Carl Orff: O Fortuna


Carl Heinrich Maria Orff was born in Munich on July 10th, 1895. After starting to study music at a young age, some of Orff’s music was published from when he was sixteen onwards. His early style was mainly focused on settings of German poetry, which likened him to composers such as Richard Strauss. Until 1914, Orff studied at the Munich Academy of Music. He then went to serve in the German Army during World War I, where he was nearly killed when a trench collapsed in on him. Coming away from the war with severe injuries, Orff came back to music, and pursued his studies by holding positions at the Mannheim and Darmstadt opera houses.

In the 1920s, Orff began formulating a new concept of music called ‘elementare Musik’ (elemental music), which based its foundations on the arts symbolised by ancient Greek Muses. The compositional process thus focused on tone, poetry, dance, image and design. Orff took very old works and adapted them for contemporary theatrical presentations, for example Claudio Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo, which Orff based his German version, Orpheus on.

As well as composing and conducting, Orff was also a musical educator, specifically focusing on children and music beginners. in 1924, Orff founded the Günther School for gymnastics, music and dance. He was head of department from 1925 until his death. Here, he constantly worked with children, and he wrote many influential education papers on music education for beginners.

Due to the era in which Orff lived, there has been much speculation as to his relationship with the Nazi Party. When Carmina Burana was premiered in Frankfurt in 1937, it became very popular. With Orff’s previous lack of commercial success, this was a change for the composer. Orff was also one of the only German composers, under the Nazi regime, who responded to the official call to write new incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, after the music of Felix Mendelssohn has been banned.

Orff died of cancer in Munich in 1982, aged 86. He had lived through four epochs: the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany and Post World War II West German Bundesrepublik. He leaves behind a wealth of compositions, most of which are fairly unknown to concert halls, with the exception of Carmina Burana. 


The Music

Composed between 1935-1936, Carmina Burana was described by the composer as a ‘scenic cantata’. It is based on 24 poems from the medieval collection of the same name. Carmina Burana is part of a musical triptych which also includes Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite. The first and last movements of the piece are called Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi (“Fortune, Empress of the World”), and begin with O Fortuna. 

The cantata, in general, is considered to be influence by Renaissance and Baroque models made by the likes of Monteverdi and Byrd. However, the orchestration shows likening to that of Igor Stravinksy and his work Les noces (‘The Wedding’). Carmina Burana is scored for a large orchestra, solo voices, SATB mixed choir, children’s choir and two pianos. After its successful premiere in Frankfurt, Orff said to his publisher:


“Everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately printed, can be destroyed. With Carmina Burana, my collected works begin.”


As the opening and closing piece of the cantata, O Fortuna has become Orff’s most popular and well-known composition. The original medieval Latin Goliardic poem was written in the early 13th Century, part of the Carmina Burana collection. The poem is a complaint about Fortuna, which is the fate that rules both men and gods in Roman and Greek mythology. The poem reads below:

Latin – English                                                             

O Fortuna – O Fortune

velut luna – like the moon

statu variabilis, – you are changeable,

semper crescis – ever waxing

ait decrescis; – or waning;

vita detestabilis – hateful life

nunc obdurat – first oppresses

et tunc curat – and then soothes

ludo mentis aceim, – as fancy takes it;

efestatem, – poverty

potestatem – and power

dissovit ut glaciem. – it melts them like ice.

Sors immanis – Fate, monstrous

et inanis, – and empty,

rota tu volubilis, – you whirling wheel,

status malus, – you are malevolent,

vana salus – well-being is vain

semper dissolubilis, – and always fades to nothing,

obumbrata – shadowed

et velata – and veiled

michi quoque niteris; – you plague me too;

nunc per ludum – now through the game

dorsum nudum – I bring my bare back

fero tui sceleris – to your villainy.

Sors salutis – Fate is against me

et virtutis – in health

michi nunc contraria, – and virtue,

est affectus – driven on

et defectus – and weighted down,

semper in angaria. – always enslaved.

Hac in hora – So at this hour

sine mora – without delay

corde pulsum tangite; – pluck the vibrating strings;

quod per sortem – since Fate

sternit fortem, – strikes down the strong man,

mecum omnes plangite! – everyone weep with me!


Orff’s setting of this poem is full of drama and darkness, making it a real force to be reckoned with. O Fortuna demonstrates a strand of medieval music, with elements, such as the texture, reflecting this model. It has been said by many that Orff’s use of a full (plus more) orchestral ensemble is a metaphor of the fate that affects all people.

There are two main sections of O Fortuna, with the first lasting only four bars, and the rest of the work being ‘Part B’, let’s say. Although only four bars in length, due to there being 3 semibreves in each bar, it feels a lot longer. The opening few bars are powerful, heavy and slow, making it a real statement. The beginning words are ‘O Fortuna’, which shows the power that Fortune actually has on the men.

To create a state of uneasiness, Orff starts the voices off syncopated, as the first beat heard of the work is a crash/bang from the percussion section. The syncopation, mixed with the dissonant chordal movement is desperately crying out for some sort of resolution, which comes further on in the B section.

The tempo changes dramatically at the B section, going from 60 minims per bar, to 136 per bar. The dynamic has also gone from ff to pp. The choir sing softly, however are marked ‘mezzo staccato’, which makes their chant detached and this comes across as a fairly aggressive whisper. The first two stanzas of the poem are in the style of this forceful whisper, whereas the last stanza is where the orchestra and choir come back together and proclaim the text at a powerful ff dynamic. J

ust when you think O Fortuna has reached its climax, the coda begins and the orchestral interlude here reiterates the duality of tonalities. Orff writes a tierce de Picardie at the end (a major chord at the end of a minor work), and this has been said to represent how unpredictable the power of Fortune is.


Final Thoughts

O Fortuna is a powerful part of Orff’s Carmina Burana, and there is no question as to why it is still so popular in the media, concert halls and recorded works.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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