CARMINA BURANA OPENS THE SEASON!
Maison symphonique de Montréal
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
Aline Kutan, soprano
Frédéric Antoun, tenor
Russell Braun, baritone
The OSM Chorus
Andrew Megill, OSM Chorus Master
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Sometimes historical fiction can be even more bracing and colourful than the real thing. In this programme, rhythms, tunes and languages of antiquity combine with characters and musical settings of an imagined past, viewed through the eyes of two 20th century composers, before and after World War II. Ligeti’s Concert Românesc features the contours and spirit of the composer’s homeland, but speaks in an unmistakably contemporary idiom. Orff’s Carmina Burana plunges us into the carnal excess of medieval ritual and vice through a musical re-imagining of texts from a ancient manuscript.
Born in Târnăveni, Romania, May 28, 1923. Died in Vienna, June 12, 2006.
In 1948 György Ligeti learned how to transcribe traditional folk songs from recordings made on wax cylinders at the Folklore Institute of Bucharest. The influence of this experience was still strong within him when he set out to write the Concert Românesc three years later. Replete with angular and accented rhythms, allusions to pastoral landscapes and modal harmonies, Ligeti’s work falls squarely within the symphonic folk tradition established by Bartók and Enescu before him. And like those composers, he freely admitted to mixing actual folk musics with fragments of his own invention, which he deemed in-keeping with the spirit.
Though the work was performed privately in an orchestral rehearsal in Budapest the same year as its composition, it wouldn’t see a public performance until many years later, due to political imperatives in the composer’s native Romania. For anyone familiar with Ligeti’s later works, this early essay in the folkloric genre will seem surprisingly approachable, however the Communist censors were not so easily convinced. The piece, according to Ligeti himself, was banned almost entirely due to an out-of-place F-sharp in the fourth movement, causing a rather biting dissonance within the context of the movement’s F major tonality – a situation the composer described as the “straightjacket of the norms of socialist realism.” By the time of the public premiere (1971, in Fish Creek, Wisconsin), Ligeti had already achieved great popular fame after four of his works were unwittingly featured in Stanley Kubrick’s hit 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Andantino opens with a flowing mid-range melody in the strings. Open harmonic intervals of fourths and fifths make allusion to ancient music and folk traditions. A quick and contrasting dance follows without pause. Drums and fife (piccolo) bring to mind marching bands while asymmetrical accents and various instrumental solos evoke a folk dance. A held note in the clarinet provides the link to the slow third movement: horns playing in natural intervals recall the alpenhorn of Europe’s mountainous regions amidst shimmering tremolos in the strings. A trumpet call and a loud clap set off the raucous fourth movement in a whirlwind of succeeding motives, often in imitation between solo violin and orchestra. The alpenhorn returns toward the end, supported by string harmonics, which create the effect of songbirds and crickets in a meadow.
Born in Munich, July 10, 1895. Died in Munich, March 29, 1982.
Equally celebrated for this magnum opus of mammoth proportions as for his revolutionary pedagogical methods adopted by public school music programs worldwide, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is popularly considered to constitute the nec plus ultra of grandiose symphonic and choral music. The enormous orchestra and choir, the beguiling cast of soloists singing in a veritable hodgepodge of ancient European languages, and especially the fascinating mix of high and low, dark and light, comedy and tragedy that pervade the whole, make this one of the most enduringly popular works of the 20th century.
Carmina Burana was completed in 1936 and premiered at the Frankfurt Opera on 8 June, 1937. It was an immediate success, steadily gaining recognition across Germany despite the developing strife of World War II. The 25-movement work for chorus and orchestra with unspecified scenic and dramatic accompaniment, based on verses from a medieval codex of secular and even carnal subject matter, continues to fascinate to this day. The opening “O Fortuna” has been heard in countless movies and ad campaigns to the point of becoming a generic cultural signifier for dramatic gravity, yet somehow retaining its gripping hold on our collective imaginations. Orff himself knew he had scored a hit, writing to his publisher soon after the premiere, “Everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately, printed, can be destroyed. With Carmina Burana, my collected works begin.”
The Wheel of Fortune is the subject of this work: What grows up must come down, and all that is good must eventually turn bad: a dark prediction, to be sure. Ancient Latin texts mix with Middle High German and Old Provençal throughout succeeding movements in which the choir holds forth on subjects such as drinking, gambling, gluttony, lust, and the inevitable cycle that somehow brings rebirth and spring each year. Solos for soprano, tenor and baritone stretch the limits of the natural voice, expressing physical and emotional tension through the use of the upper registers, including the other-worldly “Dulcissime” for soprano (on the outpouring of new love) and “Olim lacus colueram” for tenor, to be sung almost completely in the falsetto range (expressing the anguish of a swan about to be roasted on a spit). Moments of levity come when a monk imagines exchanging all the riches in the world for but one night with the Queen of England, or when the Abbot of Cucany wins the clothes off another man’s back in a gamble. Bawdy drinking songs come in familiar rhythmic forms of polkas, while elsewhere references point toward the serious piety of the Gregorian chant. Spring brings the blossoming of romance: The “Cours d’Amours” section begins with a shy and frustrated man and a coquettish woman. A cautious courtship grows to become glorious true love, and the chorus sings praises to Venus.
But the Wheel of Fortune keeps turning! Who is to say that love will last forever, that summer won’t yield to winter? The cycle continues… and Carmina Burana ends with a stern warning:
O Fortune! Like the moon, you are changeable…
© Marc Wieser
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