Keepin’ It Classy: Compositon 3/50: O Fortuna by Carl Orff

The story of today’s musical composition begins, for me, in the early 1990s with the rental of a video cassette of the movie Moonstruck from my local Blockbuster Video store. You may recall that Moonstruck was the Academy Award winning movie starring Cher, Nicolas Cage, Danny Aiello and Olympia Dukakis. In the movie, Cher was supposed to marry Danny Aiello’s character, but as it turned out, she actually fell in love with her fiancé’s brother, as played by Nicolas Cage. At one point in the movie, Cage’s courtship of Cher involved him taking her to see an opera. Cage showed up for the date all handsome and cleaned up in a tuxedo. The music of the opera soars. Cher swoons. If there was ever any doubt as to whether Cher would pick the rough n’ ready Cage over the loyal but dull Aiello, it all ended as La Bohème was sung and a single tear fell upon Cher’s cheek. Cage’s character proclaims, “I love opera and I love you!” Cher slaps him across the face and demands that he “snap out of it!” But the romantic die has been cast, and the rest of the movie is an exercise in everyone coming to understand that true love must follow its own course.

Because of this movie, I went through a phase in my life where I very much enjoyed listening to opera. Moonstruck removed some of the mystery for me when it came to appreciating and understanding opera. The scenes from the movie in which operatic arias played in the background of everyday family life made it seem as though opera could be every bit the soundtrack of the real lives of real people, as could Rock n’ Roll. What this movie did most of all was to make opera cool, and dare I say, even sexy. So, in order to immerse myself in a musical genre that I had absolutely zero experience in, I did what I always did back in those days, and that was, I ordered a compilation CD from the Columbia House Music Club. That CD was called Opera Goes To The Movies. My “opera phase” coincided with my bachelor boy days, and specifically, it happened during a time when I was in-between relationships. It was during those stretches of time when I wasn’t actively dating anyone that time could seem long, and so I would occasionally go for drives at night. There was just something about driving in the darkness, arias blaring, that was relaxing and invigorating at the same time. One time, I drove all the way into Toronto from Oshawa along back roads and ended up downtown, stopped at an intersection as Margo Timmins (lead singer of the band, Cowboy Junkies, and a group of her friends all crossed the road in front of me). In the end, the allure of driving alone while listening to opera as others dreamed in their beds or danced in their clubs gave way to the practical reality that, perhaps, this was kind of a weird thing to be doing. So, I stopped, of my own accord. But to this day, I still listen to opera from time to time, and, when I do, O Fortuna is still one of my favourite tunes of them all.

The funny thing about writing these posts is that most of the time I know the story I am going to tell before I even start, and the only thing I really gain from doing my research is some data to fill in the blanks of the tale I am telling. So, in the case of this post, I entered into it knowing that I was going to talk about Moonstruck and opera becoming accessible for me, as I did in the paragraphs above. So, when I went to conduct my research, I did so thinking that I would find out a little about Carl Orff and some statistical details about O Fortuna and then, that would be that. However, a funny thing happened on the way to that conclusion. The opening sentence in the Wikipedia piece dedicated to O Fortuna reads, “O Fortuna is a medieval Latin Goliardic poem which is part of a collection known as Carmina Burana, written early in the 13th century.” It’s what!? Pardon me. This soaring, anthemic battle cry of a song is actually a poem?! Colour me confused. So, obviously, more research was needed. In the course of that research, I discovered some interesting history which has changed how I view this composition.

Carmina Burana: O Fortuna

For example, until I came to write this post, I never knew that there ever existed a group of medieval clergymen known as the Goliards. The Goliards were monks who lived and trained in many western European countries during the thirteenth century. They were different from the monastic monks who took vows of silence and dedicated themselves to living their lives as purely and with as much self-discipline and deprivation as possible. The Goliards wrote satirical commentary in the form of epic poetry. They traveled the countryside performing these poems and, as such, are considered to be one of the first true minstrels in modern history. The term, Goliard, is derived from the story of David and Goliath, and was meant to indicate that those possessing the power of spoken word and music were very powerful people. Part of how the Goliards came to be is because of how family fortunes were distributed almost one thousand years ago. In those days, the first born son usually inherited any wealth that had been accrued by the father. This left any other brothers without a means of financial support, should the first born son decide to keep the entire family fortune for himself. Thus, a traveling class of men, whose opinion was respected, emerged and became known as Goliards. Goliards wrote of scholarly matters, but they also wrote about social themes, and some even wrote bawdy tales about sexual encounters and alcohol. Because of the politics of speaking out, the Goliards always trod a fine line with the Church. A collection of complaints about the rigid rules of the Church was compiled and became known as the Carmina Burana.

In the 1930s, German composer Carl Orff decided to create a cantata based upon the Carmina Burana poems written by the Goliards. A cantata is a musical piece that is meant to be sung. By contrast, a sonata is a musical piece meant to be played with instruments. As it turned out, the first Goliardic poem he set to music was O Fortuna. If you have never heard this piece of music before then get ready, for it is a very rousing piece of music. Without knowing any of its origin story, whenever I listened to O Fortuna as I drove under starry skies or amid a city of lights, I always envisioned this composition as being “Battle Music”. It is a composition that starts off loudly and in a shrill-like fashion and then drops down to a mere whisper. In time, that whisper becomes louder and more confident, eventually turning into a full-throated battle cry! In my imagination, I always saw visions of Braveheart-like battlefields filled with legions of soldiers on horseback riding off into battle, banners waving, hearts pounding, voices raised in an intimidating cacophony. Well, as I have discovered, I am not the only person to have had these visions. As it turned out, Carl Orff became a famed composer during WWII and was much beloved and respected by those in power in Germany at the time. The Nazis felt that Orff had managed to encapsulate the essence of Ayran power and purity in this one piece of music, and as such, he was highly favoured in German Arts circles at the time. Orff’s unwillingness to stand up for other German composers and artists who suffered under Nazi rule left a stain on his reputation that no future post-war composition was able to erase.

If you ever wonder about how so many seemingly ordinary white men end up being radicalized into violence, then let this post be a warning to you all. There I was back in the 1990s, feeling at odds with life, driving alone in my car through sleeping communities, songs like O Fortuna blasting away on my car stereo, visions of battlefields mingling with the twinkling of the stars over my head. In the end, the thing that kept me from falling completely under the spell of a song I never knew had Nazi roots was the fact that in the daytime I was surrounded by children in my classroom. Their innocence and kindness and compassion always seemed to keep my heart and soul where they needed to be until such time as I met my future wife and discovered the power of what Love can do to one’s mindset and future ambitions. But for every story like mine, there are countless other stories of young men drifting through life as I was, with nothing to temper the emotional draw of a rousing song like O Fortuna. For those men, with nothing to counterbalance the imaginary call-to-arms that is interwoven within the musical structure of one of Hitler’s favourite pieces of music, it is easier to see how they can come to see the world through different eyes.

I really like O Fortuna. I do! I also really wish that my love for this piece of music wasn’t something I shared with Adolf Hilter and his comrades, too. I guess that I am lucky, as things turned out. I guess we all are.

The link to the video for the song O Fortuna by Carl Orff can be found here.

The link to the video for the trailer to the movie Moonstruck can be found here.

The link to the official website for classical music station, 103.1, located in my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.