Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Music and Themes of the Carmina Burana

The Carmina Burana, also known as the Codex Buranus, is a 13th-century collection containing 228 medieval poems and songs, written in Latin, German, and French, that can be categorized into four basic themes. Fifty-five of these texts are satirical poems and songs about morals and mockery, 131 of them are lyrics of courtly love and springtime, 40 of them are songs about drinking and gaming, and 2 of them are long, spiritual theater pieces. This collection shows that music flourished even outside the church. The poems and songs in this manuscript were written by numerous different authors, many of which are unidentifiable. The only authors that scholars seem to have identified for certain who made contributions to this collection are the fifteen poets that either had their name cited in the text or were identified through comparisons with other manuscripts. Even still, it is wise to assume possible mistakes could have easily been made when identifying authors by using only stylistic comparisons. The obvious reason to consider this possibility is that authors may have lyrical styles similar to those of other authors either by coincidence, stylistic trends, or by having been influenced by another lyricist.
The majority of the scripture of the Carmina Burana is attributed to two primary, unknown scribes. Three additional scribes also contributed to the manuscript at different points throughout the thirteenth (and possibly early fourteenth) century. This is inferred because the script seems to be written in a gothic minuscule (or possibly in continental protogothic book script) which was the most popular type of script of the thirteenth century. Some scholars believe that the poems were written by traveling poets called goliards.
Additional proof that the script was from this time period, and one of the features that I personally find most interesting, is also demonstrated in the early musical notation that accompanies some of the songs in the manuscript. For instance, if you take a look at folio 4 verso, you can see that the musical notation is written in the Gothic style of notation. It starts with a few simple virga above about the first four syllables and then adds the use of multiple-note neumes such as the climacus above the word that looks like "floruit" and the clivis above "licuit." Although the notation does not provide the location of the starting pitch, it does provide some detail about the melodic direction as well as about the relationships between the pitches. For instance, the climacus represents a group of pitches that descends in a step-by-step fashion. In other words, if the first note of the climacus is sung on the musical note E, then the next two notes in the text would be sung on a D and a C. This style of medieval notation provides little to no information about the song's rhythmic patterns, however, rhythmic patterns can be seen in later versions of the songs.
When thinking about these songs in terms of performance, it is important to remember that around the the high middle ages, troubadours had become very popular. Common troubadour themes included songs of courtly love as well as vulgar satires, which together make up well over half of the songs in the Carmina Burana. From this, we can obviously infer that these songs might have been inspired by troubadours and definitely sung by them. Troubadours may have even written many of the lyrics and notations in the collection.

An interesting fact about this manuscript is that it seems to have been hidden or received little attention up until the 20th century, when a German composer by the name of Carl Orf expanded upon and develop the written notation and composed an opus that he also named the Carmina Burana. In his opus, the composer used twenty-four of the original poems and songs in the original 13th-century Carmina Burana. He connected all of them together with a repeating motif. This made the Carmina Burana very popular. One of the songs that Orf adopted is titled “O Fortuna” or “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi” and contains lyrics which compare fortune to the moon, saying it is “statu variablis” which translates to “always changing.” A miniature exists in the original manuscript that parallels a part of the song which compares fortune to a whirling wheel that causes poverty and power. The miniature depicts a king at four instances on the wheel: climbing up the spokes of the wheel, sitting atop of it having conquered it, falling down the other side, and finally being crushed underneath and held down by the wheel. Other depictions include one of courtly love which illustrates two lovers lying side by side, cheerful springtime scenes, scenes of gamblers, and two scenes from Virgil’s Aeneid.

As you can see, the Carmina Burana covers a wide range of topics using many songs and poems. It shows that they held courtly love important and enjoyed mockery and gambling and it provides general insight into the lives and the views outside of the church of those who lived in the thirteenth century.


  1. The poems within the Carmina burana are diverse in style, and almost all of them are outside of what would have been considered “mainstream” Christianity, while they still maintain somewhat moralistic undertones. The four major types of poems represented are carmina moralia (moralizing lyrics), carmina veris et amoris (springtime and love lyrics), carmina lusorum et potatorum (gambling and drinking lyrics), and carmina divina (religious lyrics). Many of these poems were pagan and/or sensual, which was a clear deviation from the standard interpretation of Christian texts.

