity is its daring simplicity: essentially a three-note melody over one chord that a clever eighth-year-old might invent. That Orff takes ninety seconds to achieve a more frightening and powerful climax here than Wagner did in five sanctimonious hours of Parsifal is a testament to both Orff’s economy and his sustained popular appeal. In contrast to the the complex and nuanced flavors achieved by Wagner’s five-hour slow roast, Orff serves up a hot-n’-quick Big Mac in seconds. Wagner’s operas remain retreats of spiritual excess for a devoted and elite few. Carmina Burana? Billions served. The analogy can help explain both its mass appeal and its uncomfortable reception by some of classical music’s finest practitioners. 


Following the brief exordium on fate, the cantata moves to its first main subject, the coming of spring. The textures gradually lighten as the woodwinds chirp, the triangle tingles, and the warm breeze of the strings brushes past. Flowers bloom, maidens dance, and a young girl goes to an ancient Sephora to buy makeup. The jubilant potential of this first set projects a youthful confidence and uncertainty — much like the giddy and anxious atmosphere of school in April leading up to the high-school prom. 


Leaving the charms of spring, our next section takes us to the unruly world of the tavern, whose occupants are primarily male. The music evokes a vivacious world where the traditional norms of behavior are abandoned and beers are quaffed by the gallon. The seedy setting provides an opportunity for gambling, brawling, and hearty “locker room talk” among the tavern’s patrons. And yet, an underlying threat pulses throughout the merriment. Our rowdy band of revelers confess they drink to obliviate their fear of the inevitable. As suggested by “O Fortuna,” one’s fate can change, and death is always around the corner. This notion is comically encapsulated by what is surely the most peculiar and intriguing song of the cantata. Entitled “Once I lived upon a lake,” the quirky dirge is sung from the perspective of a swan roasting on a spit. This gallows humor from a burnt fowl may elicit an uncomfortable chuckle or two. But there is something unshakably disturbing about the predicament of the once-serene swan, singing as a morsel of sumptuous barbecue for the tavern-goers. Perhaps they too will find themselves beside it someday on the spit. To evoke this musically, Orff has his tenor honk out the pitiful swan song, accompanied by the strange squawkings of the strangled bassoon. The flutter-tounged flutes and throttled horns heighten the effect.


These boisterous (if not always sanguine) scenes from the tavern pave the way for the final section, devoted to the procreative endeavors of adolescents. While we must remember that Orff did not write these texts himself, one might question why he chose to set such frankly sexual accounts of youthful escapades at age forty-two. But being sexually suggestive or explicit rarely hinders the efficacy of one’s marketing campaign, and secular cantatas of the Third Reich Germany are no exception. Even in the totalitarian clutches of Nazi Germany, the savvier of the propagandists were aware that sex sells. To devote an entire section of a ritualistic cantata to the topic of concupiscence was an audacious move on Orff’s part. For an example of the explicit nature of this sensual engagement, observe the climax of the soprano in the highest reaches of her register as she sings “Sweetest one! Ah! I give myself to you totally!” in her startlingly ecstatic twenty seconds of #23. Even more pointedly, this response comes after the desperate pleas of the growingly aroused baritone from the previous number, in which he heaves and moans, “My virginity makes me frisky, my simplicity holds me back. Oh! oh! oh! etc. Come, my mistress, with joy, come, come, my pretty, I am dying! Oh! oh! oh!” While the graphic nature of the encounter may go undetected by some audiences, the effect is hard to miss with a translation in hand. However, it is important to recognize that these statements of insatiable lust are intoned not only by individuals, but by a choir, which includes children. What to make of a mixed-age male choir singing about its collective “friskiness” and proximity to “bursting”? There is certainly a concerning collectivism to the masculine urges of #22, especially when compared to the response of the solo soprano that follows. What was “good clean fun” in the heyday of the Third Reich may give us pause in the midst of the #metoo era.


Carmina Burana is certainly a celebration with broad appeal. But its implications are vast and it could serve as a performance ritual for any number of communities. Hearing “O Fortuna,” one can imagine how this fantastical musical world created an effective musical analogy for the “utopian” Aryan society that Hitler dreamed of. But let’s not forget that the same music provided an equally adequate sound byte to advertise two-topping pizzas from Domino’s and Old Spice’s fragrance portfolio. Its explosive energy is easily digested, but it was exactly that same ease of digestion that made it such an irresistible anthem for the Nazis, New England Patriots, and Applebee’s chicken tenders alike. Just as it was in 1937, the work’s bombast and spectacle continue to delight audiences and alienate skeptics. Large choral works on such a massive scale have an unparalleled power to bring people together. But in the case of Carmina Burana, one must ask, bring people together to do what?

