O Fortuna

O Fortuna
velut luna
statu variabilis,
semper crescis
aut decrescis;
vita detestabilis
nunc obdurat
et tunc curat
ludo mentis aciem,
dissolvit ut glaciem.

O Fortune,
like the moon
you are changeable,
ever waxing
and waning;
hateful life
first oppresses
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;
and power
it melts them like ice.

(Lyrics: wikipedia)

I knew intellectually when I moved to the SF Bay Area that replacing my beloved community orchestra would be impossible, but like my partner in hair, Goldilocks, I’ve been searching for a music situation that’s “just right.”

One symphony, with whom I’ve played first violin in two concerts this season, is Papa Bear. With a knowledgeable and erudite conductor, a professional concertmaster, ambitious thematic programming, commemorative T-shirts and tote bags, glossy color programs not obviously from Staples or somebody’s after-hours workplace copy machine, and a member of the first violin section who warms up on the Tchaikovsky violin concerto during breaks, this group does not mess around.  It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to play there at all.

This April we accompanied a choir in San Jose for a performance of Orff’s Carmina Burana. I’d never played the piece before, but over the years it has assumed a kind of mythic cultural status, second maybe only to Handel’s Messiah in terms of symbolism and widespread recognition. I finally performed the Messiah in 2008, and it was time to add Carmina to my collection of musical experiences. There’s something about this piece that just screams, “Soundtrack to your life!

At the same time, parts of the score are almost unplayable, at least by me. Orff didn’t use regular time signatures. (As a music educator, Carl Orff pioneered a system that uses an image of the note in the denominator, instead of a number. This system has not been widely adopted by modern music publishers, except for Orff’s own work.) High-D harmonics followed by G-string gymnastics and back up again. 3X repeats. Weird back and forth divisi between the on- and off-beats. Flirting in medieval German. A swan is roasted. As a friend put it: long stretches of boredom punctuated by episodes of sheer terror.

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Rehearsals were generally on Sundays, not the usual rehearsal day, and not with the usual conductor. The performance venue was only available during the last week before the concert, meaning that I kept having to drive to new places for rehearsals. In spite of the orchestra manager’s excellent email communication, come Sunday afternoon I still would find myself on some unfamiliar freeway, driving too fast, hoping not to be late to rehearsal, humming O Fortuna under my breath.


Our performance took place in the Mission Santa Clara de Asis on the campus of Santa Clara University. Frankly, it was exciting: Papa-Bear-level exciting. We rehearsed and performed directly across from Jesus on the Cross. At Easter time. Under rows of watchful angels.

Photo credit: Elizabeth Smith, violist

The church is big and beautiful, but that didn’t stop them from selling out the performance (another occurrence I’m not used to!)

Like Handel’s Messiah, Orff’s Carmina Burana is a huge showpiece, written for orchestra and chorus and performed by a large contingent of singers and instruments, about something unimaginable in size and scope, something universal and a little scary for us mere mortals to experience.

Unlike the Messiah, it is not Christian, or even Biblical in scope. And it was not composed in the 1700s.The text comes from a collection of medieval poetry, written by “Goliards,” or street poets. These Goliards were, according to the program notes, a disenfranchised group: former monks, defrocked priests, rebellious students–the dropouts of medieval society. The poems were first collected in a monastery in Beuron, Bavaria, in the late 13th century, and languished there for another almost 600 years, until they were brought to Munich and published in 1847. The first staging of Orff’s setting these poems to music took place in Frankfurt, by the Frankfurt Opera in 1937.

Since I don’t have a recording of our performance to share, I will close with this Carmina Burana flash mob: a piece by and for the people.

4 thoughts on “O Fortuna”

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