What is it about the Carmina Freakin’ Burana?

Carl Orff succeeded spectacularly where so many composers have failed. In the twentieth century he wrote a piece of music in a classical style, a secular cantata with Latin lyrics, in fact, that went on to be a modern pop cultural phenomenon. The Carmina Burana sounds ancient, but it was composed in 1937. The opening number, O Fortuna, is the one that everybody knows. It’s the one that they used for beer and Gatorade commercials. It’s the one they used in no fewer than ten movies, including Jackass and Cheaper By The Dozen.

I don’t mean to sound glib. I like O Fortuna as much as the next drinker of sugary beverages. I do. But what is it about the piece that inspires so much schlock? Maybe it’s because it delivers pretense, bombast, and orgasmic payoff in one incredibly compact package.

Anyway, from Steve Crandall’s blog I came across this helpful explanation of the puzzling lyrics of Orff’s chef d’oeuvre.

Fun stuff, and it puts me in mind of mangled and misheard lyrics of all kinds. Kiss This Guy is a site dedicated to misheard lyrics. The title comes from the well-known Jimi Hendrix riff from Purple Haze, “‘scuse me while I kiss this guy.”

The idea of garbled prose acting as a proxy for a real story is the basis for Howard Chace’s masterpiece, Ladle Rat Rotten Hut (Little Red Riding Hood). Upon seeing the wolf in Grandma’s clothing, Ladle Rat Rotten Hut was moved to remark on the size of her nose:

O, Grammar, water bag noise! A nervous sore suture anomalous prognosis!”

Chace’s efforts are justly famous. But in his epic Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames (Mother Goose Rhymes), Luis D’Antin van Rooten shows us that the effect also works across language barriers. How’s your French? Read this out loud.

Un petit d’un petit s’étonne aux Halles.

This is either the story of a little man finding surprise in the famous old Parisian market, or the story of a giant egg man astride a battlement. The proof is left as an exercise for the reader.

2 thoughts on “What is it about the Carmina Freakin’ Burana?”

  1. Back in the time of Yore (1975) my friend Alex put up a poster in his room that read:
    O sibili, si ergo,
    fortibuses in ero.
    Nobili, demis trux,
    sewatisinem, cowsendux.

    It’s all the Latin I know that doesn’t somehow involve a penninsula.

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