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The name Carmina Burana, for many, conjures up images of ribald tavern scene with dissolute medieval students singing the music of Carl Orff. Certainly, we can be grateful to Carl Orff for helping to immortalize the repertoire of medieval Latin songs. But haven't you ever wondered about the origin and character of the original Carmina Burana?
Actually, while the manuscript which we know as the Carmina Burana represents perhaps the crowning achievement of medieval Latin secular song, it is far from the earliest collection of such lyrics. That honor seems to belong to a manuscript apparently copied in England in the 11th century and containing a continental repertory from the very end of the 10th century. The manuscript once belonged to the Augustinian monastery at Canterbury, but since it now rests in the University of Cambridge Library, we refer to its contents as the Cambridge Songs.
The difficulty with many of these early collections of Latin lyrics is that the term "songs" is used somewhat loosely and, one might even say, wistfully: the evidence suggests that they were indeed intended to be sung, but only a few of the poems have musical notation and what there is of that is not decipherable as it appears. In other words, we have the lyrics to many works which appear to be songs, but either they have no musical notation at all, or they have musical notation which is not transcribable. The reason it is not transcribable is that it shows only the barest outline of the melody, having depended on the memory of the singer to reconstruct the actual pitches.
By a happy coincidence, however, the melody of one of these Cambridge songs has been recovered, making it perhaps the earliest preserved melody known to have been used for secular song in the Middle Ages. “O admirabile Veneris idolum" (O lovely image of Venus) is an erotic love-song to a boy, which is one of only two songs in the Cambridge manuscript to have musical notation. The poem survives also in a Vatican manuscript which couples it with a more respectable song, “O Roma nobilis," having the same poetic form and identical, but still undecipherable, musical notation. Finally, “O Roma nobilis" survives in yet another manuscript, which gives its melody in the newly evolved system of melodic classification known as "solmization." There, the tune begins "sol sol sol la sol fa," and produces, with its recognizable precision of pitch indication, a melody which conforms nicely to the contour of the notation in the Cambridge manuscript.
Here is that venerable melody, sung to the more respectable text and embellished by composite organum, in this case, the use of parallel 5ths and 8ves. The performance is by the Capella Antiqua of Munich, under Konrad Ruhland. “O Roma nobilis," an 11th century pilgrims' song using one of the oldest secular song melodies known to us.
Now we turn to the Carmina Burana proper. It is a manuscript containing about 240 works in as many pages. Before 1803, it belonged to the Benedictine monastery at Benediktbeuren in Bavaria, so when the first edition of its lyrics was published in 1847, the edition dubbed the collection Carmina Burana, meaning "songs from Beuren." It seems to have been compiled in Bavaria around the middle of the 13th century, but one of the really remarkable things about it is the wide expanse of time and space that it covers; there are, for example, pieces thought to have been composed in England more than a century before the Bavarian scribes set to work.
But now for the bad news: not a single melody from the Carmina Burana can be deciphered. Many of the songs do indeed have musical notation, but it is no more helpful than that in the Cambridge Songbook of 200 years earlier. This is especially frustrating, since, by the time the Carmina Burana was put together, staff notation had been developed; it is just that is was not used for this manuscript.
Happily for us, however, some of the songs in the Carmina Burana appear in other manuscripts with more precise melodic notation, and by using these concordances, as they are called, more than 30 of the song melodies have been recovered.
Among these, ironically, is the very first song in the collection, a satire inscribed beneath a depiction of the wheel of fortune: "Fas et nefas ambulant" (The legal and the criminal march in step together). The performance is by the Studio der Frühen Musik, directed by Thomas Binkley.
It is clear that pages are missing from the Carmina Burana, and that, over the years, the original order of the surviving leaves has been changed. In attempting to reconstruct the original order, scholars have discovered that the songs were grouped by subject matter. Like "Fas et nefas," the first 55 songs are moral and satirical, dealing with greed, folly, corruption, and Dame Fortune. The second section is the largest, with about 130 songs dealing with love in a variety of ways, from serious and rather lengthy narratives to lighthearted songs about springtime, or dancing, or other more immediate pleasures.
Such a work is "Sic mea fata," a song which shows wit in both text and music in portraying plight of an ardent but unsuccessful suitor. Here again is the Studio der Frühen Musik in a love-song from the Carmina Burana, performed by Grayston Burgess under Thomas Binkley.
