Carl Orff's O Fortuna

From Carmina Burana

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Background of Carmina Burana

Composed in 1936, Orff's Carmina Burana (Songs of the Beuern) can be heard on stages, televisions, and silver screens across the globe. The song's text, Carmina Burana, was discovered in 1803 at the Monastery of Benediktbeuren near Munich as part of a collection of Latin poetry written by the Goliards dating back to the 12th century. Written exclusively for entertainment, the Carmina Burana confronts issues similar to the issues we face today: love, sex, drinking, gambling, fate, and fortune.

Because of their intended use, the text was written in vernacular Latin, medieval French, and German so as to be easily understood and accessible. When composing Carmina Burana, Carl Orff selected 24 of the poems and arranged them by thematic content: Fortuna, Imperatrix Mundi (Fortune, Empress of the World), Primo Vere (Springtime), In taberna (In the tavern), and Cours d’amour (The Court of Love).

Notes on O Fortuna

O Fortuna (O Fortune), undoubtedly the most famous piece of this work, is recognized by millions of people all over the world. I consider it to be one of those unknown-but-known works. Orff brilliantly captures the meaning and nature of the Wheel of Fortune. Opening with a pounding timpani and large chorus, the listener is introduced to the Wheel's magnitude, while the haunting/foreboding text and melody sitting atop a river of endlessly repeating orchestral accompaniment, mimics its constant rotation.

O Fortuna Text and Translation

O Fortuna,
velut luna,
statu variabilis,
semper crescis,
aut decrescis;
vita detestabilis
nunc obdurat
et tunc curat
ludo mentis aciem,
dissolvit ut glaciem.

Sors immanis
et inanis,
rota tu volubilis,
status malus,
vana salus
semper dissolubilis,
et velata
michi quoque niteris;
nunc per ludum
dorsum nudum
fero tui sceleris.

Sors salutis
et virtutis
michi nunc contraria,
est affectus
et defectus
semper in angaria.
Hac in hora
sine mora
corde pulsum tangite;
sternit fortem,
mecum omnes plangite!

O Fortune,
like the moon
you are changeable,
ever waxing
and waning;
hateful life
first oppresses
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;
and power,
it melts them like ice.

Fate, monstrous
and empty,
you turning wheel,
you are malevolent,
your favor is idle
and always fades,
you plague me too.
I bare my back
for the sport
of your wickedness.

In prosperity
or in virtue
fate is against me,
Both in passion
and in weakness
fate always enslaves us.
So at this hour
pluck the vibrating strings;
because fate
brings down even the strong,
everyone weep with me.

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