I have a long history with Carl Orff’s cantata Carmina Burana. Around 1966, my parents returned from my father’s annual tax seminar in New York City with an LP. They had heard it performed and thought I would enjoy it. I had recently become a fan of classical choral music and had joined my first chorus that summer at music camp. But I looked at it skeptically. A piece I’d never heard of by a composer I’d never heard of? Not likely.
Oh, there’s also a swan (a brave tenor) who sings of roasting in agony on a spit.
I put it on the turntable and was blown away.
At camp, I had sung Handel’s Messiah and Kodaly’s Te Deum. Carmina is nothing like those works, except that (like the Kodaly) it’s mostly in Latin. Orff based it on a trove of medieval manuscripts found in a Bavarian monastery in 1803. The poems and stories are not at all religious—in fact, they’re secular bordering on profane. Carmina is about the vagaries of fortune; the coming of spring; drinking and gambling; desire spurned and requited; and the urgency of young carnal love. Well, as a 16-year-old boy, I was certainly interested in that.
Oh, there’s also a swan (a brave tenor) who sings of roasting in agony on a spit.
I listened to it so often I wore out the stylus on my turntable. The song settings are vivid, almost cinematic. (Even if you don’t know the piece, you’d doubtless recognize its opening movement, O Fortuna, employed in so many movies, TV shows, and commercials that it has its own Wikipedia page.) I could practically sing along although I had never seen the score. I wanted desperately to perform it.
Flash forward to 1983. Now settled into our adult working lives, Patti and I thought it might be time to start singing again. We read in the paper that a local chorus, the Schola Cantorum, was sponsoring a series of Summer Sings where singers could read through some of the great choral repertoire. Last in the series: Carmina.
I went and learned three things. One, Carmina was as fun to sing as I imagined. Two, Schola was led by a dynamic, charismatic conductor, Louis Magor, with whom it would be fun to sing anything. Three, Schola was leading off its new season with Carmina. Fate was indeed smiling on us that day.
Singing Carmina with Schola launched Patti’s and my choral odyssey and initiated many lasting friendships. Seven years later, we sang it again—and recorded it—on the stage of Davies Symphony Hall as members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. That recording won a Grammy as the best choral recording of 1992. A fantasy come true.
In 2019, our friend Greg Wait—the swan in that original performance and our former voice teacher—concluded his 30-year reign as music director of Schola. We rejoined the group for his two valedictory programs: Carmina Burana and Brahms’ German Requiem (worth its own Retrospect tribute).
We thought we had exhausted the depth of Carmina in previous performances, but that turned out not to be true. Every performance is a little different. In this one, for example, the baritone soloist portrayed the abbot of Cockaigne as a staggering, hiccupping, rip-roaring drunk. And, after reviewing the men’s choral catalogue of the multitudes drinking immoderately in the tavern (the mistress, the master, the soldier, the priest…), we had to admit the characterization was apt.
More to the point, we’ve now lived long enough to appreciate how the gods of fate and fortune lift us up only to let us down, and why we must be forever grateful to generous Venus, Venus generosa. Parts of it choke me up every time, though we try to suppress that in performance.
So if the gods of fortune decreed that we had to choose one song—okay, one musical work—to listen to on repeat for the rest of our days, it’s hard to think of a better choice than Carmina Burana.
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.
John, I love Carmina Burana too, great choice! I have sung it at least twice, probably three times, in the Sacramento Symphony Chorus. Once we did it in conjunction with the Sacramento Ballet, so we were in risers on either side of the stage, with the dancers in the middle. We almost forgot to look at our music, we were so entranced with the dancers.
Incredible that you got a Grammy! Did you go to the ceremony? Very exciting! Thanks for swooping in to Retrospect with this wonderful story.
Thanks, Suzy. It’s a real kick to sing, isn’t it? We’ve seen it danced but have never performed it that way. That must have been a treat.
