It might be the most popular piece of classical music you’ve never heard of.
Such is the fate of Carmina Burana, a rousing and exotic work for chorus and orchestra by the German composer Carl Orff, who would be blown away by how his lone masterpiece has populated popular culture.
Sure, snippets of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Handel’s Messiah make the rounds on television and in movies, but the opening of Carmina Burana — a full-throttled blast by nearly 300 singers and instrumentalists – grabs our attention like nothing else.
Maybe you’ll be hearing it live for the first time at the opening of The Florida Orchestra’s 50th anniversary season (Oct. 6-8), which marks the group’s second performance of the work in three years.
Even if you’ve never heard this work in full, chances are its shrapnel hit you in films and commercials, at Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ football games and rock concerts, or during a ride in an elevator. Hollywood canonized Orff’s music in Excalibur, Conan the Barbarian, Natural Born Killers, The Hunt for Red October, and Badlands.
It fueled ads for Reebok shoes, Guinness stout, Pringles potato chips and Domino’s pizza. YouTube offers a litany of performances dating back decades, and if you want to buy the music, you can choose from more than 60 recordings.
The first bars of the intro, “O Fortuna,’’ serve up a steroid-induced soundtrack for epic struggles that can be both personal and universal. The chorus speaks to us in hushed tones one moment, and explodes in barbarous joy the next. Eighty years after its premiere, Carmina Burana belongs nowhere but exists everywhere, like an apparition floating back and forth through medieval and modern times.
The popularity of the opening of Carmina Burana, which translates to “Songs of Beuren,’’ will help make it a big weekend to launch the orchestra’s 50th season, said Ed Parsons, the orchestra’s general manager.
“It’s like the Beethoven Ninth Symphony in that it brings people into the concert hall,’’ he said. “We wanted to start (the 50th anniversary season) with something splashy and showy, and this is a huge piece. It will squeeze every inch out of the stage.’’
Hearing Carmina live in the halls of Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater is much different from any recording. Parsons calls this the “collective experience’’ of live music – one of the main purposes of any orchestra.
“There’s nothing like the power of an orchestra in full tilt, or playing extremely quietly,’’ he said. “That concert goers are all listening to something dramatic together, with the music affecting everyone at once, there’s something compelling about that.’’
Apart from the big bookend choruses, the bulk of Orff’s hour-long, 25-section “scenic cantata’’ for full orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists (all singing in Latin) is evocatively lyrical and intimate. Built on a scaffolding of rhythm and timbre rather than melody and harmony, Carmina hits the ears as primal, simple, skeletal – and often intoxicating.
“For me, aside from the big opening and closing choruses, there’s a richness throughout the whole thing,’’ Parsons said.
Orff, who died in 1982, based his ideas on a collection of poems discovered in 1803 at a Benedictine abbey near Munich. The “Burana Codex,” which resides at the Bavarian State Library, draws from more than 200 poems and songs depicting 13th-century life. They describe a world of drinking, carnal passion, gambling, suffering, and satire. Orff arranged two dozen poems into three sections: “In the Spring’’ celebrates the annual return of the fairest season, and awakening flirtations; “In the Tavern,’’ sung entirely by male voices, depicts drunkenness and debauchery; and “Court of Love’’ serves as a pagan call to adoration.
Carmina made the hit parade on its first performance and never looked back. After its premiere in Frankfurt, Germany in 1937, an elated Orff told his publisher, “Everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately, printed, can be destroyed. With Carmina Burana, my collected works begin.’’