The small codex from where Orff’s word derived its text, was written sometime in the 1300’s, presumably somewhere in France. It is not known how it finished up in the Benedictine Beuren Abbey, and for centuries, probably no one laid hands upon it. Then in 1803, its first publisher, J. A. Schmeller came upon it by accident and named it after the monastery’s Latin name (Bura Sancti Benedicti), the Carmina burana. We do not know the authors of these Latin verses (sometimes mixed with fragments of French and German), which are satiric and moralising by turn. The only names to appear besides the poems are aliases (“Archipoeta.”)
Orff chose from this plentiful material to use the poem about the transmutations of fortunes as his motto (O Fortuna). This cantata-like composition (according to its original generic description, it was a “scenic cantata”) then continues with verses proclaiming Spring. The subtitle of the second section: In taberna, takes us to the pub. On the imaginary stage, a drunken priest appears (the brief movement is a true Gregorian parody), then a comic catalogue ensues, detailing how people drink. The third section is about love, with occasionally piquant or erotic lines. Finally, the motto, O Fortuna returns.
Carmina Burana was first performed in 1937. In the 1920’s, Orff was deeply involved with modernising music teaching. He considered the most important aspect to be the teaching of rhythm, which takes centre stage in his pedagogical method. In his music, he expelled every kind of sensuousness, as he also did chromaticism. He took as his model Gregorian chant and the melodic world of all kinds of Medieval trubador music. He gives a prominent role to the percussion instruments (over the years, as part of his teaching goals, he designed a considerable number of drums). The advantages and disadvantages of the so-called Orff method are still hotly debated today. The majority of his compositions are rarely if ever performed in the concert hall, but from the moment of its premiere, Carmina Burana has enjoyed extreme popularity. It is one of the most loved of twentieth century works.