Clemencic Consort - Carmina Burana
For anyone who does not yet know, this has little to do with the Carmina Burana of Carl Orff. Orff set 24 of the poems in the Codex Buranus to music in an operatic form. This is very different. It is a selection of the 254 songs and poems which forms the greatest single collection of secular European medieval music and which was found in 1803 in the monastery of Benediktbeuren in Bavaria in southern Germany. Carmina Burana is the Medieval Latin for "Songs of Beuren" which was the name given to the collection shortly after its discovery. The texts are now housed in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich.
Now why would anyone want to listen to a collection of such songs? It is a question which several people asked me when I first signalled my intention to get hold of this CD. Well, there were several motivating factors - curiosity, fascination, contrast with divine music of the same period, which I have long regarded as having a special beauty. But perhaps one of the overriding factors must be the fact that this represents the earliest known start of a tradition of what, for want of a better word, we now call popular music. For all the influences which various musical forms have had on western popular music, particularly the music of West Africa and transmigrated and translated through Gospel and the Blues, the songs of the Carmina Burana can be seen as the starting point upon which everything we are now familiar with has been built.
If you are in any doubt about this, then it is worth looking at the subject matter of the songs. Of the 254 songs in the codex, over half (131) are love songs (although in the case of thirteen of these, that may be said to be stretching the term "love" a bit); 40 of the songs are concerned with drinking and gaming; 55 are songs of morality and mockery; and the remaining two are longer pieces of largely theatrical intent around a spiritual theme, sort of excerpts from morality plays. Those themes are not too very different from the themes which would make up modern popular music - largely about love; a sizeable number dealing with alcohol, drugs and the good life; another sizeable chunk which concern themselves with parody, politics (with a small "p") and social issues. And finally a couple of prog rockers droning on about spirituality and preaching to us all to change our ways. (LOL).
The songs were written by students and clergymen (at the time most students would have been minor orders clergy anyway) and date from the eleventh and twelfth centuries for the most part, with a few from the thirteenth. Their provenance appears to have been pretty much Europe wide, with songs originating from southern France, England, Spain and the German states of the Holy Roman Empire. Such students were often referred to as Goliards and included names such as Peter of Blois and Walter of Châtillon, both of whom have songs ascribed to them in the codex. The songs and written mostly in Latin - then the lingua franca of medieval Europe, pretty much in the same way as English is the lingua franca of the overwhelming majority of western popular music songs today. However, there are pieces written in other languages, particularly Middle High German and Provençal.
The comparison with modern popular music continues with one of the underlying thematic links running through many of the songs - the corruption of the church. Just as today popular music often attacks or parodies public figures, institutions, trends and so on, so the dominant political and economic power of medieval times was the subject of similar attack and ridicule. Perhaps surprisingly, one significant difference is on the treatment of love songs. There is less of the "I wanna hold your hand" and much more of the "rapacio virginae", especially when the perpetrators are priests, knights and the victims are innocent shepherdesses - descriptions of sexual intercourse were generally much more explicit then than would be seen as appropriate now. To a medievalist, this would not come as much of a surprise, perhaps, considering the extent to which Epicurean thought influenced behaviour in some quarters in contrast to the rigid expectations of society. In a literary sense, Bocaccio's "Decameron" and Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" describes similar attitudes to love, adultery and the rewards of the good life in contrast to the sometimes priggish expectations of those aspiring to a better afterlife as can be found in the work of Dante.
This CD is the work of the ensemble put together by the Austrian Rene Clemencic. It tries, and to be frank sometimes struggles to convey the bawdiness and frivolity of the themes and therefore at times is too "clean" - drinking songs should be sung by people who have had a few and not by a well-rehearsed group of musicians and singers with erudite, largely middle-class backgrounds. However, the major flaw in this collection, which is the abbreviated collection - Clemencic Consort has recorded and issued on a multi-disc format all the Carmina Burana - is the fact that the accompanying booklet containing the lyrics of the songs is entirely in Latin with no English, German or French translation. This may be fine if you are a scholar of medieval literature but is a major drawback to those of us who struggled with Latin and school and never got enough of a grip of it to understand these lyrics. Having said that, this CD is a good place to start with secular medieval music - as good as any - and ought to be on the list of everyone who wants to know where it all began.
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