Ensemble for Medieval Music. Benjamin Bagby, Director

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Sequentia celebrates its 40th anniversary in March 2017




Katja Zimmermann

(exclusive of Europe)

Seth Cooper
Seth Cooper Arts Inc.
4592 Hampton Ave.
Montréal, QC, Canada
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The Original Sound of the Carmina Burana (ca. 1230)

Program originally commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and premiered in November 2008

This program, originally commissioned in 2008 by Maestro Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is designed to complement a concert performance of Carl Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’ for orchestra, choir and soloists. The Sequentia performance lasts 35 minutes and serves as an ideal first half before the Orff, which lasts one hour. It is performed with video supertitles in English.

Benjamin Bagby voice
Paul Guttry voice
William Hite voice
Frank Kelley voice
Eric Mentzel voice
Wolodymyr Smishkewych voice

In 1937, the Bavarian composer Carl Orff premiered a staged ‘szenische Kantate’ which has since made Carmina Burana a household name; but what did the original, medieval music (which neither Orff nor anyone else in his day had heard) sound like? Who composed it? Where does the name come from?

During the secularisation of the German monasteries in the early 19th century, whole monastic libraries were absorbed by larger, secular institutions. This was also the case at the Benedictine monastery of Benediktbeuren, in Bavaria, whose library was carted off to Munich in 1803. It was at this moment that we hear for the first time of a particularly intriguing 13th century manuscript without a title: 112 parchment leaves containing Latin (and some German) poetry which fascinated scholars and was later baptized ‘Songs from Benediktbeuren’ — Carmina Burana. These poems, with their varied — and sometimes scandalous — texts, were immediately noticed, and, during the 19th and 20th centuries German philologists published several editions, translations and commentaries, as well as popular editions. The first complete edition, by Johann Christoph Schmeller (1847), which begins with the poem O Fortuna velut luna, caught the eye of Carl Orff in 1934, and the rest is history.

Although Schmeller’s title Carmina Burana gives us the impression that the contents of this manuscript originated in Benediktbeuren, in fact it is an international collection, the largest Latin songbook to survive from the Middle Ages, including pieces as diverse as German Minnesang and ‘new music’ from the circles of the most advanced Parisian intellectuals of the early 13th century. Most of the songs are anonymous, but works by at least six medieval composer-poets can also be found. In this astonishing collection, many genres (with topics which are moralistic, satiric, erotic, or about gambling & drinking, and even liturgical drama) were brought together and copied – probably for an important patron such as a bishop – somewhere in the southernmost Alpine regions of the German-speaking world, perhaps in Seckau (Steiermark), or in Südtirol. How and when the manuscript came to Benediktbeuren must remain a mystery.

During the 1950’s and 60’s, as interest in medieval music performance began to grow, a number of musicologists and performers began to realize that these pieces were originally intended to be sung, and some 45 of the surviving 254 Carmina Burana poems were found with musical notation in parallel sources (in the manuscript itself, there are only some neumes without a staff for nine of the songs), and ensembles such as Thomas Binkley’s Studio der Frühen Musik made recordings which brought these masterpieces back to life for the first time since the manuscript was copied sometime around 1230. In the last 40 years, performances and recordings of the medieval Carmina Burana have become a staple of the ‘historically-informed’ medieval music scene, but will certainly never rival the popularity of Orff’s setting.

Thanks largely to Carl Orff’s choice of texts for his work, the modern view of Carmina Burana is heavily tilted towards the erotic, gambling and drinking songs, reinforcing our romantic image of those lustily singing, wandering clerical students, the so-called ‘Goliards’. In fact, many of the original pieces — covering a variety of subjects ranging from tales of classical antiquity (Dido, Hercules, Helen of Troy, etc.) to the political scandals of the medieval church — are subtly crafted, musically virtuosic, and were actually intended for serious performance before the most discerning intellectuals of the age. That such a large spectrum of song, from low-brow to ‘elite’, can be found in one manuscript attests to the wide-ranging and intense curiosity of the 13th century churchman who probably commissioned this codex. The ‘Songs of Benediktbeuren’ remain today one of the most sublime testimonies to a truly European golden age of poetry and song.

Translations of individual songs will be projected during the performance.

The songs will be interspersed with short Latin and medieval German epigrams and maxims, also taken from the Carmina Burana manuscript.

I.  The Wheel of Fortune

Iste mundus furibundus (CB 24)
O varium Fortune lubricum (CB 14)
O Fortuna, velut luna (CB 17)

Medieval poetry is filled with images of fate and destiny, reflecting the Christian’s morbid fascination with the terrifying power of an implacable pagan goddess, Fortuna, who turns the mysterious wheel which randomly brings the weak to the height of power, and the powerful to a humiliating fall. Clearly, this wheel functions best in a mad, materialistic society which has lost its center, and in which falsehood, sin and injustice are rampant (Iste mundus furibundus / This delirious world, a poem which Orff had originally planned to conclude his cantata). Young Parisian clerical intellectuals of the 12th century — in a more refined musical setting employing sophisticated 2-voice counterpoint — remind us that even the great societies of Troy, Carthage, the Romans and the Greeks were not immune to Fortune’s power (O varium Fortune lubricum / O slippery instability of Fortune). Finally, we hear the text which Carl Orff made famous, O Fortuna, velut luna / O Fortune, so like the moon, in a reconstruction which returns the text to its more modest – yet still powerful —  medieval dimension.

