What piece of choral music is performed most often?
I haven’t been able to find any statistics, but I bet that it’s a tie between Messiah by George Frideric Handel and Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. The first of those pieces reverently tells the story of the birth of Jesus Christ; the second presents sexy texts written by horny medieval monks. For some reason having to do with human nature, those two works have rocketed to the top.
Why has Carmina Burana become so crazily popular? I mean, the piece has so much going against it. It places extreme demands the choral singers who perform it – yet it remains a favorite of community and colleges choruses that really can’t sing it well. It also places horrible demands on its soloists, requiring an operatic baritone with a fearless top range and a clarion falsetto, a tenor who is comfortable belting up in the stratosphere, and a soprano who would be happy to sing Gilda in Rigoletto. Most choruses who do the piece can’t find soloists who can meet those requirements, but they go ahead and give it a shot anyway. Then there’s the fact that Carmina Burana,like the Volkswagen bug, was created in Germany during the Nazi years. Both the cantata and the car became darlings in postwar America. Not sure why.
Here’s a complete performance of Carmina Burana, if you have the time to listen . . .
Part of the reason for the success of Carmina Buranais that its highly melodic and rhythmic music exerts an instant appeal over performers and audiences too. I once sang a run of about 15 performances of the work in the space of about two weeks. Every morning I would wake up and think, “Boy, that’s a trashy piece of music.” But then the music would start to play again and again in my head, and I just couldn’t stop it all day long.
Oh My God, There Are Three of Them . . .
Carmina Burana isn’t the only work of its kind that Orff wrote. In fact, it is only the first cantata in a trilogy of them called Trionfi (“Triumphs”). The other two works are performed much less frequently than Carmina Burana is, even though they seem to have been struck from the same die. Like Carmina Burana, they have erotic texts. They both have those Carmina-style thumping drums and glossy surface embellishments for the orchestra. They are both grueling for choruses and soloists to perform. So isn’t it strange that when choruses and audience are done feasting on Carmina Burana, they never seem to ask for a second helping, in the form of these other pieces in the trilogy . . .
Catulli Carmina (“Songs of Catullus) – This work sets mostly texts by the Latin poet Catullus. You remember him – he’s that Latin bad boy poet who you weren’t supposed to know about when you were in high school. He’s the guy who wrote sexually charged poems about his main squeeze, a woman named Lesbia.
Trionfo di Afrodite (“Triumph of Aphrodite”) – This cantata, which could actually be the sexiest work in the trilogy, describes the wedding of a comely young couple. It features, among other things, a hymn to the god Hymen and an appearance of Aphrodite at the end. (Yup, she shows up.)
So if you love the ultra-appealing Carmina Burana and wish that Orff had written something else like it, your erotic/Latin/thumping/toga party of a piece has just arrived and you are going to have some fun. Check out these clips . . .
Here’s the final section of Catulli Carmina . . .
And here’s a complete, if kind of Slavic, performance of Trionfo di Afrodite . . .