Sacri Sarcasmi / La Reverdie
Carmina Burana


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Sacred Sarcasm
The Paradoxes of the Carmina Burana

Ut aliquantulum huius cantus ludum secolarium vocum deleret.
(May this type of song be at least somewhat trimmed of worldly echoes.)
Otfried von Weisenburg
Sentit tela Veneris, et Amoris ictus: non est tamen Clericus mater et afflictus!
(He feels the darts of Venus and the arrows of Love: the cleric is not necessarily a dark and emaciated ascetic!)
Carmina Burana, «De Phyllide et Flora»


For the average opera lover, the Carmina Burana is probably the best known example of 'Medieval Music'. We might even go so far as to say that the songs of the Carmina are in fact the only widely known examples of the medieval repertoire, appropriately labeled and fragmented by a fanciful congeries of anonymous, pleasant melodies. For this, we are without a doubt beholden to Carl Orff (though we should perhaps apologize at this point to those listeners who have imprudently bought our CD in the hopes of enjoying a new and sweeping version of that grandiose choral fresco).

Yet, in a certain sense, the good fortune which Orff unwittingly brought to this amazing medieval collection has at the same time sealed it within the first and most fundamental of the paradoxes which continue to imprison it. The average opera lover mentioned above has developed a clear idea concerning this repertoire: the chansons of the troubadours were gracefully warbled by distinguished songwriters; Gregorian responsories were austerely thundered by austere monks; and the Carmina Burana? These songs were obviously belted out between belches and jokes by that undefined social category - known as 'goliards'!

(Unfortunately not a great deal has been done by contemporary revivals of medieval music to correct this inane impression.)

In truth, modern musicology is in no way responsible for the facile equation Carmina ='Belches in the Tavern'. For years, the Codex Buranus has been studied and compared to a series of magnificent international parallel sources. Indeed, ecclesiastical manuscripts of the highest quality, the contents of which are fantastically eclectic, are actually quite common.

From the celebrated Parisian Codex Pluteus 29.1 to the Carmina Cantabrigensia (despite its name, the older of the two manuscripts was compiled in Canterbury but is in fact a copy of a Rheinland original); from the essential Scottish collection (now in Wolfenbuttel), to the English miscellanea belonging to the abbots of Reading and the bishops of Bath (Harley 978 and Beckyngton Miscellany, respectively), as well as to dozens of others. Europe was swarming with collections containing many of the same pieces present in the Codex Buranus: secular songs, sacred songs, and songs which are a bit of both - veritable 'evergreens' spanning nearly two centuries of time. And among the authors represented, again and again we find the names of three intellectuals who straddled the ecclesiastical and political spheres: Philip the Chancellor, Peter of Blois, and Walter of Chatillon.

Here, then, is another paradox surrounding the Codex Buranus, for without this brigade of international players (who in a certain sense add to its mystery), the music of the manuscript would be to us entirely mysterious. As we will in fact explain below, the scanty and unusable melodic indications in the Buranus are only intelligible and playable thanks to the dozens of parallels which exist between its songs and the vast and well known group of similar manuscripts. Alone, excluded from the wider panorama of a very specific era with very specific aesthetics, our codex would be merely beautiful - and irremediably devoid of music. This fact seems almost implicitly to raise new questions concerning the complexity and inconceivable permeability of medieval culture.

In his discussion of the technical and conceptual characteristics of such a group of exquisitely refined and yet rather immodest florilegia, John Stevens writes (in reference to the Carmina Cantabrigensia, though his thoughts perfectly apply to the Burana): «[...] the presence of more than one text scribe in just a few pages argues a community at work, a community of clerics, perhaps the teachers or students of a cathedral or monastery school[...]. The intelarding of a mainly sacred repertory with lively, though never gross, secular songs, supports this opinion».

The question is thus where (and the journey from where to how is never very far) were these «lively, though never gross» songs sung? Chock full of spicy classical citations as well as moral invectives in the vein of proto-Lollards or proto-Patarines, where indeed were the Carmina Burana really enjoyed? Probably not (and certainly not only) in student bars of ill repute in the university towns. On the contrary, the capital scholae suggested by Stevens obviously come to mind: those prelatic curiae, those literary circles of artistically illuminated prelates, including the urbane ecclesiastic who commissioned the Codex Buranus.

