Fortune smiles upon
O Fortuna as set in
Carl Orff’s cantata.
Written long ago,
The Latin poem bemoans
Life’s changing fortunes.
Now used in ads and
Films and TV shows, sadly
It sells us pizza.
You’ve heard O Fortuna, whether you recognize the name or not. It is said to be “the most played classical music of the past 75 years in the United Kingdom.”1,2 Wikipedia dedicates a separate page to its use in popular culture.3 In the US it has been used to sell pizzas, peppermint candies, and to introduce wrestlers.
So where did it come from?
The words come from the 13th century. The poem “O Fortuna” is part of a collection called the Carmina Burana.4 Its various poems speak of the whims of fate. You can see a really cool illustrated manuscript of the poems at the website of the Munich Digitization Center Digital Library.5 As you page through, you will see illustrations of people playing chess and backgammon, that is, when they’re not drinking.
I was about to say the music comes from Carl Orff; but not the first music. If you look carefully, you will see neumes over the lines of the poem! You can see the neumes more clearly on this page. So it was sung centuries before Orff got his hands on it. Sadly, we don’t know the original tune.
The setting that we know comes from Carl Orff.6 He found the text of the Carmina Burana and set some of it to music in the 1930s. It was staged as a ballet in 1937.7
So now you need to hear it. I really wish I could have found some very serious, austere, black-suited choir singing this piece, to give it the gravity that the piece seems to intend. But I didn’t. And I was very conflicted over which of the versions that I liked to show you. So I’m giving you both, with explanations, or perhaps warnings.
The first is a performance by Andre Rieu’s orchestra and chorus. It is a fine performance, but visually it is over the top.
The second is a bit of silliness. A fine musical performance accompanied by cartoons and subtitled, or mis-subtitled, with what the words sound like they might be saying in English. You may never be able to hear O Fortuna again without hearing these mangled words.
You have been warned. You might want to listen with your eyes closed. Enjoy!
- CD liner notes. Off. Carmina Burana, Sylvia NcNair, soprano, John Aler, tenor, Håkan Hagegård, baritone, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Leonard Slatkin, conductor.
“O Fortuna” in the Carmina Burana manuscript (Bavarian State Library Clm 4660, f. 1r). The poem may be found on the last six lines of the page. By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACarminaBurana_wheel.jpg. For large detailed view of image and the remainder of the poem, see http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/0008/bsb00085130/images/index.html?fip=220.127.116.11&id=00085130&seite=5