Carmina Burana / Studio der frühen Musik
The Benediktbeuren Manuscript c. 1300
2CDs, 1994: Teldec "Das Alte Werk" 4509-95521-2
2CDs, 2008: Teldec "Das Alte Werk" 2564 69765-9

(2 LPs, 1976: Telefunken "Das Alte Werke" 6.35 319 EX)

Carmina Burana I

Carmina Burana II

Reflections from Thirty Years Hence

The Carmina burana, manuscript Clm 4660 of the Bavarian State Library, is the most famous of all collections of medieval Latin and Middle High German poetry. In 1847 it was identified by its first editor, Johann Andreas Schmeller, as having once been in the library of the monastery of Benediktbeuren, and so the manuscript came to be known as the Carmina burana, Songs from Benediktbeuren. While it may have been the property of that monastery at one time, it did not originate there but came from an unknown, undoubtably monastic location (both Seckau and Neustift in Tyrol have been suggested) as a result of Napoleon's secularization of the monasteries. It is best known today for its rich collection of love lyrics, student songs and religious poetry written in Latin and in many cases German (in a dialect identified with the region surrounding Neustift in Tyrol). The Carmina burana is familiar to the musical public as scenic cantata by Carl Orff, a work composed for solo voices, chorus and orchestra employing selected texts from the manuscript organized into scenes. The present recording from the early 1960s constituted the first serious attempt to reconstruct the original medieval music of these songs about 25 years after Orff's composition.

The Beginning of the Project

Having decided to attempt the transcription and performance of the songs contained in the Carmina burana manuscript, an idea which, if I recall correctly, had its genesis in remarks by Andrea von Ramm, I turned to the job of collecting the necessary material. The manuscript was then (1960) as now in the Department of Manuscripts at the Bavarian State Library, but when I went to see it I was told it was too valuable for me to see, let alone use. I told the curator, himself a scholar and respected administrator, that I knew that a facsimile edition was being prepared, that I paid my taxes, that this manuscript was public property and that I wanted to work on it. I was told I could not come in there and put a pistol to his head and make demands and, besides, I was not even allowed to know that there was a facsimile edition being prepared. ("Das dürfen Sie gar nicht wissen" were the words which I still remember clearly today). I believe I even requested the intervention of the cultural advisors of Bavaria and Munich. Finally, I was given permission to obtain photocopies of specific folios that I identified, but no continuous sections of the manuscript were to be copied. I was never allowed actually to see the manuscript itself. This indicates the situation then facing scholars and musicians who attempted to gain access to material in major European libraries (this situation still obtains in some libraries both inside and outside Germany and is a serious obstacle to progress).

The manuscript is small and rather elegant. The music is written in staffless neumes above some of the poems. This notation very imperfectly determines pitch and rhythm, but because many of the pieces can be found in other manuscripts that are more clearly notated, transcription is possible.

In 1960 the essence of any music was thought to be contained in the written score, while today we would readily argue that in much music the details of the score are of far less importance than the details of the performance, something we have learned as the tools of ethnology now begin to be employed in historical musicology.

The Reconstruction

Our main task was to create an historically informed performance style, which respected both artistic merit and historical performance. There were no known models to follow. Having had an opportunity to become somewhat familiar with music of the Middle East and South-East Asia which is largely a monothematic music, I recognized that monophonic music was not primitive nor in any way artistically inferior to polyphonic music. Rather than being music of the composer this was music of the performer, and this single impulse led to the creation of idiomatic instrumental accompaniments for the songs. Much was new in moving away from harmonic-contrapuntal accompaniment models to idiomatic instrumentalisations of melody. Among novel features were the use (common in non-Western music) of a small drum as a chamber-music instrument rather than as a purveyor of rhythm and the deployment of many medieval instruments such as the lira, vielle, rebec, 'ud (= lute), citole, chitarra Sarazenica, small medieval harp, psaltery, small keyless flute and medieval shawm that are now common but were still relatively new at that time. The instrumental preludes, interludes and postludes invited the performance of the whole song (in 1960 it was unusual for every strophe of a song to be performed, since it was not the song as a whole, but only the individual melody that was deemed to constitute the "music", with the result that the melody was rarely repeated more than once.) The basic rule of instrumental performance that governed the way in which we performed medieval music was that everything we played must be individualised and that it should be easy for the performer in question to play. Articulation is the really important key to phrasing. A string instrument has a tuning which determines what notes will be played. The bow or plectrum demands a sort of choreography which, when it is set upon the strings will result in some useful and appropriate sounds (according to the tuning), and these sounds are not derived from any theory of consonance or counterpoint.