The longer, more serious love-songs are grouped under the caption Incipiunt jubili, an apparent reference to the florid passages which ended many early Alleluia motets in the Mass. A common form for a jubilus was a succession of musical phrases, each repeated, and that seems to be the relation between the jubili and the extended love-songs in the Carmina Burana, since many of them make use of that form. It is interesting to find such a connection between medieval sacred music and these very early examples of secular music.
Another thing I should mention here is the rhythm. The notation gives no clue, so what you hear is purely speculative. Most of the poems, however, are strongly metrical and suggest their own rhythmic organization. It is possible, however, that some were performed in a freer, more declamatory manner, and in this next performance we will hear a combination of the two styles.
The piece is “Olim sudor Herculis" (Once the sweat of Hercules-crushing monsters far and wide—shone afar with illustrious renown).
Almost all of the works in the Carmina Burana are anonymous, and in fact, there is only one author actually named: Walter of Chatillon. “Olim sudor Herculis" has been identified as the work of Peter of Blois, a sometime colleague of Walter's at the court of Henry II in 12th century England.
“Olim sudor Herculis,” a song about Hercules weakened by love, performed by Benjamin Bagby with Ensemble Sequentia.
After the love songs comes a section of about 35 vagabond songs or Goliardic songs, dealing with drinking, gluttony, gambling, and other vices. Interspersed with colorful pictures of tavern scenes—dice-throwing, backgammon, and chess—these are the songs for which the Carmina Burana is most renowned today. And yet, this is the only group of songs for which not a single melody has been recovered from any medieval source. It seems that the musically literate monks who amused themselves by jotting love songs or clever satires in manuscripts intended for sacred music, were too embarrassed to record such overtly sinful lyrics.
The final section of the Carmina Burana is devoted to religious plays. I should mention that, beginning with the vagabond songs, poems in German appear among the Latin lyrics—that, in fact, is how we know the manuscript was copied in Bavaria. Sometimes German and Latin are mixed in comical fashion; sometimes the German poems stand by themselves. The piece we are about to hear stands by itself, but it is placed within the context of a Latin play. It is one of only three of the two dozen poems used by Carl Orff for which original melodies have been identified. "Chramer gip die varwe mir" (in Jeffrey Duban's translation "Shopkeeper, please, a bit of pink my features to enhance, the more to make the young men think sweet thoughts of gay romance.” The song appears as a character piece sung by Mary Magdalene in a Latin play about the Easter story. It is sung here by Andrea von Ramm with Thomas Binkley, shawm.
Another of the texts used by Carl Orff is "Tempus est iocundum." It is in the love-song section but just a few pages from the start of the vagabond songs, and some of the earthiness seems to have rubbed off. Here is Andrea von Ramm portraying the restless young love of a medieval maiden.
Even before the Carmina Burana was compiled in the 13th century, Latin was being replaced as the language of lyric poetry by vernacular languages like Provençal, French, and German. And as secular song turned away from its mother tongue, activity shifted from the monasteries to the courts. The courtly love song of the troubadours and their followers replaced the monkish amusement.
You’ve been listening to a program exploring Latin secular song in the Middle Ages: “Songs from a Medieval Monastery.”
Songs from a Medieval Monastery
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Ross W. Duffin (Pasadena, California)
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Episode Description
The name Carmina Burana, for many, conjures up images of ribald tavern scene with dissolute medieval students singing the music of Carl Orff. Certainly, we can be grateful to Carl Orff for helping to immortalize the repertoire of medieval Latin songs. But haven't you ever wondered about the origin and character of the original Carmina Burana?
Segment Description
"O Roma nobilis" by Anonymous (Pro Arte Pal-1008) | "Fas et nefas" by Anonymous (Telefunken 6.41184) | "Sic mea fata" by Anonymous (Telefunken 6.41184) | "Olim sudor Herculis" by Peter of Blois (attr.) (German Harmonia Mundi IC 067-99 921) | "Chramer gip diu varwe mir" by Anonymous (Telefunken 6.41184) | "Tempus est iocundum" by Anonymous (Telefunken 6.41235)
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Host: Duffin, Ross
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Ross W. Duffin
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Chicago: “Micrologus; Songs from a Medieval Monastery,” 1984, Ross W. Duffin, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 23, 2024,
MLA: “Micrologus; Songs from a Medieval Monastery.” 1984. Ross W. Duffin, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 23, 2024. <>.
APA: Micrologus; Songs from a Medieval Monastery. Boston, MA: Ross W. Duffin, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from