Evidently the Carmina (especially those songs which we might consider a bit risque or, at the very least, 'subversive'), would have been sung, as Bruno Stablein theorizes, «extra-liturgically, at gatherings of high clergy [...] for example during mealtimes and on social occasions. We have, then, to do with a kind of clerical entertainment quite parallel to the secular courtly and aristocratic art of chivalric love-songs».

Moreover, in terms of para-liturgical or even genuinely liturgical uses, Bernhardt Bischoff, who oversaw the essential edition of 1970, adds: «the long, rarely interrupted series of love, dance and spring songs to each of which a German strophe has been added were sung to the round dances of the clerics». These round dances, as strange as it might seem today, were known by a perfectly orthodox liturgical term: Quatuor Tripudia (at the feasts of the Nativity and of Saint Stephen, the deacons kicked up their heels; at Saint John's it was the ordinary priests who danced; at the Feast of the Holy Innocents it was the pueri cantores; and at Epiphany the dancers were the subdeacons).

Roughly a hundred years prior to the Codex Buranus, these sacred dances were particularly enjoyed by Honorius of Autun, who took great pleasure in describing their profound symbolic and cosmological significance. Dancing in a circle represented the rotation of the firmament; holding hands symbolized the interconnection of the elements; the sung melody was the music of the spheres; the rhythmic stomping of feet echoed the sound of thunder. Shortly thereafter, however, we begin to find complaints (some from considerably authoritative sources, such as the 1209 Council of Avignon) of such 'extreme' musical practices in the churches where monks, priests and even nuns behaved with wanton abandon'. Such complaints indicate that the practices had become rather widespread, and betray an authentically felt need on the part of the participants .

It is no coincidence that our homage to the Codex Buranus opens with the ideological manifest of another codex: the Irish Red Book of Ossory. Here, the episcopal patron states his desire to gather together a repertoire «for festivities and for moments of leisure» (i.e., love songs in the classical style and pleasant or at least intriguing clerical and moral tunes, as are also found in the Carmina). The purpose of the collection was intended for those «instructed in the art of song» (and here, we sincerely believe the reference is not to goliards but rather to those deacons, subdeacons, priests and pueri cantores who for two centuries had been yearning for a little amusement), so that they would not be «contaminated» by the practice of profane, obscene and vulgar ditties».

Clerical entertainment? Sacred sarcasm? It would seem so: pastimes, whether sacred or virtuously secular, often pervaded by a thoughtful and uncompromising irony, and so movingly exemplified by these verses from the Carmina itself: «O Dialectics, were that I had never mety ou! It is you that makes of every cleric an exile, a wretch».

This is the third, and perhaps most profound and touching paradox of the Carmina, that impassive and multifaceted mirror reflecting the human, cultural and emotional state of an entire stratum of medieval society: the «exiled and wretched» cleric, an intellectual estranged by his own intellect, uprooted from affections and homeland. And yet the cleric, gazing at his simple reflection and complex alter ego, is not «a dark and emaciated ascetic», but rather one who «knows how to love a maiden far better than a warrior».

Here, then, is the Carmina Burana: confession, mourning, smirk and supreme self-congratulation on the part of the ordo of the oratores. An intellectual Περιπέτεια ('peripeteia') which, on the CD as well as in the manuscript, ranges from the darkest moral pessimism to a refined and coy joie de vivre. Assembled by a clergy capable of gazing into that aforesaid mirror and confronting the image of its own moral corruption, its own educated decadence, its own sensual bewilderment.

It is exactly in this spirit that La Reverdie pays homage to these songs: slightly «trimming them of worldly echoes» (as the Carolingian Otfried von Weissenburg desired for the songs of his own day), but never forgetting that they are laden with 'hot stuff' - now well concealed, now ostentatiously revealed. La Reverdie has embraced the aesthetics of a chorus of deacons and pueri, but has never lost sight of the fact that the 'hot stuff' in the codices that sometimes burns these clerics was in fact written by others.

