Drums pound as the choral
music swells to a crescendo: "O Fortuna!" The first two words of Carl
Orff's Carmina Burana are a cry of helplessness under the lash of
destiny. The name of this powerful work, "Songs from Beuern", conies from
Benediktbeuern, a Benedictine monastery in Upper Bavaria. It was there, in
1803, that a manuscript containing 318 medieval poems was found.
Originating from the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries from South
Tyrol or Austrian Styria, this manuscript proved to be the most important
collection of medieval profane lyric poetry. Most of the texts were
written in medieval Latin by anonymous scholars and itinerant
priests, but there are also works by major German poets, including Walther
von der Vogelweide (c. 1170—с 1230) and Neidhart von
Reuenthal (c 1180—с 1250).
In sensuous, humorous, and graphic terms, this
collection of poems offers us a candid picture of medieval life: one tells
of a drunken abbot, carousing with cronies and dice players, while another
of a roasted swan, complaining about its sufferings. Here, conventional
morality rubs shoulders with mocking satire, virginal love with obscene
songs to Venus. Verses on the Crusades, replete with mythological
allusions, clerical games and tender poetic songs round off this
fascinating poetic assemblage. Panoramic in scope, it unveils the entire
cosmos of medieval life, and enthroned above it all is Fortuna. the
goddess of fate.
For Carmina Burana, Carl Orff composed a musical
score which synthesised twenty-four of these lyric poems, taking fate as
the unifying theme: Fortuna, whose name derives from the Latin Vortumna.
She turns the wheel of the seasons, bringing good and bad to kings and
commoners alike: one day on top of the wheel (regno, I rule) the
next at the bottom (regnavi, I have ruled). And yet, for those who
ultimately end up at the bottom (sum sine regno, I am without
rule), there is still hope (regnabo, I will rule). As with Tarot
(another New Age fad drawn from the Middle Ages), where the Wheel of
Fortune adorns the card marked "X", the basic tenor of Carmina Burana
is ambivalent; it can also be interpreted optimistically, for it is
always possible to begin again.
The Wheel of Fortune is ubiquitous in medieval art and
architecture. It appears in the form of a rose window in Gothic
cathedrals, as a mechanical wheel in Fecamp monastery in Normandy, as a
floor design in Siena Cathedral and as a motif in illuminated manuscripts.
It is a wheel that will always turn: "O Fortuna! Like the Moon, fickle m
her state of being, always waxing, also waning ..."