Carmina Bikiniana

The Confederate flag remains a fiercely reviled image of the subjugation of the African American population because it rallied the supporters of slavery in the American Civil War. It recently flew at the state capitol in Raleigh, North Carolina, to celebrate the War’s sesquicentennial. But protestors forced its removal. Does hanging it in a government building endorse the cause for which it stood and, in the eyes of the Ku Klux Klan, still stands? This piece of fabric may not carry a universally understood message, but its symbolic meaning and its history as the flashpoint of racial violence are reminders of the Civil War and beyond. This relatively simple graphic design causes anguish to anyone sensitive to American history. It still has the power to provoke, some urging its suppression, others claiming its historical importance.

The flag has entered the mainstream, in the Southern states, disingenuously staking a claim to neutrality. But surely a Confederate bikini, worn exclusively by white/Aryan models, is the mark of a sore loser, pettily keeping the message alive as swimwear, (“We shall fight on the beaches…“?) extending the war after it has been lost, feeding the hope that the white man will rise again. This ongoing territorial battle over meaning and metaphor is essential, one with which a healthy society needs to engage continuously in order to regulate the boundaries and define the meaning of its symbols.

One of my old music history professors at the University of Edinburgh used to get hot under the collar at the mention of Carl Orff’s choral-orchestral cantata Carmina Burana. At the time, my classmates and I put it down to general bad temperedness, because he used to get upset about a lot of things that didn’t seem worth bothering about; musical semantics, augmented sixth chords, Tchaikovsky. But thirty years later, and now that I am older and wiser, I am beginning to see his side of things.

Raymond Monelle was born in 1937 in Bristol. Having seen national service in the Royal Air Force for two years immediately after the war he was no stranger to reality, no thoroughbred academician who picked at life from the ivory tower. He was a gifted musical semioticist, and also played piano in his own jazz trio. Monelle was devoted to the symbolism of music, and despised the casual way that despite Carmina Burana’s shocking history the piece was entering the entertainment mainstream. I remember him storming out of a lecture at which a mid-level celeb soprano was sharing jokes about the ‘jolly fun’ of her Carmina appearances. The smoke coming out of his ears showed that Raymond was having none of it – he maintained that Carmina Burana was Nazism’s hijacking of musical history for the stirring up of racial bigotry, and that we as future professional musicians should not forget the unspeakable harm that it had caused.

Carl Orff’s dramatic cantata seems now, for better or worse, to be a part of the permanent repertoire. At the time of the piece’s first performance in Frankfurt in 1937 the composer’s portrayal of the Volk as a supreme force in whom the rising Ur-sap is a primal unstoppable power coincided neatly with Hitler’s view that native German/Aryans had been suppressed and were due for a volcanic uprising. The Fuehrer and the Wehrmacht took the piece under their wing. Initial reviews (1937) were wary of the deliberately provocative sexuality of the texts, but praised the piece’s celebration of ‘the power of the life-instinct,’ and phrases like ‘the indestructible and always re-emerging power of the ways of the common people’ linked its libidinous energy to the resurgence of national power, held resentfully in check since the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

Carmina Burana’s primitivism, emphasis on rhythm, and most importantly, its fabricated history that glamorizes the subjugated lot of the common people, scored a popular hit with the public, and its message was easy to harness into the Nazi propaganda effort. No wonder Josef Goebbels called the work beautiful and the composer received a state subsidy for his musical services.

The original Carmina Burana is a collection of 250 or so texts from the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries contained in the Codex Buranus. They are love songs, drinking songs, gambling songs, and there is much criticism of the financial doings of the church, given the recent advent of the monetary economy. The writers/composers are unknown, but the collection was possibly gathered by the philosopher Peter Abelard and his son. Most of the pieces do not have a musical setting, and those that do are set mnemonically, meaning that the tune is written down with guidelines to recall it from memory, but there is no specific notation. If the reader doesn’t already know it, that’s too bad.

Orff’s musical settings are therefore entirely of his own imagination. Rather than creating a realistic and historically informed musical version of the texts he selected, with a richly inventive monophonic line, perhaps to the accompaniment of a single instrument, Orff’s repetitive imaginings are entirely fictional, and squarely post-Classical. Music of the Late Middle Ages is complex, thorny, unexpected, exotic to our ears. The historical and musical world that produced the Codex was small and quiet and as yet uninformed by organized tonality. Orff’s world, as displayed in these settings, is confrontationally, steroidally noisy and anachronistically tonal. It is a fake, born of nostalgia, fantasy, and wish-fulfillment, like a Thomas Kinkade painting.

Philosophically reinterpreting the 13th century as a landscape of erupting Voelkisch potency, Orff handed the Wehrmacht a branding tool swollen with contemporary emotional symbolism that played into the lies of the Aryan project. In the 13th century ‘The People’ were not a master race waiting to rise again, these are small potatoes poems of affection and disaffection, not the seeds of mass revolt. By magnifying them with the force of a choral-orchestral fortissimo d minor 9 chord, for example, the 1937 audience heard them as a rallying cry against a longstanding but false oppression.

It is impossible to count the appearances in movies, advertisements, TV shows of the O Fortuna opening chorus, the work’s principal awe-gasm. It is one of the most arresting openings in the canon. It can be used to sell hamburgers, it can add the soundtrack to a military invasion. Goebbels and Hitler recognized its potential for exploitation. Did Orff know it? Raymond Monelle knew it, and he was appalled that our minor celeb soprano was unaware of the piece’s ignominious history.

Personally, I cannot listen to Carmina Burana without conjuring up images of manipulated mobs and marauding Nazi stormtroopers. But once those images in my head have subsided, it is still bad music because it is fantasy, wish-fulfillment, and worse it is bad history. Most importantly it is a lie, a lie that appeared at exactly the right time to be enlisted to evil ends.  Lies, like ‘Traditional Marriage’ and ‘Family Values’ that are also based in a falsified imaginary past, can be easily appropriated by the unscrupulous who sell them on as truth.

Perhaps concert audiences coming after me will be able to look beyond the convergence of circumstances that embroiled Carl Orff with the empowerment of the Nazis. The continuing decontextualization makes Carmina Burana another Confederate bikini, a harmless bourgeois bonbon, a fantastic and meaningless creation that through popularity has been absolved of any responsibility and cannot do anyone any harm.

Yet the reverberations of Carmina Burana in Frankurt in 1937 were far from ‘jolly fun’ and waving the flag of semantic neutrality now does not mean that history will not repeat itself. The piece remains in the marketplace of ideas. O Fortuna accompanies much cataclysmic video imagery, providing the model for background music for violent role play video games that are popular among many disenfranchised teenagers. Just as a flag is not racist, a piece of music is not dangerous, unless it falls into the wrong hands.


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