Belfast Telegraph

The scent of brilliance

Philip Hammond takes a look behind the aftershave adverts of a justly popular classical work, Orff’s Carmina Burana

There has always been a debate about what makes great music. Can it be great, good and popular all at the same time? No one has yet come up with a definitive answer because let’s face it, beauty — like great, good or indeed popular music — is in the eye or ear of the beholder.

So I’d cautiously go no further than to say that Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is popular and it may have reached that status, at least in recent times, for one main reason — commercial advertising.

Those of a certain vintage will remember those images of beefy, surfing boys and buxom, bikini-clad babes accompanying the sounds of the O Fortuna opening number of Carmina Burana in the Old Spice aftershave ads from the 1970s and 1980s. That’s how it all started.

Or so we like to think. But in reality, Carmina Burana was an instant success right from the moment it was first heard at the Frankfurt Opera on June 8, 1937. Despite the racy content of the literary texts, the Nazi regime recognised the work’s popularity and acquiesced. Orff himself wrote to his publisher that everything he had composed before that could happily be destroyed — his compositional life began with Carmina Burana.

The content was less than squeaky clean, which may account for some of the work’s enduring interest. Carmina Burana literally means ‘The Songs of Beuern’, which were found in the Monastery of Benediktbeuern outside Munich in the early 19th century and published in 1847.

The original secular poetry dated from the 13th century and was written by a group named ‘the goliards’ — the anti-clerical and satirical student followers of Saint Golias. He was a mythical saint who advocated a life of drunkenness and debauchery. The goliards used several languages, including medieval Latin, French and German so their poetry could be understood by the widest possible audience. The themes of the 24 poems which Orff extracted from the complete collection were centred around fate, life, love and lust, and the imagery is typically bawdy and sensual, fig-leafed with a thin veneer of classical symbolism.

So the titillation factor and the ridiculing of authority (in this case the church) must certainly be considered prime reasons for the continuing success of Carmina Burana.

But it would be entirely wrong to ignore the impact of Orff’s musical settings. He hit on a winning series of rhythms and melodies which are immediately memorable. One or two may present the choirs with a few tongue twisters and the vocal tessitura for the soloists can be challenging. But in general, each has a rustic simplicity about it with the enduring appeal of folksong.

There are some critics who very easily can become musically snooty about this amazing set of choral songs, because even the orchestration is basic and simple, with lots of percussion adding obvious colourful highlights.

But in Orff’s well-crafted music, that very simplicity is an asset, sounding natural, unforced and eminently suitable for the texts.

Carmina Burana is a theatre piece. As such, it is guaranteed to be hugely attractive, not just to a musical audience, but a much wider public. Does it really matter if the work is described as great, good or just popular? Not as far as I am concerned!

  • Carmina Burana, October 29, 7.30pm, Waterfront Hall

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