Think back to the last time you saw a preview for a scary movie. Behind the slightly off-kilter camera angles, close-ups of characters looking terrified and plot twists just barely given away, there was probably an intense, ominous-sounding piece of music, building up to a dizzying climax just before the end. And chances are, even if you didn't know exactly what that music was, or you were distracted by what was happening on the screen, it somehow felt familiar.
Chances are, however, that you have heard the music before -- or at least a close copy of it. Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, written for orchestra, choir, children's choir and soloists, has been making audiences' spines tingle for years now, and has served as inspiration for generations of film composers. In the world of classical music, Carmina Burana has become the Stephen King of the concert hall -- classical goth. This Friday night at the Opera House, the Spokane Symphony will perform it live, in an appropriately Halloween-esque classics concert.
Outside of its frequent use by spooky pop culture, however, Orff's masterpiece hides other delights -- primarily of the earthy, raucous variety. The texts, in Latin, come from a medieval anthology of religious plays, poetry and recruiting songs for the Crusades, which also include a large number of lyrics devoted to drinking and love-making. Wrapped around these secular pleasures, though, is the theme of fate. Even while the music travels through the three main sections -- "Spring," "In the Tavern" and "The Court of Love" -- fortunes rise and fall, and the world dies and is born again.
This idea is clearly represented in the opening and closing hymn to fate, "O Fortuna," which Orff infused with an urgent, driving pulse that has since delighted filmmakers everywhere. The music moves relentlessly forward, capturing the image of the wheel of fate turning continually, making one person's rise another one's fall. Amid the sharp beats of the orchestra, the Latin text is sung, sounding like an ominous chant driven by hissing S's and biting T's.
But nestled between these evocations of the inevitable are songs of celebration and grotesque humor. Swans sing out as they roast on spits before dinner, and drinkers see themselves leading choruses of worshippers in taverns. One of the liveliest numbers features the men's chorus singing a litany of all who drink, cursing those who curse them in their glorious misery.
As the texts turn to love, springtime overtakes the mood and stories of passion are given voice by the choirs and soloists. A young man expresses his grief in having to endure the sight of a maiden with a heart of ice. The chorus sings the praises of being in the presence of beauty, and in one of the work's most striking moments, a soprano -- her voice hovering over a hushed bed of music -- simply sings, "Sweetest one! Ah! I give myself to you totally!"
When Orff decided to set these songs in the 1930s, he wisely chose a simple, accessible musical style to reflect the basic pleasures of life that the poems depict. Dance-like rhythms and beautiful melodies abound in Carmina Burana. The chorus often sings in stark, pure harmonies, unencumbered by the complexity that was defining 20th-century music at the time. Orff's musical choices have not only served to illustrate the poems of the cycle, but also guaranteed the work a lasting and cherished place in the world's concert halls.
But none of this manages to fully explain the regular presence of Carmina Burana in popular media. It certainly couldn't hurt that Orff always intended the music to go along with images -- his score specifies that the songs are for "soloists and choir accompanied by instruments and stage pictures." And while the "stage pictures" are generally performed as a ballet, there is no reason why filmmakers shouldn't rise to the task.
So why so scary all of the time? Perhaps it is the text chanted and sung by the chorus that conjures up feelings of fear. Or perhaps the reason lies in Orff's primeval, relentless score, evoking a time when music was meant to elicit more than just thoughtful comments from those who heard it. Or maybe, just like the final turn of the music to a minor key at the end, Carmina Burana reminds us of that whether in the tavern or in love, whether in the movie theater or the concert hall, there is always the uncertainty of where the wheel of fate will turn next.
& & & lt;i & The Spokane Symphony, featuring guests Evelyn de la Rosa, Brad Diamond, Kevin McMillan, the Spokane Symphony Chorale and the Spokane Area Children's Chorus, will perform Carmina Burana, as well as Bartok's The Miraculous Mandarin at the Opera House on Friday, Oct. 27, at 8 pm. Tickets: $14.50-$32. Call: 624-1200. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &