Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi
I
Primo Vere
Uf Dem Anger
II
In Taberna
III
Cour D'Amours
Blanziflor et Helena

Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi (Fortune, Empress of the World)

Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi is the first part of Carl Orff's brilliant Carmina Burana- a work which sets poems written by disreputable 13th century monks and scholars to modern orchestral and choral music. Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi means "Fortune, Empress of the World", and is about fate. It consists of two movements, "O Fortuna" and "Fortune Plango Vulnera". Both describe the horror of fate's unfair meddling in human life, and its influence on the lowly and powerful alike. Orff has written dramatic and insidious music to illustrate the themes. I present below the text of the poems with an english translation, and intersperse my comments on the music.

1. O Fortuna

The piece begins with its most recognisable movement - the mighty "O Fortuna". This is known to couch potatoes around the world as the "Old Spice" music, as it memorably accompanied the old advert for the rancid aftershave.

The low instruments of the orchestra thump out a descending three note line. After the first note has captured the audience's attention, the brass and choir enter. The "O" is a startling discord, and the "Fortuna" is similarly jarring. The pattern is repeated for the "velut luna". Then the powerful bass note sounds again, and the choir and the rest of the orchestra enter one more. This time, the 6-part harmony is less jagged, but it is pitched much higher- and the final "-lis" is held out for several beats.

O Fortuna                           O Fortune,
velut luna                          like the moon
statu variabilis,                   you are changeable,

The arrangement now changes. The mood is still one of anguish. As the text changes to consider the specifics of the writer's views on fate, the music becomes more subtle, but remains eerie. The time signature changes from the laborious 3/1 of the introductory lines to a jerky, unsettling 3/2. Each line of the text takes two bars of the score; and pair of bars begins with a shadow of the shuddering bass notes from the introduction. This lends structure, and emphasises the start of each line. The choir is in unison and the woodwinds track them through the verse. Each note of the choir's part is deliberate and is accented heavily, which stresses each and every syllable, making each word crystal clear. The other instruments dart around rapidly and quietly, lending an air of urgency. A huge contrast and sudden contrast to the bombast that precedes the section.

semper crescis                      ever waxing
aut decrescis;                      and waning;
vita detestabilis                   hateful life
nunc obdurat                        first oppresses
et tunc curat                       and then soothes
ludo mentis aciem,                  as fancy takes it;
Now the choir moves into a simple discord, which shifts back into unison on the closing syllables of "glaciem". This marks the end of the first verse.
egestatem,                          poverty
potestatem                          and power
dissolvit ut glaciem.               it melts them like ice.

The second verse continues in the same vein as the first- the same notes and phrasing are used throughout.

Sors immanis                        Fate - monstrous
et inanis,                          and empty,
rota tu volubilis,                  you whirling wheel,
status malus,                       you are malevolent,
vana salus                          well-being is vain
semper dissolubilis,                and always fades to nothing,
obumbrata                           shadowed
et velata                           and veiled
michi quoque niteris;               you plague me too;
nunc per ludum                      now through the game
dorsum nudum                        I bring my bare back
fero tui sceleris.                  to your villainy.

The last verse of this movement is again loud, which comes as a shock after the quiet contemplation of the last two. The sense of urgency instilled there breaks out into a kind of musical panic. The arrangement has the same structure, but the soft bass note is again a great thump of bass instruments and drum at the start and end of each line. The tenors and sopranos of the choir are now a full octave higher. The darting counterpoint from earlier has lost its juddering hesitancy and gained harmonic complexity.