These performances provided a new and experimental approach to medieval music-making but they also opened the door to much mindless imitation and incorporation of folk and exotic paradigms that really had no place in serious historical performance. This led to the creation of a parallel pseudo-historical performance style in which good musicians made use of early music with no thought at all for historical practices, but created a new music, not folk, not exotic and not historical, but fun to play and to listen to.

The Medieval Performance Climate in 1960

In the early 1960s early-music specialists greatly concerned about the details of the melodies: the ambiguity of right notes versus wrong notes was regarded as being similar to the ambiguity that exists between fact and fiction. At that time we did not easily accept as we do now, that there could be multiple versions of a piece of music, each with equal artistic merit and historical credibility. There was no clear understanding regarding the details of instruments and their playing techniques, so important in devising an improvisatory performance style. Indeed, very little was actually known about medieval instruments. No one performing medieval music at that time was willing to trust the performance paradigms of the Middle Ages, everyone employed instruments from more recent times and applied modern "quality control" to performance standards, believing that it was more virtuous to make a beautiful sound (whatever that may be) than to select interesting notes to play. Although an important original source for historical performance was readily available, we did not recognize it: I am thinking of the whole complex of medieval rhetoric. At that time we were just beginning to understand to what extent the characteristics of an instrument condition the tonal picture. When we stopped projecting Renaissance musical characteristics back into the Middle Ages we made a great leap forward: our new models were found in selected practices from South-East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, music based upon monophony and instrumental applications growing out of a serious aesthetic theory which in very general terms could be applied to Western music. We never directly imitated Eastern music, but passed what we had learned through what might be termed a "Western filter" in an attempt to recreate the lost art of medieval instrumental performance. We postulated the necessary existence of preludes, interludes and postludes as parts of a song's performance, and because there were no models we turned to the East for guidance. That was what we thought we were doing.

Looking Back

It is surprising to me now to reflect on that work of thirty years ago and find so much there that I still feel is right. Today I might be less lavish in the use of instrumental sounds in accompaniments, I would work out rhythms rather more in terms of language than of the dance-like meters of the later music that is in all our bones. I would integrate far better the preludes, interludes and postludes that certainly belong to the performances but that should never overbalance them. Post-medieval performing practises inevitably get in the way and prevent the performer from realizing either the aesthetic of the medieval performance or what might be termed the macro-rhythm of the rhetorical exposition (the priority of cadences and phrase beginnings). I am not sure that we recognised that then, but today this problem remains clearly in focus. The world of medieval performance was tiny then in comparison to now and meant that modern performers of medieval music worked in isolation. Had it not been for the farsighted record producers who persuaded their companies to invest in projects such as this one, who knows where it would have ended.

I still recall the recording sessions in the old AEG studio in Munich in those early days of stereophonic sound. The hall itself was small and had a very poor recording acoustic — a far cry from the magnificent big stone spaces of the Middle Ages. We sang and played with the youthful confidence in musical decisions which were based to such a large extent upon instinct and insight. While I have returned to that repertory and to that source many times in the intervening years, no leaps since then have seemed as long or as high as that one.

Thomas Binkley

2 LPs, 1976: Telefunken "Das Alte Werke" 6.35 319 EX

2CDs, 2008: Teldec "Das Alte Werk" 2564 69765-9