October 2012

"O Fortuna" from Carmina Burana

by Carl Orff

Carl Orff was born in Munich, Germany in 1895. He started studying the piano at age 5, and, soon after, studied the organ and cello. He started writing music as a teenager, which is also when he got to know various works of German poetry.

Today, Orff is really only remembered for one piece. In 1934, he came across Johann Schmeller's German translation of a 12th century Latin collection of poems, Carmina Burana. With the help of his friend, Michel Hofmann, Orff organized 24 of these Latin poems into a work. This work would have its first performance in Frankfurt in 1937. The complete work is not often performed. Most only know the first movement (which is also the last movement), O Fortuna.

O Fortuna is a poem complaining about fate, and specifically addressing a Roman goddess, Fortuna (who is the personification of luck). The lyrics are in Latin. I've provided them here, but I've also included a pronunciation guide, as well as a translation:


O Fortuna
velut luna
statu variabilis,

Quiet Section

semper crescis
aut decrescis;
vita detestabilis
nunc obdurat
et tunc curat
ludo mentis aciem,
dissolvit ut glaciem.

Sors immanis
et inanis,
rota tu volubilis,
status malus,
vana salus
semper dissolubilis,
et velata
michi quoque niteris;
nunc per ludum
dorsum nudum
fero tui sceleris.

Loud Section

Sors salutis
et virtutis
michi nunc contraria,
est affectus
et defectus
semper in angaria.
Hac in hora
sine mora
corde pulsum tangite;
quod per sortem
sternit fortem,
mecum omnes plangite!


oh - for-TOO-nah
VAY-loot LOO-nah
STAH-too VAR-ee-AH-bee-lees,

Quiet Section

SEM-pair CREH-chees
awt day-CREH-chees;
VEE-tah day-test-AH-bee-lees
noonk ob-dur-raht
et toonk ker-raht
loo-doh men-tees AH-chee-em,
dis-solve-eet oot glah-chee-em.

Sores eem-mahn-ees
et ee-NAHN-ees,
row-tah too vah-LOO-bee-lees,
STAH-toos MAH-loos,
VAH-nah SAH-loos
SEM-pair dis-sah-LOO-bee-lees,
et vay-LAH-tah
MEE-chee kwo-KAY NEE-tare-ees;
noonk pair LOO-doom
door-soom noo-doom
fair-oh too-ee sheh-LAIR-ees.

Loud Section

Sores sahl-YOO-tees
et veer-TOO-tees
MEE-chee noonk kahn-trair-ree-ah,
est AH-fek-toos
et deh-FEK-toos
SEM-pair een ahn-GHAR-ee-ah.
Hahk een HOR-ah
SEE-nay MOR-ah
KOR-day POOL-soom tahn-GHEE-tay;
kwahd pair SOR-tem
STAIR-neet FOR-tem,
MAY-koom OHM-nes PLAHN-ghee-tay!


O Fortune
like the moon
you are changeable,

Quiet Section

ever waxing
and waning;
hateful life
first oppresses
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;
and power
it melts them like ice.

Fate - monstrous
and empty,
you whirling wheel,
you are malevolent,
well-being is vain
and always fades to nothing,
and veiled
you plague me too;
now through the game
I bring my bare back
to your villainy.

Loud Section

Fate is against me
in health
and virtue,
driven on
and weighted down,
always enslaved.
So at this hour
without delay
pluck the vibrating strings;
since Fate
strikes down the strong man,
everyone weep with me!

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

I think the first time I heard this (and knew what it was called) was a CBS Masterworks sampler album that I got from the library. It would have contained just a brief excerpt of the piece, but it would have paired it with its name. This would have been sometime in the mid-1980s.

Since then, I've recognized that this piece gets thrown into TV shows, movies, commercials and more all the time. I've never performed this piece, but I'd LOVE to.


And now, here is "O Fortuna" from Carmina Burana. Enjoy!

"O Fortuna" from Carmina Burana by Carl Orff (2:37)

For those interested, this recording was performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

Jon's Interpretation:

This piece is awesome. It embodies tension, excitement, and desperation, housed in an ancient mystic pagan cult shell. I'll have to confess, I did not know the words before doing this Music of the Month. It made it all the more interesting to me. For example, this piece has always reminded me of some ancient mystical cult ceremony. After reading the words, that's kind of what it's about.

One of the things that makes this piece great is the dynamic contrast. You have a loud introduction, followed by a long quiet creeping theme. The theme doesn't grow. It just all of the sudden becomes loud. The use of gongs toward the end of the loud section is awesome. And then, although the whole piece has been in a minor key, it ends in a triumphant major, with no real explanation. Great stuff.

Extra Credit:

Well, I couldn't get the score, because it's still new enough to be under copyright. But I did find a Simpsons clip! Technically, "O Fortuna" has shown up in two Simpsons episodes. Here's one of them. It's a commercial for a book called "The Answer" and it's from the Season 21 episode "Bart Gets a 'Z'". Enjoy!