How "Carmina Burana" and Nazi Germany are Linked

This Composition by Carl Orff is Based on "O Fortuna" and Other Medieval Poems.

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"O Fortuna" is a medieval poem that inspired German composer Carl Orff to write the cantata "Carmina Burana," one of the most well-known works of the 20th century. It's been used for TV commercials and movie soundtracks, and it is frequently performed by professional musicians around the world. Despite its acclaim, many people don't know much about the cantata, its composer, or its link to Nazi Germany.

The Composer

Carl Orff (July 10, 1895–March 29, 1982) was a German composer and educator who is best known for his research into how children learn music. He published his first compositions at age 16 and studied music in Munich prior to World War I. After serving in the war, Orff returned to Munich, where he co-founded a children's art school and taught music. In 1930, he published his observations on teaching children about music in Schulwerk. In the text, Orff urged teachers to let children explore and learn at their own pace, without adult interference.

Orff continued composing but went largely unrecognized by the general public until the premiere of "Carmina Burana" in Frankfort in 1937. It was a huge commercial and critical success, popular with both the public and with Nazi leaders. Buoyed by the success of the cantata, Orff entered a competition sponsored by the Nazi government to rescore "A Midsummer Night's Dream," one of the few German composers to do so.

There is little to indicate that Carl Orff was a member of the Nazi Party or that he actively supported its policies. But he was never able to completely escape having his reputation forever linked to National Socialism because of where and when "Carmen Burana" premiered and how it was received. After the war, Orff continued to compose and to write about music education and theory. He continued to work at the children's school he co-founded until his death in 1982.


"Carmen Burana," or "Songs Of Beuren," is based on a collection of 13th-century poems and songs found in 1803 in a Bavarian monastery. The medieval works are attributed to a group of monks known as Goliards who were known for their humorous and sometimes raunchy compositions about love, sex, drinking, gambling, fate, and fortune. These texts weren't intended for worship. They were considered a form of popular entertainment, written in vernacular Latin, medieval French, or German so as to be easily understood by the masses.

About 1,000 of these poems were written in the 12th and 13th centuries, and after being rediscovered a collection of the verses were published in 1847. This book, called "Wine, Women, and Song" inspired Orff to compose a cantata about the mythic Wheel of Fortune. With the help of an assistant, Orff selected 24 poems and arranged them by thematic content. Among the poems he selected was O Fortuna ("Oh, Fortune"). Other poems that inspired portions of "Carmen Burana" include Imperatrix Mundi ("Empress of the World"), Primo Vere ("Springtime"), In Taberna ("In the Tavern"), and Cours d’Amour ("The Court of Love").

Text and Translation

Opening with a pounding timpani and large chorus, the listener is introduced to the Wheel's magnitude, while the haunting/foreboding text and melody sitting atop a river of endlessly repeating orchestral accompaniment, mimics its constant rotation.

O Fortuna,
velut luna,
statu variabilis,
semper crescis,
aut decrescis;
vita detestabilis
nunc obdurat
et tunc curat
ludo mentis aciem,
dissolvit ut glaciem.

Sors immanis
et inanis,
rota tu volubilis,
status malus,
vana salus
semper dissolubilis,
et velata
michi quoque niteris;
nunc per ludum
dorsum nudum
fero tui sceleris.

Sors salutis
et virtutis
michi nunc contraria,
est affectus
et defectus
semper in angaria.
Hac in hora
sine mora
corde pulsum tangite;
sternit fortem,
mecum omnes plangite!

O Fortune,
like the moon
you are changeable,
ever waxing
and waning;
hateful life
first oppresses
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;
and power,
it melts them like ice.

Fate, monstrous
and empty,
you turning wheel,
you are malevolent,
your favor is idle
and always fades,
you plague me too.
I bare my back
for the sport
of your wickedness.

In prosperity
or in virtue
fate is against me,
Both in passion
and in weakness
fate always enslaves us.
So at this hour
pluck the vibrating strings;
because fate
brings down even the strong,
everyone weep with me.