Carmina Burana: The Reformation in the 11th Century

The full title of the Carmina Burana is Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanæ cantoribus et choris cantandæ comitanibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis, which means “Songs of Beuern, Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magic images.” By just reading the title, you might not guess that its poetry was written by 11th-century monks and clergymen. The subject matter is almost appalling when you think of the context in which it was written. It ranges from taking the Queen of England to bed, to being a goose in an oven, slowly burning and dying. To write this paper, I’m looking for evidence of two things: That the spirit in which the text was written mirrors that of the Reformation 400 years later (rebellious sentiments against hypocrisy and contradiction in the Catholic church), and that Carl Orff attempts to reconcile its secularity by setting the text to music in a manner that manages to allow the work to be seen in a religious light once again.

The convenient thing about this subject is that most of my “research” will be analysis on my part—of the text and of Orff’s setting. I’ve yet to find a reputable source of scholarly writing on this subject either online or in the music library, and I’m not really sure what kind of information is out there on this subject. I bet I’ll find writing on the different languages used in the work; the poems are in Medieval Latin, Germanic Latin, Middle-High German, Old French, Provençal, and some of the pieces are even “macaronic” (made of macaroni)(jk), meaning they are a jumble of different languages. To me, the use of the vernacular in these poems is a dead-ringer for what happened during the Reformation.

I think that my best course of action with regard to analyzing the music will be to use the infrequent religious references in the text as guide points to focus on. The most well known reference is in the penultimate piece of the work, Blanziflor et Helena. The “chorus” has convinced the female main character (soprano soloist) to fall in love, and this piece is a glorious congratulation. Blanziflor comes from the French Blanchefleur, a word meaning “white flower” and also being a common representation of the Virgin Mary. The chorus compares the soprano’s beauty to Mary and Helen of Troy, hailing her with the explosive first line: Ave formosissima! (Behold the most lovely).

The research has been slow so far, but the more I do, the more I become convinced that my thesis actually has some ground to stand on, which isn’t something I can say for every paper I’ve written.

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