It sounds foreign and fancy and intimidating, doesn’t it? Carmina Burana. Like some artsy, condescending classical piece that snobs enjoy and you wouldn’t.
First things first: don’t worry. This is not a snobby piece. It is not fancy and it is certainly not intimidating. In fact, you already know it. You will instantly recognize its major themes from car commercials, TV shows and silly movies from your childhood. And the rest of the piece is no less accessible. Carmina Burana is made up of catchy, goofy folk songs about parties and getting drunk and hooking up. Every single one of them is hummable. And at least one of them will be the one you totally love.
With that in mind, I’ve slung together a crib sheet (and drinking game) to enhance your enjoyment of the piece. Read along as you listen, or if you’ll be attending our concert this weekend, print this out and bring it with you. (But only drink when, and where, the Kennedy Center says it’s OK.)
INTRO: FORTUNA IMPERATRIX MUNDI
WHAT IT IS: Two songs. You know the first one by heart already. The second combines a men’s chant with something like a punchy work song.
LOUDNESS SCALE: 9 of 10. The first movement (which is repeated at the end) is some of the most famously loud music written for chorus.
WHAT I TELL MY FOUR-YEAR-OLD: “This is a song about luck and how everyone wants to be lucky. But people have bad luck and that makes them sad.” The second movement, the chant/work song, is “the story of a king who lost everything when his luck turned bad. He had a crown made of flowers and a head full of hair, but now he lost the crown and his hair all fell out.”
TAKE A DRINK WHEN: you hear the men chanting like medieval monks, only faster and more profane.
PART I, act 1: PRIMO VERE
WHAT IT IS: Three songs about springtime. A calm and quiet one, followed by a gorgeous baritone solo, then a dance that foreshadows the maypole dancing in the next part.
LOUDNESS SCALE: It gets up to maybe a 6, in the last movement.
WHAT I TELL MY FOUR-YEAR-OLD: “All the flowers are blooming and everyone’s faces are happy and nobody’s sad any more because it’s springtime!”
DRINK WHEN: The baritone sings “Sum praesentialiter, absens in remota” — because you’ve had one of those spring-fueled crushes, you have been that guy or remember him, and at that moment, it was good.
PART I, act 2: UF DEM ANGER
WHAT IT IS: A spring festival outside a cute little town. There are maypole dances. And bushes to go behind. Young girls try on makeup. Boys strut. Everyone flirts. Everything is in flower.
LOUDNESS SCALE: 7 or 8. By the end of the dances, everyone happy-shouts.
WHAT I TELL MY FOUR-YEAR-OLD: “Everyone is dancing around a maypole and weaving their …ribbons together. And the flowers are still blooming. Do you hear how they’re dancing again? Now the girls are putting on their fancies and the boys are pretending to be princes. How fast can they dance?”
DRINK WHEN: (1) You first hear something that isn’t Latin. We ain’t in the monastery any more, kids. (2) You hear the sound of a horse galloping away, played by the timpani.
PART II: IN TABERNA
WHAT IT IS: Dudes at a bar. Four songs, sung by and about dudes at a bar.
LOUDNESS SCALE: 8, at its high points.
WHAT I TELL MY FOUR-YEAR-OLD: “This is just a bunch of boys doing boy things. There aren’t any girls here. Do you want to hear this part? I didn’t think so.” [She has yet to hear this part.]
DRINK WHEN: (1) The tenor pretending to be a dying swan hits a note that makes you need a drink. (2) The chorus tells you to. Again and again.
PART III: COUR D’AMOURS
WHAT IT IS: Scenes from the drunken hookups that follow after the maypole dances and the pub crawl. There may or may not be an actual orgy. There is definitely a …high point. (Spoiler alert: the soprano soloist gets it.)
LOUDNESS SCALE: 8 to 9. The scenes do get … animated.
WHAT I TELL MY FOUR-YEAR-OLD: [We skip the opening movements, because they bore her and we don’t need to go there.] “The boys and the girls are having a race. They’re saying veni-veni-venias, which means c’mere, c’mere, come race with us! Who do you think is winning now? How about now? Now the girl is saying ‘I can’t make up my mind,’ but then she does make up her mind, and she decides to be happy, and now everyone is having a big dance party!”
WHAT MY TWO-YEAR-OLD TELLS ME: “I want veni-venias, Mommy. I want veni-veni-venias.”
DRINK WHEN: You have totally lied to your kids about what is going on in these scenes. And now your four-year-old can sing the catcalls (“Pulchra tibi facies, oculorum acies”) and the in flagrante delicto part (“Oh, oh, oh, totus floreo”) with the innocence of…a four-year-old. Who thinks she’s just singing about flowers and people who are pretty.
CONCLUSION: BLANZIFLOR ET HELENA, FORTUNA IMPERATRIX MUNDI
WHAT IT IS: A song about two legendary beauties/goddesses, sung in the style of a Catholic litany — but these are not the virgins you’re looking for. Followed by a repeat of the opening movement, the one you know by heart.
LOUDNESS SCALE: 10 of 10. The invocation of the goddesses’ names is the loudest movement in the entire piece. I can’t even tell you how loud this gets.
WHAT I TELL MY FOUR-YEAR-OLD: “This is a song about the two most beautiful women in the world — Snow White, and Helen of Troy. And then there’s another song about how important it is not to have bad luck. See, we’d rather be lucky than good.”
DRINK WHEN: The chorus couldn’t possibly get any louder. Then drink again when it does.