Concert Notes

Carmina Burana

Chichester Psalms
Leonard Bernstein
b. Lawrence, Massachusetts, USA / August 25, 1918
d. New York, New York, USA / October 14, 1990

Conductor, composer, pianist, author, broadcaster, humanitarian – Leonard Bernstein left indelible marks on an astonishing range of endeavors. Perhaps his most enduring achievement sprang from his tremendous communication skills, on and off the podium. He had a particular understanding of television. The New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts were inspired examples of how to open up a frequently mysterious and forbidding art to receptive and imaginative minds.

He composed music throughout his career, ranging from witty, light-hearted songs and superb stage musicals (West Side Story, Candide) to substantial operas, ballets, concertos and symphonies. In 1965, he took a sabbatical from his position as music director of the New York Philharmonic. His goal was to spend time composing. “I wrote a lot of music,” he said, “twelve-tone music and avant garde music of various kinds, and a lot of it was very good, and I threw it all away. And what I came out with at the end of the year was a piece called Chichester Psalms, which is simple and tonal and tuneful and as pure B-flat as any piece you can think of.”

Bernstein scored the piece for mixed chorus and an orchestra consisting of trumpets, trombones, percussion, two harps and strings. The texts are sung in Hebrew. The first section consists of a dramatic introduction (Awake, psaltery and harp! with text from Psalm 108), followed by a festive setting of Psalm 100 (Make a joyful noise unto the Lord). In the second part, a gentle setting of Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd, featuring a boy soprano or countertenor soloist) is briefly interrupted by the harsh words and music of Psalm 2 (Why do the nations rage). The final section is the longest. After an anxious orchestral introduction, Bernstein presents a gently flowing interpretation of Psalm 131 (Lord, Lord, my heart is not haughty). The coda comes with a setting, mostly a cappella, of Behold how good, Psalm 133’s plea for peace and unity.

Chichester Psalms
1. Psalm 107 & Psalm 100:  Maestoso ma energico – Allegro molto
2. Psalm 23 & Psalm 2: Andante con moto, ma tranquillo – Allegro feroce
3. Psalm 131 & Psalm 133: Prelude – Sostenuto molto – Peacefully flowing 

Carmina Burana
Carl Orff
b. Munich, Germany / July 10, 1895;
d. Munich / March 29, 1982

By the mid 1920s, music – especially the works of Arnold Schoenberg and his followers – had become more complicated and more intellectualized than most listeners could grasp, or were willing to tolerate. Composers in several lands recognized the need for a shift in attitude. German composer Carl Orff chose the approach of creating theatrical spectacles in which straightforward, communicative music, words and movement combined to produce immediate and striking impressions that appealed to a broad range of audiences. At the beginning of the `30s, while serving as conductor of the Munich Bach Society, he produced a number of arrangements of early music. His researches in this area eventually led to the creation of Carmina Burana, his first (and greatest) success.

The texts are what gave the score its name. In 1803, at the monastery of Benediktbeuern in Upper Bavaria, musicologist J. A. Schmeller discovered a manuscript collection of lyrics, dating from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. When it was published in 1847, Schmeller dubbed it Carmina Burana (Songs from the beuern, or in Latin, Burana district). Probably the work of wandering scholars and defrocked priests, its texts are mostly in Latin, with a sprinkling of old German. The polite side of the collection includes six plays based on the Christmas, Passion and Easter mysteries. The earthier part contains some 200 drinking songs, love lyrics andrecruiting songs.

When Orff came across the manuscript in 1935, he saw in it the ideal vehicle to express the kind of basic, uncomplicated human emotions he had in mind. Choosing two dozen poems from the collection, with the assistance of Michel Hofmann, he matched them with equally direct music, featuring simple yet striking rhythms, melodies and harmonies. “It’s not sophisticated, not intellectual,” he wrote, “and the themes of my work are themes that everyone knows...There is a spiritual power behind my work, that’s why it is accepted throughout the world.” The première took place in Frankfurt on June 8, 1937.

The illuminated pictures that accompanied the original poems intrigued Orff virtually as much as the words. The cover showed luck as a revolving wheel, blindly governing people’s destinies. Orff began his Carmina Burana with a grandiose hymn, Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi (Luck, Empress of the World), saluting this inscrutable, unpredictable concept. Primo vere (In Springtime), follows. It deals, mostly in quiet, mysterious fashion, with the anticipated arrival of that season. Joy eventually breaks forth as spring itself appears. Orff celebrated it in the section entitled Uf dem anger (On the Green).

The next segment, In Taberna (In the Tavern) salutes the juice of the grape in riotous fashion. The tenor soloist, singing in falsetto, takes the role of a swan roasting slowly and sadly on a spit. The baritone is an Abbot who launches the men of the choir into a rollicking ode to drink.

Cour d’amours (Court of Love) brings several of Orff’s loveliest, most lyrical moments. The soprano solo In trutina (In the Balance), a glowing anticipation of fulfillment, is a particular highlight. After the ecstatic fervour of Blanziflor et Helena (Blanchefleur and Helen, the principal characters in a medieval romance), Orff brought back his ode to luck, to close Carmina Burana as majestically as it began.

Carmina Burana
1. Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi
2. Primo vere
3. Uf dem anger
4. In Taberna
5. Cour d’amours
6. Blanziflor et Helena
7. Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi


Programme Notes © 2018 Don Anderson

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