Performance Wednesday, October 3, 2012 | 7 PM

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Opening Night Gala

Carnegie Hall’s Opening Night Gala

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
An opening night with Orff’s Carmina Burana is auspicious; performed by Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it’s breathtaking. Kick off Carnegie Hall’s 2012–2013 season with this outstanding group and its illustrious music director as they dive into Carmina Burana’s exciting rhythms and powerful melodies.
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The Program


Carmina Burana

When Carmina Burana made him an overnight celebrity at the age of 42, Carl Orff decided to start his career over from scratch. Immediately after the premiere in 1937, he wrote to the Schott company in Munich, which had been his publisher for a full decade: "Everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately, printed, can be destroyed. With Carmina Burana, my collected works begin."

Before the premiere of Carmina Burana, Orff's career had proceeded nicely, if routinely, on track. His infatuation with music began at an early age-he took music lessons and composed songs as a young child-and at the age of four, he became enchanted with the theater during a traditional Punch and Judy show. He was essentially self-taught. At 14, he heard his first opera, Wagner's The Flying Dutchman; it started an avalanche, as Orff later recalled. The young composer's grandfather kept a notebook in which he recorded the progress of Carl's musical education: Wagner's entire Ring cycle and Tristan and Isolde, the principal Mozart operas, Strauss's Salome and Elektra. By the age of 17, Orff had composed some 60 songs, which revealed the unmistakable influence of Debussy and early Schoenberg. (He was particularly taken with Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, and he made a piano duet arrangement of his Chamber Symphony.) Orff's interests were widehe studied the great Renaissance and Baroque masters as well as African musicand he eventually composed in a number of forms. The catalog he asked Schott to destroy in 1937 included an operatic treatment of the Japanese play Terakoya, a symphony based on the poetry of Maurice Maeterlinck, and choral settings of texts by Franz Werfel (Orff's favorite writer) and Bertolt Brecht.

Carmina Burana marked a shift in direction. It was Orff's first attempt at total theatera combination of music, word, movement, and visual spectacleand his earliest essay in a potent and accessible musical style designed to engage listeners who had lost their way in the complexities of 20th-century music, although it was Orff more than anyone who found his way as a result of the piece. The work was wildly popular at once, and its exceptional appeal has never waned. After Carmina Burana, Orff did not tamper with his formula: He composed virtually nothing but vocal works for the stage-few are operas in the traditional sense that place a high value on simplicity of musical language and directness of expression. At its most extreme, as in Die Bernauerin composed in 1947, Orff's output hardly resembles music as we know it: Spoken word alternates with rhythmic chanting; notated pitch is virtually nonexistent.

The life-changing idea of composing Carmina Burana began in a rare book shop in Würzburg on Maundy Thursday in 1934, when Orff's eye fell upon a collection of medieval poems. The texts-most of them are in Latin, but a few are Middle High German and French-celebrate springtime, love, and the varied pleasures of a full, if self-indulgent, life. The tone, however, is dark, even bitter. (The very first poem in the collectionand the one Orff chose for his opening and closing chorusends, "Weep with me.") These songsOrff was not aware that melodies for these texts also existedhad been preserved for centuries in the Benediktbeuern monastery in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps 30 miles south of Munich. In the early 19th century, the manuscript was transferred to Munich, and in 1847, selections were published by Johann Andreas Schmeller, the Munich court librarian. (Schmeller also was a self-appointed censor: He omitted the raciest numbers.) Schmeller's title, Carminathe accent is on the first syllableBurana, means "songs of Bavaria." (Beueren, the site of the Benedictine monastery, is a variant of Bayern, the German name for Bavaria.) It was Schmeller's edition that Orff picked up during an afternoon of fortuitous browsing. "On opening the first page," Orff later remembered, "I found the familiar image of Fortune with her wheel, and under it the lines 'O Fortuna velut Luna statu variabilis… ('O fortune, like the moon ever-changing').' Picture and words seized hold of me." That very day, he sketched the opening chorus, with its great, inexorable wheel of fate. Orff picked 24 poems, already imagining a stage piece with chorus and dancers, and, with the help of poet Michael Hofmann, he arranged a libretto. He composed the music quickly, in a single burst of inspiration; visitors to his Munich apartment recall the red-faced excitement with which he played finished numbers for them at the piano.

The title page of Orff's Carmina Burana promises "secular songs to be sung by singers and choruses to the accompaniment of instruments and also of magic pictures." Although the premiere, at the Frankfurt Opera House, was staged and costumed, and magic pictures accompanied many early performances, Carmina Burana is best known today through concerts and recordings, where the immediacy and physical excitement of Orff's music stand alone.

Orff's score has sometimes been criticized for popularizing the musical style of Stravinsky's landmarks Oedipus rex and, in particular, Les noces. Orff was attracted to the most superficial aspects of those Stravinsky scores, such as the glittering and percussive orchestral writing (Les noces is scored for four pianos, Carmina Burana calls for two), the idea of giving the central narrative role to the chorus, and the prominent use of insistent rhythms. But where Stravinsky achieves a certain complexity of style and idea, Orff intentionally keeps his music stripped to its bones. In Carmina Burana, he avoids complicated rhythm and harmony (several numbers subsist on a steady diet of two chords), and eschews polyphony altogether. His melodies are plain and syllabic. Occasionally, a single driving rhythmic pattern alone keeps the music going. (Imagine the courage it must have taken to write a pit-band oom-pah accompaniment in 1935.) Despite the spartan recipe, Orff succeeds brilliantly because of his flair for dramatic pacing, his ear for dazzling and seductive color, the energy of his rhythms, and the number of catchy tunes he composed. The result is a highly charged, expressive work of undeniable power and immediacyclaims that can be made for few pieces of serious music written in the 20th century.

Orff begins and ends with the wheel of fate-a massive chorus that slowly revolves around the same relentless, unchanging pattern, building in intensity and volume as it goes. In between these two pillars, he writes three large chapters. The first celebrates springtime in a series of songs and dances. The dance music is for orchestra alone; the vocal pieces are scored for baritone solo and various combinations of full chorus and small choir, often singing in alternation. The second section moves indoors to the tavern-the exclusive province of male voices and the temple of food and drink. (The saga of the roasted swan, sung by a wailing countertenor, is a marvel of exotic color.) In the sensuous music of the third section, set in the courts of love, we hear the solo soprano and the voices of children for the first time. Almost all of these nine pieces are scored for different vocal forces, and the final sequence of numbers is swift and dramatic. From a rowdy, swinging chorus (No. 20, for split choirs), Orff turns to the soprano, who is lost in thought as she vacillates between chastity and physical love (a measured monologue, set in the soprano's lowest range). Encouraged by the baritone and choruses, she makes her choice, suddenly soaring to the highest reaches of the soprano voice. The music erupts in a magnificent hymn of praise ("Noble Venus, hail"), and the circle starts over as the wheel of fate begins to spin once again.

—Phillip Huscher

© 2012 Chicago Symphony Orchestra

For Opening Night Gala benefit tickets, please contact the Special Events office at 212-903-9679.  For concert-only tickets, please call CarnegieCharge at 212-247-7800.


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