Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1282, (11- 17 February 2016)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1282, (11- 17 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

O Fortuna

Al-Ahram Weekly

CARMINA BURANA, the famed classic cantata by Carl Orff, was last week’s musical highlight in both Alexandria and Cairo. Conducted by Hisham Gabr, the work brought over 250 artists onto the stages of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s great hall on 5 February, followed by the Ewart Hall at the American University in Cairo on 6 February. The performances included the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA) Chamber Orchestra, the BA Youth Orchestra alongside the BA Choir, and BA Children Choir, joined by the Heaven Harp Choir. The choir master of all evenings was Rodica Ocheseanu. The concerts also featured three renowned French soloists, soprano Marilyn Clément, contra-tenor Bertrand Dazin and baritone Richard Rittelmann.

Composed in 1937, Carmina Burana is one of the most frequently performed secular choral works of the 20th century, based on 24 of over 200 medieval Latin songs and poems discovered in Beuren (the Benedictine monastery of Benediktbeuren in Bavaria), in the mid-19th century.

Contrary to what we might expect from the monastery library, the pious songs of religious content and moral guidance represent only a small part of the manuscript. Most of the original poems are secular in character, describe scenes of feasts and love. Some become poignantly satirical, others even carry obscenity and anti-Church notions. When the manuscript came to Orff’s hands, he was fascinated with their content and composed a large work, dividing it into three main sections – Springtime, In the Tavern and The Court Of Love – preceded by and ending with a famed invocation to Fortune, the part of the composition that is probably the best known segment of Carmina and which has been used in many films. Interestingly, as Classic FM notes, “Orff’s masterpiece greatly appealed to the Nazi regime, to whom its rhythms, as one critic put it, were reminiscent of the ‘stamping columns of the Third Reich’. When Carmina Burana was first performed at La Scala, in 1942, it was as a showpiece for fascist values.”

Though Carmina is inspired by the Middle Age manuscript, Orff created a set that has a new thematic development and musical layout. Not only does he bring onto the stage a symphony orchestra, two mixed choirs, a children’s choir and three soloists: concepts which altogether have nothing to do with the Middle Ages. He also, understandably, incorporates instruments that were not known in those centuries, such as trombones, clarinets, bass tuba, not to mention two grand pianos which come to the fore in the third section. In this sense, the natural progress of history and music allowed Orff to merge Middle Ages-inspired material with more current musical tools. The final result proved extremely successful and Carmina became Orff’s best known work, which brought the 41-year-old composer immediately into the limelight. The work has great power over the audiences, probably partially due to it’s very grand musical character — verging on being pompous — where strong effects contrast with more intimate passages. One important debt we owe Carmina is that it drew the composers’ attention to the Middle Ages, alerting them to the fact that the distant centuries are also rich in secular thematic content. The music and text used by Orff were among the triggers for later creators to revisit the era, which resulted in both compositions faithful to the Middle Ages in form and instruments and others inspired by neo-medieval creative ideas.

As popular as it is internationally, Carmina is equally fascinating to the Egyptian audience, and once again its resounding power was proved in two performances that saw an unprecedented audience turnout. The large hall of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina was filled to the brim (with over 1,600 tickets sold and some attendees turned back due to lack of room). Cairo’s smaller Ewart Hall was also a full house and the concert ended with long standing ovations.

Carmina Burana is the second large-scale claical work performed by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s music forces over the past 12 months, a period during which the orchestra and the choir went through a series of expansions in number of musicians and in terms of artistic development. In April 2015, Mozart’s famed Requiem mass, also conducted by Gabr, was performed at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, followed by a concert at the All Saints’ Cathedral in Cairo.

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