Sors salutis                        Fate is against me
et virtutis                         in health
michi nunc contraria,               and virtue,
est affectus                        driven on
et defectus                         and weighted down,
semper in angaria.                  always enslaved.
At this point, things are ratcheted up another notch. An open cymbal now joins the thumping introduction to each line. The choir's octave intervals become a scrunchy harmony. Everything grows louder still, moving from forte to fortissimo.
Hac in hora                         So at this hour
sine mora                           without delay
corde pulsum tangite;               pluck the vibrating strings;
quod per sortem                     since Fate
sternit fortem,                     strikes down the strong man,

Finally, the structure which has been observed for much of this movement breaks down completely. The choir splits up for the "omnes", the tenor and soprano parts soar away and the bass and alto parts maintain the rhythm. All the words of this line are sung over 5 bars rather than the 2 or 4 used elsewhere. At this point the choir come back together for a unison "-te", which is held for a further 7 bars of fortississimo, maximum volume. The darting counterpoint from before is now in the ascendant, and is revealed to be reminiscent of a spinning wheel. The cymbal crashes that marked the start of each verse now speak of the mechanism driving this wheel of fate. The final gathering chord is underlined by an extra pulse of energy from the choir, a drum-roll and a rattling triangle.

mecum omnes plangite!               everyone weep with me!

2. Fortune plango vulnera

The next movement deals directly with the fickle, cyclical nature of fate. In three verses, it describes how the poet's fortunes change, how he fell from his place in the world; and his resentment of those currently favoured. It ends with a warning that the wheel of fate will turn again, and today's champions will face ruin soon enough

Each of the three verses is arranged identically, sung to the same tune with the same accompaniment. The piano is prominent throughout the orchestration.

The first four lines of each verse are accompanied by simple, sustained octave chords from the orchestra. The choir enters on the beat after this chord has been introduced at lines 1 and 3. The time signature is 4/2, but the last bar of lines 2 and 4 are cut short, forming a 1/2 bar. This is enough to make the rhythms of this section irregular, but they fit the natural rhythm of the words perfectly. The tenors and basses sing the first four lines in unison, their voices rising to the start of lines 2 and 4 and falling to their ends. The tune is influenced by chant, but runs along much more rapidly.

Fortune plango vulnera              I bemoan the wounds of Fortune
stillantibus ocellis                with weeping eyes,
quod sua michi munera               for the gifts she made me
subtrahit rebellis.                 she perversely takes away.

The male voices continue for the next four lines, but the arrangement changes. The rhythm is more regular, the choir singing equal-length notes for most of each line, and sustained notes at the end. Staccato phrasing is used to ensure that the words can be heard clearly, even though this section is quieter- a sort of stage whisper. The orchestra follows the choir part, with a jerky counterpoint playing through the gaps left by the staccato; on the choirs' sustained notes it plays a quick, low trill.

Verum est, quod legitur,            It is written in truth,
fronte capillata,                   that she has a fine head of hair,
sed plerumque sequitur              but, when it comes to seizing an opportunity
Occasio calvata.                    she is bald.

The last four lines of each verse are repeated, with the volume coming back up to a robust forte, and the sopranos and altos joining the male voices. The tune and the choral harmony remain the same, but the orchestral part is busier, with the strings adding a layer of complexity. After the end of each verse, the orchestra has a rapid 10 bar passage, wish repeatedly rises and falls like a wheel spinning out of control, each revolution marked by a cymbal crash, and the final by a thrilling run of violins and flutes.

In Fortune solio                    On Fortune's throne
sederam elatus,                     I used to sit raised up,
prosperitatis vario                 crowned with
flore coronatus;                    the many-coloured flowers of prosperity;
quicquid enim florui                though I may have flourished
felix et beatus,                    happy and blessed,
nunc a summo corrui                 now I fall from the peak
gloria privatus.                    deprived of glory.
Fortune rota volvitur:              The wheel of Fortune turns;
descendo minoratus;                 I go down, demeaned;
alter in altum tollitur;            another is raised up;
nimis exaltatus                     far too high up
rex sedet in vertice                sits the king at the summit -
caveat ruinam!                      let him fear ruin!
nam sub axe legimus                 for under the axis is written
Hecubam reginam.                    Queen Hecuba.

The next part is Primo Vere, which deals with the arrival of spring- it's not all doom and gloom!

Sources:

  • Imperial College Union Choir's 2002 performance
  • PDF sheet music typeset by Michael Bednarek, http://mbednarek.com/
  • The 1997 recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Royal Choral Society under Richard Cooke
I think of this site: http://www.fuggled.co.uk/choir.swf as this writeup's evil twin.

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