1001 Classical Recordings: Carmina Burana

Today I started reading 1001 Classical Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die, edited by Matthew Rye.  I know next to nothing about classical music, and when I saw this book on the remaindered shelf I bought it thinking I’d go through the recommendations and try them out on Rhapsody or Rdio as an exercise in music auto-didacticism.   But starting with the first album, Carmina Burana quickly showed me what a vast undertaking this will be.  I thought I might could do one album a day, but that won’t be practical – not if I actually want to learn something.  I mean, I could just play the album and be done with it, but researching Carmina Burana on the internet has been a trip, and I think each album is going to take some work to appreciate.

To me, music as time traveling.  Up to now my adventures into old music has only taken me back to the jazz music of the 1920s.  Carmina Burana jumps me back to the 11th and 12th century – that’s quite a cultural shock.  Now here’s the problem with classical music – it’s old, sometimes very old, and unless it’s 20th century classical we don’t have recordings of the original artists and performances.  Classical music for the modern world is really listening to cover bands, and there’s lots of interpretations.  I hit a snag with the very first recommended album, Camina Burana, performed by Clemencic Consort, directed by René Clemencic, a 3 CD recording from 1975 that’s out of print.  Bummer.


The 1001 Classical Recording guide recommends this recording because it’s supposed to be more authentic.  Of course that’s both subjective and theoretical because we don’t know what a bunch of monks sounded like from the 11th and 12th century.   However, there is a movement in classical music called historically informed performance which means they use research and scholarship to guess what the original music might have sounded like.

Please read this Wikipedia entry on the history of the songs.  But we’re pretty sure they don’t sound like the monster chorales of the Carl Orff interpretations.  It’s when I heard “O Fortuna” that I realized I’ve been hearing this old music all my life, making it the oldest of the oldies I know.  Here’s how most people hear something from Carmina Burana today:

I did find some Clemencic Consort recordings on YouTube to illustrate the contrast of interpretations.

And these guys even look like they could be monks if they had the right outfits.

Another problem is knowing that the singers are singing about.  Here are the lyrics to the Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.  In all, there are 254 poems and dramatic texts that are open to musical interpretation.  I really do like Orff’s “O Fortuna” sound because the music goes with the lyrics:

O Fortune,
as the moon,
always dost thou
wax and wane.
Detestable life,
first dost thou mistreat us,
and then, whimsically,
thou heedest our desires.
As the sun melts the ice,
so dost thou dissolve
both poverty and power.
and empty fate,
thou, turning wheel,
art mean,
good health at thy will.
in obscurity,
thou dost attack
me also.
To thy cruel pleasure
I bare my back.
Thou dost withdraw
my health and virtue;
thou dost threaten
my emotion
and weakness
with torture.
At this hour,
therefore, let us
pluck the strings without
Let us mourn together,
for fate crushes the brave.

I’m nearly positive the monks never sounded like Orff’s mind-blowing space opera interpretation, but I can picture a bunch of guys singing the song above in medieval times and it might have sounded like the Clemencic Concert. 

Here’s what the original manuscript to “O Fortuna” looked like:


Rhapsody and Rdio have many productions of Carmina Burana, although most of them are based on the Orff interpretation, which are more fun because they are so emotional.  Orff does rock out, but the old monk sound is appealing, I’m just not sure I’d put any those cuts on a playlist to listen to regularly, but that might change as I learn more about old music.

JWH – 12/17/11

4 thoughts on “1001 Classical Recordings: Carmina Burana”

  1. Nice, Jim!

    Many years ago, in a used bookstore, I picked up a thin little book called “How to Build a Record Library. Published in 1953, it was written by Howard Taubman, music and record editor at the New York Times.

    In addition to recommending the best performances of hundreds of mostly classical music records, Taubman suggested a few truly indispensable works of orchestral music, opera, chamber music, jazz, etc. Well, I bought some of the records of orchestral music, as close as I could get to the recommended performances.

    It’s funny, but I had to listen to the records several times before I started to like them. I’m not very musical, so it took awhile. But I really did enjoy them. When CDs came out, I tried to replace some of my collection, but that wasn’t successful at all. I just didn’t like them as much. I don’t know if it was the performance or the medium or what.

    Anyway, that’s been years ago, and I don’t listen to any of this stuff now (rarely to music of any kind). But I loved that little book. For someone like me, who didn’t have a clue about classical music, it was a huge help. But I suppose, these days, you can find similar recommendations online? I must admit I’ve never looked.

    1. It’s always great to find a new subject to get into and explore. Maybe your enjoyment was more from intellectual excitement than musical excitement – just learning about a new area of knowledge. Some of the pleasure of listening to Carmina Burana comes from imagining how the monks lived and acted when they wrote these songs back in the 11th and 12th century. That’s a very long time ago. I don’t understand much about the music, so for me studying classical music is learning about music, but more than that it appeals to my love of history.

      I’ve already listened to several more albums but I don’t know when I’ll get time to write about them.

      I did find another blogger that’s reading the same book and posting reviews of each album. I’m learning a lot just from reading his blog.

      Before yesterday I didn’t know about any of this stuff.

  2. I get excited about classical music for a couple of days every year or so. Last time that happened I picked up some Tchaikovsky solo piano music including “The Seasons” (which is on your list). It’s definitely worth a listen. Good stuff.

  3. A very neat project. I’ve cultivated a taste for cool jazz and 19th century Romantic-style composers, and that’s mainly through Pandora which helps some in developing taste in the way it maps out what you like and what you may not like based on your choices, but only goes so far in educating you on the music. What you’re doing sounds like a much more methodical way of appreciating the music, so I hope it pays off!

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