In 1803 a large cache of manuscripts was discovered in a Benedictine monastery in Bavaria, southern Germany. It consisted of 254 poems or songs, but rather than being in praise of God they were devoted to drinking, gambling and sex. They are known as the Carmina Burana, or songs from the village near which they were found.
120 years later a German composer, Carl Orff, set 24 of these songs to music. The result was a sensational success and made Orff’s name.
These songs are in what is known as the goliardic tradition, in other words a tradition of satiric hostility to the Roman Catholic Church. These “goliards” were mostly younger sons who were educated at universities but couldn’t inherit the family money or become priests. Instead, they became “wandering scholars”, well versed in classical, pre-Christian mythology and specializing in composing and performing songs in praise of sex, gambling and drinking.
These texts were mostly written in Latin, the international language of the Middle Ages, or a mixture of Latin and German or French. They are thought to date from the 11th and 12th centuries AD.
Almost entirely anonymous, they represent an opposition to established Catholic authority that 300 years later was to blossom as Protestantism.
The style of these poems is rough and physical, in contrast to the “chivalric” poetry of the Troubadours of the same period. They nevertheless consisted of a European revolutionary tradition not limited to any one country or place.
Of the 24 poems selected by Orff, the first and last was one in praise of Fortuna, or Fate. This was a classical (Greek and Roman) goddess, in strong contrast to the Christian God. Fortune ruled the world, and decided what would happen in people’s lives.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the death of Carl Orff in 1982.
After the opening hymn to Fortune, we have a sequence of songs devoted to Spring. This is a time for dandcing on the village green, gambling, and sexual encounters. So it is entirely as is expected that the next section is devoted to the tavern or bar, and the one after to a “court of love”.
The penultimate song retells the very popular Medieval love story of Floris and Blancheflour, here rendered as Blanziflor and Helena. The cycle ends with a repeat of the Hymn to Foruna, known to some for its inclusion as the theme tune of the X Factor TV series.
Soloists involved in this performance will be soprano Pham Khanh Ngoc, Russian counter-tenor Yury Rostotsky and Russian baritone Konstantin Brzhinsky. The conductor will be Tran Nhat Minh.
The excellent HBSO Chorus will also be very prominent in this performance.
Next come two workshops. First of them will be one devoted to music, and will begin at 2pm on September 13. This is announced as being devoted to the achievements of the Autumn Melodies festivals, and its challenges for artists, audiences and program organizers in modern times.
The second workshop, on September 14, will begin at 7pm and will concentrate on the Ballet Kieu, which will be performed complete later in the festival. The workshop will be led by the ballet’s choreographers, Nguyen Thi Tuyet Minh and Nguyen Phuc Hung.
Entrance to all these events is free of charge thanks to the support of the HCMC People’s Committee.