II. Time out for Eros

Axe phebus aureo (CB 71)
Sic mea fata canenda solor (CB 116)
Procurans odium (CB 12)

No tribute to the Carmina Burana would be complete without an erotic interlude. When springtime came to the towns and meadows, the fertility rites of youth began anew, and decidedly lyrical poetic thoughts filled the minds of clerical poets and singers. The blossom-strewn scene is set for libidinous adventure in Axe phebus aureo / Phoebus in his golden chariot, which invokes Venus and Cupid in naughty pastoral bliss but rapidly deteriorates into male adolescent angst, tears and confusion. Latin verse from the circle of Hilarius of Orleans, with its lip-smacking double-entendre, is the ideal vehicle for fantasies of sexual conquest in the delicate Sic mea fata canendo solor / I try to console myself by singing, a tune found nestled in an Aquitanian manuscript of religious vocal music. And since love and jealousy are never far apart, one luscious 3-voice conductus from Paris (Procurans odium / Procuring hatred) reminds us that snarky rumours about the beloved only serve to heighten the energy of eros, so that the lover can finally ‘harvest sweet grapes on the envious enemy’s thorns’.

III. Money, Power, Corruption

O Curas hominum (CB 187)
Curritur ad vocem nummi (CB 47a)
Initium Sancti Evangelii secumdum marcas argenti (CB 44)
Dic, Christi veritas (CB 131)

The creators of these songs, clerical intellectuals but also some courtly poets, were the ‘angry young men’ of their time, deeply concerned with justice (for their own class, that is) and decrying corruption in the Church and at court. This was a period of profound disgust at how money had come to rule the world and the Church; positions of power were openly on sale — especially in Rome – leading our young French poets to protest in vehement, virtuosic song. O Curas hominum / O the cares of men wearily reminds us that ‘those who have, shall receive’. In a cynical nod to a well-known conductus exhorting Christians to crusade in the Holy Lands, a new text, Curritur ad vocem nummi / Run to the sound of money, instead exhorts the listener to perfect the art of usury and bribery, forget the law, and do whatever it takes and get rich as fast as possible, without a care for others. The masterful Gospel parody, Initium Sancti Evangelii secumdum marcas argenti / Here begins the Holy Gospel of the silver coins, paints a vivid picture of a greedy Roman Curia and Pope who have completely lost their moral compass (luckily for the singers, Rome was very far from Paris). And finally, one of the masterworks of medieval music, the 3-voice conductus Dic, Christi veritas / Speak, O truth of Christ, tells of the eternal search for truth and justice in a world spinning out of control. Using the poem’s final words Bulla fulminante (‘a fulminating Papal Bull’ — the divorced French king at the time had been excommunicated by the pope), a new song was created which sarcastically declares that the deaf papal gatekeepers will only open their doors to the one who knocks with a silver hammer.

Benjamin Bagby, 2008

Upcoming Concerts

13 August 2023
Lviv, Ukraine (Mirror Hall, Opera)
The Wanderer - Medieval songs of travel

15 August 2023
Kyiv, Ukraine (Hall at the Modern Art Research Institute of the National Academy of Art of Ukraine)
The Wanderer - Medieval songs of travel

20 August 2023
Jarosław, Poland
The Wanderer - Medieval songs of travel

See full concert schedule



Benjamin Bagby's teaching activities in 2019

In March 2019, Benjamin will give two weekend courses on the solo songs of Philippe le Chancelier (d. 1236). The courses are being hosted by the Centre de Musique Médiévale de Paris. Dates: 9-10 and 30-31 March.
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After retiring from his teaching position at the University of Paris - Sorbonne, where he taught between 2005 and 2018 in the professional masters program, Benjamin Bagby continues to travel widely in 2019 to teach practical workshops for young professionals:

Folkwang Universität der Künste (Essen-Werden, Germany).
Benjamin has joined the faculty of this renowned masters program for liturgical chant performance and medieval music. The dates of his courses in 2019: 5-7 April; 26-28 April; 17-19 May; 30 May–01 June.
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For the second year in a row, Benjamin will teach an intensive course in the 8th International Course on Medieval Music Performance (Besalú, Spain): Songs of the troubadours (for singers and instrumentalists).
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Amherst Early Music Festival (Connecticut College, New London CT) 21-28 July:
An intensive course on the solo cansos of the Occitan troubadours, with a focus on songs from the great Milan songbook Bibl. Ambr. R71 sup. (for singers and instrumentalists).
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