These clerics - possibly vagrants, rebels and lechers at some point in their lives - already embodied, albeit unwittingly, the future intelligentsia of their time. These same figures, who wrote and analogous sources), performed the Codex Buranus (and many analogous sources) had attended the lessons of the greatest masters of classic literature, theology, philosophy and aesthetics in the universities and scholae throughout Europe: musically inclined dwarves perched on the shoulders of the giants of medieval thought.

As so often happens, the average opera lover is perfectly right: the Carmina Burana, when you get right down to it, is the MiddleAges.

Ella deMircovich


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The Codex Buranus: Origins, Date and Melodic Reconstruction

Our codex was probably copied in the third decade of the 14th century. At a later date (between the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th) other elements were inserted in the empty spaces and on the last pages, and are known as the Fragmenta Burana.

The songs of the Carmina are purposely arranged - albeit in a relatively vague fashion - by subject matter, and at times fall under a general title or note to the reader (a characteristic which we have not found in the group of analogous manuscripts discussed above). The collection begins with moralizing or religious themes before moving on to crusade songs, subjects of love (Iubila), philosophy, satire, chess, and ornithology (there are two very long compositions with amazing lists of birds); we find liturgical parodies, fragments from Ovid, secular ditties featuring protagonists of questionable morality (sophists, prostitutes with classical or floral names), and lengthy sacred dramas.

The codex, buried under piles of other tomes, was preserved in the Abbey of Benediktbeuern until its discovery in 1806, at which time it was transferred to the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek and catalogued as Codex Latinus Monacensis (Clm) 4660.

Various hypotheses exist concerning its provenance: Bavaria, Carinthia, Styria, Tyrol. Most recent studies, based on certain linguistic elements in strophes written in Middle High German, as well as on iconographic peculiarities in the miniatures, have suggested the area of Brixen/ Bressanone (Italy). Perhaps it actually originated in the Abbey of Neustift, a vital intersection for pilgrims from all over Europe and a cultural center of great importance already in the 12th century.

The subsequent transfer of the codex to Benediktbeuern in Bavaria may have been facilitated by the frequent contact between the Bavarian and the Tyrolean confraternities (Benediktbeuern was in fact subject to the bishopric of Brixen). In addition, strong commercial ties existed between the abbey and the territory of Bolzano, where it owned large vineyards.

From the moment of its discovery, the manuscript aroused the interest of scholars. In 1847 Andreas Schmeller oversaw the first complete edition of the Carmina Burana (as Schmeller himself entitled the collection), upon which Carl Orff based his celebrated adaptation.

Various other editions and translations appeared before and during the Second World War, but the entire anthology (containing the Carmina and Fragmenta Burana) was not completed until 1970 by Berhardt Bischoff.

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The Codex Buranus (like many of the cosmopolitan analogous collections mentioned above) is essentially a poetic manuscript. Only 55 of the 315 pieces are partially or totally notated in German neumes on unlined paper, without indications either to melodic intervals or to rhythms, and thus we are faced today with the extremely arduous task of reconstructing the music.

One must therefore proceed with extreme caution: the only approach is to carefully analyze the monodic and polyphonic parallel sources which provide us with the same texts as the Codex Buranus, but are accompanied by a complete and unequivocally legible musical version.

Lacking parallel sources, another riskier path is represented by the typically medieval device of the contrafactum, in which a determined text is set to a pre-existing or contemporary melody which was originally utilized for a different text.

In our case, when faced with particularly stimulating texts that unfortunately lack a musical source (tracks 6, 9,16 and 18), we have carefully examined them from both a literary and metrical standpoint. We have thus delved into the medieval repertoire on a vast scale, searching for melodies which fit them like a glove both metrically and formally (obviously limiting our search to those areas which are reasonable both chronologically and geographically), and our search has been successful. The borrowed tunes are all drawn either from the repertoire notated by the Minnesanger (authors who incidentally penned many of the verses found in the Codex Buranus), or from the analogous manuscripts mentioned above which provide a wealth of additional parallel sources.

A final possible course of action in some cases consists of attempting a melodic reconstruction based directly on the neumatic notation occasionally present in the manuscript. This is exactly what was done for track 3; the patient reader will find further information in the liner notes.

La Reverdie


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