Te Deum Antonín Dvořák (1892)

Te Deum represents a different type of celebration, this time a sacred one. Nominally an expression of religious jubilee, the premiere of the piece marked a period of transformation in the composer’s career, as well as in the history of American classical composition. The cantata came as a result of Dvořák’s emigration from his Czech homeland to the “new world.” He had just agreed to serve as the premier representative of European composition at the National Conservatory of America at the behest of impresario Jeannette M. Thurber. She sought to showcase Dvořák’s grand American arrival in the fall of 1892 with a concert at Carnegie Hall, billed as a four-hundred-year celebration of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas. The event would feature as its main attraction a grand cantata from Dvořák, specially commissioned for the occasion. Alongside a few of the composer’s overtures, the performance was to include a stirring rendition of “My Country Tis of Thee” as well as a rousing (and jingoist) speech entitled “Two New Worlds — the New World of Columbus and the New World of Music.”


By showcasing a real live composer of European renown and presenting him before an audience of the nation’s cultural elites, Thurber signaled the seriousness of her aspirations for America to compete musically with Europe. Just as Carmina Burana was quickly loaded into the revolving arsenal of Nazi propaganda, Dvořák’s composition and personage were deployed by Thurber to build a musical lexicon of American nationalism, ready to compete in the halcyon days of Europe’s colonial conquest. Myths of imperial grandeur, after all, beg for a soundtrack. 


Through modest in length, Te Deum bathes the audience in magnificent rays of light, filtered through opulent stained-glass windows. The piece’s structure is a simple four-movement setting of the jubilant liturgical text “Te deum laudamus,” with the addition of several joyous “Alleluias” at its conclusion, piled on for good measure. The musical language of the piece is uncomplicated but powerful. Two soloists, soprano and baritone, provide more intimate displays of praise and piety, while the chorus chimes in with the affirmative embrace of the masses. The accompanying orchestral textures — the reckless pulse of the throbbing timpani, ecstatic brass, and soaring strings — create a dynamic musical landscape of tectonic power.


The first movement, “Te Deum laudamus,” opens with the earth-shattering din of caffeinated timpani strokes. In nineteenth-century music, it was rare to open a work with such overwhelming force, not to mention a liturgical cantata! Looking back on it, one can hear the clangorous opening gesture as a symbol for America’s denunciation of European modesty. The jubilant choir comes in praising the Lord with a righteous dose of religious ecstasy. Soon the intensity becomes more hushed and inward, ushering in the balm of the consolatory, soulful soprano. Her praise of the Almighty is private, but no less potent. She whispers with the utmost sincerity, as if praying before bed once the lights are out and nobody is listening. 


The slow movement of the set, “Tu Rex Gloriae,” begins with a splashy and sudden harmonic change of scene. The camera zooms in as the second soloist enters with gusto, riding a lightning bolt of baritonal authority. The otherworldly harmonies paint a sublime atmosphere. Pizzicato strings pluck out a dance accompaniment; sweet nothings from the violins draw a halo for the baritone. In its finest moments, Dvořák lets the baritone’s prayer really swing. As with much of the Czech composer’s music, there is only the finest of lines between a sacred benediction and an earthy folk dance. The church and the dance hall blur into one, as do the sacred and the profane. Many attendees of the concert’s premiere were impressed by the expressive range of the work but found it to be lacking in obvious religiosity. But this was, after all, a secular celebration of the founding of America, baked into a sacred cantata. As anyone who has experienced our national religious artifacts knows (anything from Charlton Heston’s Moses in Ten Commandments to a Joel Osteen tele-sermon), American expressions of faith do not always follow the same rulebook as their European counterparts. 


The third movement, the scherzo of the set, is a purer dance than even before. Violas and a pair of bassoons provide the moto perpetuo chug that gives the movement its unstoppable momentum. The chorus tiptoes around with agility, sweeping in and out of the unyielding highway of eighth notes below. The harmonic vocabulary is far more pared down and the melody is mostly shaped around the folksy pentatonic scale. 


The finale opens with operatic flair. The soprano sweeps across her range with panache, a far more public expression than her intimate interlude from the first movement. The men of the chorus enter with a contrasting mood: a dense bass chord that evokes a stern Gregorian chant while pizzicato basses pace out a funeral march. The two soloists fuse their energies in an otherworldly duet over a molten bed of primordial harmonies, punctured by a jubilant string of “Alleluias” from the choir. As the tension ratchets up, the exaltation increases. Through this process of holy intensification, the audience swells with religious (or Americanist) ecstasy. In the cantata’s grand climax, the volcano explodes, we are showered in the joy of piety, and the timpani bangs away in a return to the work’s opening. 


Whether wittingly or not, Dvořák’s grand entry onto the scene at Carnegie Hall in 1892 fired the starting gun for a century-long race of musical innovation, by America’s boldest composers: from George Gershwin’s Tin Pan Alley urban fusion, to Aaron Copland’s Brooklyn-socialist vision of heartland Americana, to Milton Babbitt's Ivory Tower laboratory punk. After all, as Americans, we know that from Boston to Los Angeles and from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas, we’ve always been a nation that has never been satisfied having to choose between the sacred and the profane. As Dvořák reminds us in his cantata and as we could do well to remember in 2019, we’ve never been a nation of “either/or”: we’ve always been a “both/and” kind of place.

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