Program Notes

Carmina Burana

For a printable, PDF version of these program notes, click here.

Listen to the audio version of these program notes, with music excerpts.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé, Suites 1 & 2
Duration: ca. 12 minutes and 18 minutes

“The only love affair I ever had was with music,’’ said Maurice Ravel, the diminutive, nattily dressed, reclusive French composer of exquisitely crafted masterpieces.

But what an affair it was. His marriage with sound resulted is some of the most endearing and enduring works in the musical canon: Rapsodie Espagnole, the mesmerizing Pavane for a Dead Princess, La Valse, the Piano Concertos and sumptuous String Quartet, the demanding Gaspard de la Nuit, and of course, Bolero.

Stravinsky called him a “Swiss watchmaker,’’ a backhanded compliment to Ravel’s precision, attention to detail and impassioned restraint. In fact, his cottage in the Rambouillet forest outside Paris was full of small clocks and mechanical toys, the sound of cogs and springs serving as a psychological metronome in his composing.

Nothing mechanized emerges from his orchestral and choral masterpiece, the ballet music for Daphnis et Chloé. Completed in 1912 as a pair of suites for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes – which attempted to integrate all the arts into a conceptual whole  –  this is Ravel’s most luminous score, what he described as “a vast musical fresco.’’

It also premiered at a heady time in Paris. Diaghilev’s ballet company was all the rage, with Pierre Monteux conducting the first performance, just as he did a year later with the debut of Stravinsky’s riotous Rite of Spring.

The story takes place on the isle of Lesbos and involves a Greek poet, nymphs of the God of Pan, the goat herder Daphnis and the shepherdess Chloé. But adherence to the text isn’t a must to appreciate the glories of this music, which for more than a century has stood on its own through these orchestral suites extracted from the ballet.

The Ravel biographer Norman Demuth wrote that Daphnis et Chloé is just as potent as ballet music as it is a stand-alone orchestra piece: “It is apt for the theatre because of its rhythms. It is apt for the concert hall because of its themes and its orchestration – its color.”

Although many programs feature selections from the original score, TFO Music Director Michael Francis believes to fully appreciate Ravel’s vision, all the music should be heard. This includes the luminous Nocturne and Interlude; the rhythmically wound Warrior’s Dance; the breathtaking Sunrise; a woodwind-dominated Pantomime; and the savagely expressive General Dance.

The most famous moment from the suites is, undoubtedly, Sunrise, where the music slowly rises and builds into a lush, harmonic climax against a wordless chorus. The music seems to appear out of the primordial mist in much the way Beethoven opened his Ninth Symphony and Strauss his Also Sprach Zarathustra.

Carl Orff (1895-1982)
Carmina Burana
Duration: ca. 65 minutes

The Florida Orchestra could have picked any of a thousand works to open its 2022-23 season, just as it had countless options to kick off its 50th anniversary season in 2017. Both times, Music Director Michael Francis chose the same piece, one guaranteed to strike an emotional chord on the first and last downbeats.

Carmina Burana – Carl Orff’s barbaric yet lyrical cantata for orchestra and chorus – never fails to shatter the air with the biggest primal scream in music.

Even if you never set foot in a concert hall, you’ve probably heard the opening O Fortuna! chorus at Tampa Bay Buccaneers football games, on film soundtracks, television commercials, and any of more than 60 recordings. This full-throttled blast by 230 singers and instrumentalists grabs the attention like nothing else.

O Fortuna! is iconic,’’ said Matthew Abernathy, artistic director of the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, which joins TFO on stage in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater. “It’s cinematic, much like a film score. But even through the entire work, there’s something about the music that’s exciting and thrilling. It’s captivating in an undefinable way.’’

Carmina Burana – which translates to “Songs of Beuren” – has been described as shamelessly popular, more for the opening and closing sections than the 23 short movements in between.

The first bars of the introduction serve up epic struggles that can be both personal and universal. The chorus speaks to us in hushed sorrow one moment, and explodes in joyous rapture the next. Eighty five years after its premiere, the hour-long work belongs nowhere but exists everywhere, floating back and forth through medieval and modern times.

Although it requires large forces on stage, the music and text are essentially a piece of modest theater, fused with bone and tendon rather than muscle and blood. The raw and bawdy material of its Latin text harks back to an era we have long ago forgotten.

Apart from the big bookend choruses, the bulk of Orff’s “scenic cantata’’ for full orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists (all singing in Latin) is evocatively lyrical, intimate and at times humorous. Built on a scaffolding of ostinato rhythms and timbres rather than melody and harmony, it hits the ears as primal, simple, skeletal – and intoxicating.

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.’’

Program notes by Kurt Loft, a St. Petersburg-based freelance writer and former music critic for The Tampa Tribune.