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Blanziflor et Helena

Blanziflor et Helena

Blanziflor et Helena is the final part of Carl Orff's brilliant Carmina Burana- a work which sets poems written by wandering 13th century monks and scholars to modern orchestral and choral music. It consists of only two movements, the dazzling "Ave Formosissima" and "O Fortuna".

24. Ave formosissima

The words and music combine in this movement to depict a vision of beauty and majesty. Its apparent confusion between the Virgin Mary and the goddess Venus is suggestive of the monk-poet's confusion between his sacred and secular roles. The choir remains in six-part harmony throughout, towards the top of each part's range. The first six lines are scored similarly. Long notes are used on most syllables, with shorter ones as required by the natural rhythm of the words.

The orchestration is lush. The start of each of these lines twinkles with the sound of three glockenspiels. The choir's chords are doubled by the brass section at their pomp-filled brashest. The second half of each line are also supported by the grand thumps of the timpani. The brass and choir hold the last chord of each line, while the strings launch into a rising and falling quaver run. These vary in length for each line, and lead to the briefest pause before the twinkling start of the next line.

Ave formosissima,                   Hail, most beautiful one,
gemma pretiosa,                     precious jewel,
ave decus virginum,                 Hail, pride among virgins,
virgo gloriosa,                     glorious virgin,
ave mundi luminar,                  Hail, light of the world,
ave mundi rosa,                     Hail, rose of the world,

The "rosa" is held over the longest of the string runs, a grand 17 notes- this one does not fall at its end, but continues to rise and slows down as it reaches the apex. The thumps of the timpani have continued, becoming a timpani roll.

The choir entry at "Blanziflor" is loud, high and sustained. The glockenspiels are lost amid a crash of cymbals and a rattle of tambourines. One beat into the word, the bass instruments enter, giving the start of the line a double impact. The choir's six-part harmony falls and rises over the line, and the brass instruments play along with a scrunchy harmony of their own.

This line is repeated with similar orchestration and arrangement, this time the late bass entry develops into a rising bass line. This line continues, and preempts each of the choir's three repetitions of "Venus" with a blast of the brass, a resonant bass sound and a low banging of a drum. The choir's harmony has picked up some of the scrunchy dissonance from the orchestration.

Blanziflor et Helena,               Blanchefleur and Helen,
Venus generosa!                     noble Venus!

The word "generosa" is also pre-figured by the low crump of the orchestra, which has now started to sound familiar. The rising lines of the "Venus" continue through the "generosa", until...

Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi (Reprieve)

25. O Fortuna

...immediatley, the low instruments of the orchestra thump out a descending three note line. After the first note, the brass and choir enter. The "O" is a startling discord, and the "Fortuna" is similarly jarring.

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

The O Fortuna, the movement that opened Carmina Burana, is played out again in full. This has a devastating impact after the happy, playful mood of the previous movements. It is a dark and gloomy reminder that fate holds us all in its thrall, and that beauty, love, drunkenness, happiness, or wealth are no defence.


  • Imperial College Union Choir's 2002 performance
  • PDF sheet music typeset by Michael Bednarek,
  • The 1997 recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Royal Choral Society under Richard Cooke

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