by Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Two factors converged in Brahms' life around 1880 to bring into existence Nšnie. On his two journeys to Italy he had been entranced by its classical beauty, and was likewise taken with the neo-classical paintings of his friend, Anselm Feuerbach, who died prematurely in January, 1880. After Brahms heard Herman Goetz's setting of Schiller's poem Nšnie performed by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde on February 14, 1880, he created a setting of the poem which deserves a place among his most characteristic and poetic creations. Brahms expressed his affection for Anselm Feuerbach by dedicating this work of serenity, tranquility and resignation to Feuerbach's stepmother, Henrietta. Nšnie may be seen as an extension of those sentiments expressed by Brahms when he selected certain scriptural texts for his German Requiem. In Nšnie, biblical images are replaced by those of Greek classical mythology. As in the German Requiem, death is consoled by love, which heals all loss.
The work is in A-B-A form (first theme, second theme, repeat of first theme), with all three movements in the major mode. The orchestral prelude ushers in the themes with an exquisite oboe melody being taken up, in fugal fashion, by the chorus. Its serenity rises to a more dramatic aspect in the middle movement as the name of Adonis is hailed. Even goddesses cannot soften the decrees of Hades, however, and the work subsides in resignation.
The thoughts of the poem which inspired Brahms to this mature and lyrical work may be paraphrased thus;
"Even Beauty must die and nothing which men or gods can do moves the ruler of Hades. Venus could not save the wounded Adonis, nor could the pleas of Adonis' mother Thetis and her Nereads preserve him despite all their weeping. For the perfect must fade, but an elegy for them, on the lips of the loved survivors, is glorious."
Carl Orff (1895-1982) emphasized his already-developed philosophy of musical composition by selecting 25 piquant secular poems from a 13th century manuscript (found in 1803 in the German Benedictine Abbey of Beuron) for his Carmina burana (Songs of Beuron). Until 1936, Orff had composed several works under the strong, late romantic influence of Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander Scriabin. Most of these works Orff later destroyed or repudiated. In 1937, after its first performance in Frankfurt, Orff firmly asserted that Carmina burana "begins my complete works." Orff rejected highblown Romanticism with its harmonic vagaries and thematic principles derived from Wagner's music drama. He broke with this tradition because of his concern for the growing estrangement between music and the listening public. With this frame of mind, he ostensibly returned to the principles of Monteverdian opera, and grew in artistic kinship with Stravinsky and Hindemith. Using Stravinsky's The Wedding and Oedipus Rex as models for Carmina burana, Orff described the work in its subtitle (translated from the Latin): "Secular songs to be sung by singers and choruses accompanied by instruments and magical tableau."
Orff provided specific stage directions for the visual setting of Carmina burana, but the music's primitive power and attractiveness have caused it to be heard more often in concert than in its proper quasi-operatic setting. The 25 exuberant poems selected provided the grist for Orff to demonstrate his new-found style. The poems are written in a straightforward rhythmic and rhymed manner utilizing vulgar Latin, medieval French and German. The style has been succinctly summarized by musicologist David Eagle. He observes that the cantata has a direct and immediate appeal because of its basic simplicity and its primitive rhythmic drive. Harmony is reduced to unisons, octaves, thirds and fifths. There is no polyphony or counterpoint. Melodic figurations are repeated obsessively and hypnotically. "Since melody and harmony are relatively unimportant, we often find," observes Eagle, "entire sections based on a simple harmony ... the rhythmic ostinato is the thing, but rhythms are kept simple with each pattern being repeated until it is exhausted, or another pattern begins. Elements of 19th century popular songs are mixed with quasi-Gregorian chants, secular medieval song and dance in an eclectic hodgepodge."
The sections of Carmina burana are framed between a prologue and epilogue both of which are entitled "Fortune, Empress of the World." The three main sections are called "In the Springtime," "In the Tavern" and "In the Court of Love." Soloists, children's choir, large and small mixed chorus and men's chorus are accompanied by a complex orchestra, the orchestra providing the most novel musical interest. Not only is the instrumentation distinctive, with its featured wind and percussive instruments, but the instrumentation is also extraordinary in clearly profiling the individual tone colors of the various instruments.
The prominent German commentator Karl Schumann provides an excellent summary overview of the more philosophical aspects of Orff's achievement. "Evocative melody, unambiguous rhythms, and primitive pictures in sound are the basic features of these profane songs; the tendency is toward universality and objectivity. No individual destiny is touched upon - there is no dramatis personae in the moral sense of the term. Instead, primeval forces are invoked, such as the ever-turning wheel of fortune, the revivifying effect of love and those elements in man which prompt him to enjoy earthy, all too-earthy pleasure. The principle figure is man as a natural being delivered over to forces stronger than himself. This universality of intention corresponds to Orff's concept of his 'synthesis of arts (gesamptkunstwerk),' a unified combination of movement, song, dance, sound and magical enchantment."