    Though I am admittedly not very familiar with a vast amount of religious literature, the kinds of poems represented in the Carmina burana are some of my favorites due to the fact that they choose to focus on more human, everyday things as opposed to strictly religious tales. Unluckiness, impending death, and all the feelings associated with love, positive as well as negative, were major themes that were heavily incorporated into these lyrics, and I am strongly of the opinion that, by recognizing the humanity in these feelings and situations, the Carmina burana opened up for a new way to view religion, one that was less opposed to the less-stringent aspects of the human experience.


  2. The Carmina Burana is a noticeably different type of manuscript. Being composed of three-hundred and twenty various poems concerning a wide array of subjects on morals, love, drinking, gambling and religious topics, the manuscript denotes a notable shift in the use of books and literature in the 13th-century. The codex's contents had clearly been created to express the knowledge of the author and, in addition to being thought-provoking and informative, the work is highly entertaining, seemingly meant to provide for a more educated form of humor in literature. The fact that the work has continued to have a profound effect even on modern cultures, "O' Fortuna", being one of the most the most famous pieces of classical music ever composed and frequently used, mostly by Jon Stewart when describing the Republican National Convention due to the piece's haunting tone, all attests to the universality of the Carmina Burana and the extend of its influence. I honestly did not expect something as "devilishly" satirical and sophisticated as the Codex Burana to have possibly come out of the 13th-century, especially due to its intermixing both pagan and Christian stories and thought into a single work.

  3. I find this collection of texts, known as the Carmina Burana, rather interesting. It is obvious that the text fit in perfectly with the time period in the fact that they were written by students. These students wrote poems and songs about their daily lives during the 12th and 13th centuries. I enjoy the fact that these poems and songs humanize the author. Today people are able to identify with the people of the past by singing the drinking songs they created centuries ago. The script itself also symbolizes the time period in the fact that it is written in Gothic minuscule, a product of post Carolingian script. The script is more compact, punctuation marks are used, and rubrications are very clear. These are a small list of the alterations that were made with the onset of Gothic script. All in all, the Carmina Burana is a text worth review as a way to understand the students at the time, as well as a great example of the text derived from a post Carolingian time period.

  4. The Carmina Burana, with its collection of diverse and interesting poems and pieces, really stands out for me. It's style and language (latin) reflect its student authorship and the rise of universities, but its subject matter strikes me as wildly different from any of the manuscripts we've seen so far in class. The Carmina Burana almost works to capture the positivities of "vice" in the modern sense of the term - as young people dwelling in an affluent urban center in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, these students were probably some of the first to seek to translate their collective urban educational experience into an artistic form. On one level, it seems no surprise that, amidst resources and the education necessary to compose such works, the students would be able to produce something of this quality. But on the other, it seems like a borderline innovation in the satirical manuscript. As Kevin points out above, that such a diverse, comical, and satirical work was composed in the thirteenth century has been one of the best surprises this course has given us!

  5. The Carmina Burana was, to me, one of the most surprising and interesting manuscripts we have looked at so far. It’s fusion of christianity and pagan factors influencing the authors of the time, has quite a humanizing and relatable link to this manuscript. Being a mixture of poems and songs, they cover a wide array of topics, for spring time, love, songs to drink to, etc. For the authors of these songs were primarily students, they present these songs and poems in quite a scholarly way. I found the most interesting part of this manuscript is that these students were infusing what they learned through the creation of these songs or poems. They were clearly making references to classics, christianity, and the education they were receiving in school. I thought the references to their own education were quite interesting, as they are showing off what they are learning, but in a fun and contemporary way of doing so. While it shows a side of what these students were learning, it also shows a world outside of the church and school. It humanizes these authors, and to me, makes them quite relatable in the fact that people can relate to these stories and poems even today. It has an undying universal theme of satirical influence, that I feel like students even today could relate with. While they choose to focus on more pagan themes rather than religious, it enforces a better way of understanding these students, and how they perceived these pagan ideologies.


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