We didn’t go to the ceremony, a regret we shared just this morning before posting this. But when we win our Oscar for best screenplay, we are resolved to be there. 😉
John, can’t wait to listen to the YouTube version. While I’m not a true classical music fan, Carmina Burana has always stuck with me, maybe because I had two years of Latin in high school and could understand some of it. And to have won a Grammy, how wonderful for you and Patti. And, nice to read a story from you on Retrospect!
Thanks so much, Marian, and as fellow Latin students we’re glad our choice resonated with you. Enjoy the YouTube recording. I only posted “O Fortuna” but I think the whole album is up there too. You can also find it on Spotify and other streaming services.
Wonderful story John! I’d never have thought I’d enjoy choral music until my son joined his high school Madrigal.
At one of their concerts they performed Carmina Burana and I fell in love with that piece!
Thanks, Dana. Hurray for you son, small choral groups are so much fun! Carmina is definitely easy to fall in love with.
Wow John, you are quite an accomplished singer! The Grammy is fantastic. Carmina Burana definitely earned its primo spot in your heart. I have to admit my ignorance in that I don’t think I have ever knowingly heard it—though I have heard OF it. Clearly not the educated music palate. Thanks for including the beautiful clip.
Thanks, Khati. Never too late to learn!
Such a great story, John. Patti kindly sent me your Grammy-winning CD a long time ago. I listened to it on a drive to visit an old camp friend who was performing the Duruflé Requiem with the New Haven Chorale that evening; my chorus would perform that piece a few months later, so it was good to get a preview. I listened with awe to your recording, walked into my old friend’s home and said, “What was that”?
A few years later, we performed Carmina too. It truly was thrilling to sing, just as you described. My brother once performed dressed as a monk!
Thanks, Betsy. We’ve always appreciated your support for our singing. And now we share so much choral repertoire too! We listened to your Brahms CD when preparing to sing German Requiem a few years page.
I can just imagine Rick dressed as a monk!
John, this is a well-written retrospect of the impact Carmina Burana has had on you. I think I first became aware of it in watching the 1989 film, “Glory,” as it was especially effective in the film’s final assault scenes on that bloody sand of Charleston’s beach. Like you, I was thunderstruck when I heard it.
Thanks Jim, I appreciate the kind words. Carmina is so dramatic, almost cinematic, that it’s no surprise it’s been used so often in movies.
I’m listening to the amazing recording you included in your story while typing this. Of course, once I started listening, I remembered it. What an amazing recording and how lucky you were to participate in the chorus for this piece.
Thanks Laurie, glad you enjoyed the recording. We were fortunate indeed!
Stetit puella! How thrilling for you (and for us listening to your performance). In my short choral career, Carmina Burana was the most memorable and exciting piece, and the last time I would ever be able to hit those high notes. I always thought the beginning sounded like the barbarians sacking Rome. Thanks for sharing, and congratulations on your Grammy.
Thanks Susan, and glad you understand how much fun Carmina is to sing. I understand about the high notes. When we first sang it in the ’80s and ’90s, I was a baritone. By the time we reprised it in 2019, I had dropped to bass!
Right up there with Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” I, too, wore out our vinyl of “Carmina Burana” when I was in high school. Titanic symphonic and choral atavism. Grrrrrrrr!!!
Simpatico once again. Thanks, Charles!
What a great experience to sing this amazing piece under such glorious conditions! I loved reading about performing it at different times in your life. You did experience it in new ways each time. Well done!
Thanks so much, Risa. Like an auspicious comet, Carmina seems to keep coming around when we most need it.
I loved how much I found in common between the age-old themes your favorite song of all time and my chosen “country story songs” such as “Wolverton Mountain.” The piece is certainly making for magnificent listening as I have it blasting while I type. Thanks for this well-told story.
Thanks, Dale. It’s said there are only a half dozen stories in the world (everything else being variation), but it’s always interesting to find overlap between such different genres.