By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
Carl Orff (1895-1982) could not have highlighted better his developed philosophy of music composition than by his selection of twenty-five piquant secular poems from the Thirteenth-century manuscript found in 1803 In the German Benedictine Abbey of Beuron for his Carmina Burana. Up to 1936 he had composed several works most of which he later destroyed or repudiated. Carmina Burana, as he firmly asserted in 1937 after its first performance in Frankfort, "begins my complete works."
By 1936 Orff had come to reject that complex highblown Romanticism which had characterized much of his early work. This Romanticism emerged from the harmonic vagaries and thematic principles of Wagnerian music drama. It subsequently developed into the chromatically lush harmonies of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler and then culminated in the Twelve-tone system of the Second Viennese School. Orff broke with this tradition of opera and music composition because of his concern at the estrangement it had eventually produced between modern music and the listening public. With this frame of mind he returned to the principles of Monteverdian opera and further manifested artistic kinship with Stravinsky and Hindemith.
Using Stravinsky's The Wedding and Oedipus Rex as model springboards for Carmina Burana, Orff created in this musico-dramatic "scenic cantata" his own type of "gesamptkunstwerk," a synthesis of chorus, solo, dance, mime, and artistic scenery. The stage sketch for the first production of this precedent shattering work depicts the chorus seated statically in tiers behind several gothic arched openings. These tiers form a broad "V" on either side of a huge figure of Dame Fortune, Empress of the World, dominating a great wheel of fortune. That medieval visual device was familiar to its age's poets in the original outer rims of those spoked and traceried rose windows of numerous cathedrals. In the sketch, too, soloists, dancers and mimes occupy the forefront of the stage. The orchestra was in the pit. The primitive power and attractiveness, however, of Orff's music have made Carmina Burana heard more often in concert than in their proper quasi-operatic setting.
Beuron Abbey's manuscript had been assembled at the order of a medieval German clerical aristocrat. It embraces some 200 sacred plays, bawdy love songs, rollicking drinking songs, game songs, and satirical songs often full of pagan moral aphorism and laments on the arbitrary course of the world. These straightforward rhythmic and rimed poems, largely in a somewhat doggerel Latin with some in medieval French and German, mark but a small portion of an immense outpouring of troubadour, trouvere, minnesinger and Goliard. They afforded Orff with an exuberant vehicle for his equally exuberant musical concepts. Carmina Burana immediately and fully demonstrated Orff's personal style.
That style has been succinctly summarized by David W. 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 single 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 nineteenth century popular songs are mixed with quasi-Gregorian chant and secular medieval song and dance in an eclectic hodgepodge."
The three main sections of Carmina Burana, framed between a prologue and an epilogue entitled "Fortune, Empress of the World," are in the Springtime, In the Tavern, and the Court of Love. The soprano, baritone, and high-falsetto tenor soloists alternate with a chorus of boys, and a large and small mixed chorus. But it is the orchestra which provides the most novel musical interest, not only in its distinctive instrumentation, but also in the use of the clearly profiled individual tone colors of the different instruments. There is large and versatile percussion section.
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 cantiones profanae; the tendency is toward universality and objectivity. No individual destiny is touched upon - there is no dramatis personae in the normal sense of the term. Instead primeval forces are invoked, such as the ever-turning wheel of fortune, the revivifying power of spring, the intoxicating effect of love and those elements in man which prompt him to enjoyment of earthly and all too-earthly pleasure. The principal 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 all the arts," as a unified combination of movement, song, dance, sound, and magical enchantment.
Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) survives as one of those prolific composers whose fame today rests on a few well-known powerful and well-crafted compositions. This Lorraine-born Frenchman exercised continuing and significant influence throughout his lifetime in the music world not only as a respected composer but as a critic of note. From 1914 until 1939 he wrote for La France, Le Courrier Musical and principally for Le Temps.
Several national music societies likewise benefited from Schmitt's advice and direction. He succeeded Paul Dukas in 1936 as a member of the Academie des Beaux-Arts and as director of the lnstitut de France. His career was capped with the conferral of the rank of commander in the Legion d'honneur. A year before his death, in 1957, he received the Grand Prix Musical de Paris.
After four previous attempts to secure it, his cantata Semiramis in 1900 won him the Premier Grand Prix de Rome. This prize enabled him at the expense of the lnstitut de France to spend forty months in Rome at the Villa Medici. Each year the lnstitut required practical evidence of his development in an "envoi de Rome," a composition. His fourth such "envoi" was Psalm 47, Gloire au Seigneur, the same psalm which later in 1920 inspired Ralph Vaughan Williams' "O Clap Your Hands."
Psalm 47, the Ballet entitled La Tragedie de Salome and the Piano Quintet, all produced between 1904 and 1911 mark those seminal works which brought him renown and indicated the direction his music would take.
Schmitt's style has been described as eclectic and highly individual. Commentators and biographers see him influenced by Chabrier, Debussy, Ravel, and D'lndy, all of whom he greatly admired. He likewise esteemed the work of Richard Strauss, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. He fortunately escaped that absorption into Debussian Impressionism which marred the careers of so many contemporaries. Segments of his works presaged the percussive techniques used by Russians such as Stravinsky in Le Sacre du Printemps. Pierre-Tetit observes, however, that Schmitt's work is immediately recognizable. Nicolas Slonimsky has succinctly summarized his developed style. "His formative years were spent in the ambiance of French symbolism in poetry and Impressionism in music ... He developed a strong distinctive style of his own mainly by elaborating the contrapuntal fabric of his works, and extending the rhythmic design to intricate asymmetrical combinations."
Psalm 47, Opus 38, is scored for soprano solo, eight-part chorus, organ and large orchestra. The elaboration of this twenty-eight minute festival of sound falls into three orchestrally interconnected movements. He opens the Psalm with a grandiose and majestic orchestral/choral fanfare on the words "Glory to God." After this luminous declaration, the chorus twice brings the verse "O clap your hands all ye nations" to huge climaxes, first through rhythmically powerful chordal declamation followed by the building up of a complex contrapuntal development.
The middle portion centers in on a tender meditation for violin and soprano solo on the psalm’s verse "He has chosen for his inheritance the beauty of Jacob which he loves." The chorus takes up this sensuous melody punctuating the same words, again treated twice around contrapuntally, with rapturous "Ah's" reminiscent of Debussy's Sirenes.
After the transitional orchestral interlude the third movement commences with an immensely majestic fugue to the words "God has gone up with a shout, to the sound of the trumpet." The whole work moves again toward its culmination with the reiterated invitation to the nations to clap their hands in praise to the great king over all the earth. The initial fanfare once again returns in even more elaborate and grandiose splendor, concluding the work with "Glory the Lord, Glory, Glory."