North Shore Choral Society

Program Notes

New Members
About us

Contact us 


Illinois Arts Council


    NSCS, March 2006



    By Donald Draganski


      "Brahms and waltzes! The two words stare at each other in positive amazement on the elegant title-page. The serious, taciturn Brahms, North-German, Protestant, and unworldly as he is, writes waltzes!"


      Thus the words of the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, as he reacted with delight to the composer's earlier set of waltzes for piano duet, op. 39. Hanslick's comments are a bit disingenuous when one considers that waltzes, particularly those produced by the Strauss family, were universally loved by the Viennese, and at all levels of society. Even Wagner, who looked upon any contemporary composer as a potential rival, had high words of praise for the dances of Johann Strauss. Brahms's own feelings were clearly shown at a ball he was attending. Strauss's wife, Frau Adele, asked him to autograph her fan. Brahms wrote out the opening notes of the Blue Danube Waltz , followed by the words, "unfortunately not by Brahms." That is high praise indeed.


      In 1879 Brahms published his Liebeslieder-Waltzer. At the time he was composing them, he was also engaged in editing some of the dance music of Schubert, particularly his Ländler, and one can hear echoes of the earlier composer's music. The texts that Brahms chose consist of eighteen Eastern European folk poems, drawn from a collection of poems called Polydora by Georg Friedrich Daumer (1800-1875). Although Brahms deferred to his publisher to have the set published as a piano duet "with optional chorus," there is little doubt that the composer intended it as a vocal work from the start. The piece works just as well with a solo quartet as with a full chorus, depending on its venue, whether as chamber music or in a concert hall.




      Much of what we know about the more profane aspects of Medieval life comes to us from the manuscript of Carmina Burana ("Songs of Beuren") which was discovered at the monastery of Benedikbeure n in 1803 and published in 1847. This collection of poems was probably written and collected around 1230 in Carinthia (now Kärnten, the area around Salzburg and eastern Bavaria). It includes moral-satirical poems, love poems, and poems of camaraderie and drinking. These verses were written variously by foot-loose monks, out-of-work clerics, and hell-bent students. The members of this motley crew called themselves the Ordo Vagorum (Guild of Wanderers) and fabricated as their founder and patron saint an imaginary individual called Golias. "These Goliards," fulminated the Council of Salzburg in 1281, "go about in public naked, lie in bake ovens, frequent taverns, games, harlots, earn their bread by their vices, and cling with obstinacy to their sect." More to the point, many of the poems of these self-styled Goliards are mocking in tone and are brutally frank in pointing out the defects and injustices of the Medieval Church and State; thus it is not surprising that the Goliards frequently ran afoul of those in authority.

      Although Carmina Burana is an unabashedly secular work, one senses the pervasive presence of the Medieval Church hovering behind the caprine verses, for irreverence is pointless without Faith. As G. K. Chesterton says, "Wherever you have belief you will have hilarity, where you have hilarity you will have some dangers."


      Carl Orff (born 1895 in Munich, died there in 1982) chose twenty-four of the poems for his scenic cantata. Its complete title is : Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanae cantoribus et choris cantandae comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis ("Songs of Beuren; Profane Songs to be Sung by Singers and Chorus, and Accompanied by Instruments and Magical Images"). Orff began work on the piece in 1935 and completed it in time for its premiere two years later in Frankfurt. The work was originally staged as a Medieval mystery play, with costumes, dancing and pantomime.


      The Cantata opens with the Fortuna chorus, describing fate as a wheel that brings cruelty and prosperity by turns. This is followed by the section entitled Primo Vere (In Springtime), a sound-picture of the season of rebirth. Within the Spring section are the dance scenes Uf dem Anger (On the Lawn), which incorporate actual Bavarian folk dances.


      After the peasant Spring feast comes In Taberna (In the Tavern), the most theatrical and orgiastic part of the work, with singers singing drunken psalmody in falsetto voices, parodying the excesses of Italian opera.


      The opening of Part Three, Cour d'Amours (The Court of Love) has a freshness and directness that contrasts with the sensuality of the preceding section. The dance-song "Tempus est jocundum" leads into the Dionysiac Blanziflor et Helena , an appeal to Venus, the Goddess of Love. The work closes with a repeat of the Fortuna chorus.


      Today's performance presents the work in concert version, with Orff's orchestra reduced to two pianos and percussion - a reduction the composer himself authorized for scaled-down performances.


      As a postscript, let me relate the circumstances surrounding a performance of Carmina presented a few years ago at a fundamentalist Southern college that I shall refrain from naming. The music students there were considerably more worldly than were the more pious members of the administration, and naturally the choristers were quite aware of what the piece is all about. Through a convenient and carefully engineered "misunderstanding" at the print shop, the English translation inserts for the program were not ready in time for the performance. Deluded by the respectable-sounding Latin and its association with church liturgy, the profoundly devout audience sat through the performance, insensible to the revels lurking behind the words. Afterwards, the rectors complimented all concerned on the fervor and uplift of the performance. A good time, as they say, was had by all.


    Copyright © 2005 by Donald Draganski








© 1999-2010 North Shore Choral Society
P.O. Box 103
Evanston IL 60204-0103
(773) 741-6727