College Choir Explores Love and Fortune in “Carmina Burana”

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Bates College Choir’s spring concert. The choir performed Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, composed in 1935 and 1936. The piece is adapted from a collection of medieval poems from the 11th-13th centuries and retains the original Latin and Middle German text. You have probably heard the opening movement, “O Fortuna,” in Cheaper by the Dozen, a Paul Blart: Mall Cop trailer, American Horror Story: Apocalypse, various talk shows and ads, and more– and if you don’t believe me, there’s a whole Wikipedia page on it.

The piece is divided into five sections for a total of twenty-five movements. There is not a coherent story arc per se, but rather a series of ruminations on fortune, springtime, dead swans, drinking, gambling, and relationships. The lyrics represent classic medieval themes but still find relevance in today’s world. The music is inspired by the late Renaissance and early Baroque melodic styles. The choir was joined by Bates Music faculty Bridget Convey and Chiharu Naruse, on the piano, and Joëlle Morris, who sang with the choir. Sarah Drewal played the timpani drum and Mark Fredericks, John Maillet, William Manning, and William Wohler played additional percussion.

Much of the piece is sung by the full choir in four-part harmony, with several instrumental sections dispersed throughout. The piece featured ten soloists: Christian Bradna ‘20, Henry Buckley ‘19, Kathryn Cleary ‘19, Xavier Hayden ‘19, Andrew Mikula ‘19, Senyo Ohene ‘20, Auguste Perl ‘20, Noah Pott ‘22, Michael Somkuti ‘19, and Muskan Verma ‘21.

I really enjoyed the concert and the choir’s rendition of Carmina Burana. The choir sounded amazing, balanced, and had very strong dynamics. Because the text of the movements are not in English, it was difficult to make out in some places. Having lyric translations included in the program was certainly helpful– and rather amusing. For example, Bradna’s solo was sung from the point of view of the roasted swan on the tavern table, about to be eaten. The music being rather melodramatic only helps create the comedic effect.

From there, the choir transition into the fourth section, the courtly love series. Courtly love was a whole medieval subgenre aimed at the nobility. It featured often adulterous affairs between highborn ladies and queens with knights. In every case, the knight was in love, which at times was unrequited, with the woman more than anyone else in a form of almost god-like devotion. The tragic tale of Lancelot and Guinevere stems from this time, as does Tristan and Isolde. The fourth section plays up the courtly love aspect: the music is perhaps some of the lightest of the whole piece, and the lyrics focus on an implied courtly gentleman seeking to woo an implied courtly woman.

The concert was somewhat bittersweet as it was director John Corrie’s final performance with the choir before he retires at the end of the year. His final performance with the choir was a resounding success. The piece worked quite nicely for the current College Choir performers and was a pleasure to attend. It will be sad to see Corrie go, but I look forward to many more enjoyable College Choir performances in the future.