copyright Jay Ducharme 1980, 1991, 1994, 1999
What is the Carmina?
"Carmina Burana" translates to "Songs (or Chants) of Beuern." In 1803 at the Bavarian monastery of Benedictbeuern, an amazing and vast collection of songs was discovered. The songs were the writings of Goliard poets in the late thirteenth century. The writings (mostly in latin, german and french) were not what you would have expected to find in a monastery. They were basically bawdy drinking songs on par with what you might hear at your local pub. I can't imagine the members of the monastery being too thrilled with this particular discovery. One might wonder why the supposedly pious and reserved monks would keep such a collection on hand. In the equally reserved climate of the 1800s, various translations were attempted. There was a lot of material -- around 3000 songs. Translations were usually restricted to a very small portion of the collection, and most didn't attempt to copy the rhyme and rhythm of the original text (but did manage to minimize any bawdy references).
In 1936, German composer Carl Orff chose 24 songs from the Carmina collection and arranged them into four themed sections (based on fortune, springtime, drinking and love) plus the addendum of the ode Blanziflor et Helena. He adapted some of the original medieval music, but most of the score was of his own design. He envisioned the enormous orchestral and choral work being performed as a "scenic cantata" with spectacular visuals to go along with the music. He subtitled the work "Cantiones Profanae," which means "profane songs." His Carmina Burana was a terrific success for him and is still widely performed today. He followed that work with two more compositions for orchestra and chorus using other text from the Carmina collection.
My first introduction to the Carmina came when I was a child. Orff's famous Dance from the Carmina was used as the theme song for a TV show my parents regularly watched. Years later, I heard the complete cantata and was very impressed. I began casually researching the source of his libretto and was quite surprised when I learned what the chorus was actually singing. As I delved into the text more and more, I could find no adequate translation that captured the fun and abandon of the original Goliard songs. So I set about translating the libretto myself, with the intention of creating a singable english version that could be used in production.
I hunted through transcripts of the huge original collection and found the songs that matched up with those that Orff had selected. He had freely taking excerpts from various songs and pieced them together as he needed. I first created a rough literal translation of several complete (pre-excerpted) songs. Then I searched for every translation of the Carmina that I could find and compared others' interpretations with what I had come up with. When I was confident that I knew the intent and meaning of the songs, I then began the arduous task of crafting that meaning into singable lyrics that exactly matched the rhyme and rhythm scheme of the original libretto. It was a process that took me fourteen years (on and off) to complete. After every revision, I would put it away and forget about it for a while, later come back to it fresh and review it critically, make more changes and then set it aside again.
I had a particularly difficult time with a few of the pieces. Much of that stemmed from my desire to replicate the feel of the original language. English can be much more difficult than latin with which to create extensive inter-rhyming. When faced with the daunting task of re-creating the feel of "Si puer cum puellula," I abandoned literal translation. The whole of the Carmina is filled with references to people, figures and events now lost to history, or at least no longer familiar to a modern audience. A literal translation would have preserved those references, but might not have the humorous impact originally intended. So I chose to introduce in some songs characters that, in the song's situation, a modern audience might find humorous. To create interesting inter-rhyming and inject humor, my version of "Si puer cum puellula" became "If Jack and Jill go up the hill." Much of my libretto stays as close as possible to a literal translation, though. For the curious, I've kept the verse enumeration from the original texts, which helps illustrate what Orff used and what he left out. If you have a recording of the Carmina handy, feel free to sing along! I hope you enjoy it.