'Carmina Burana' and Its 220 Performers Come to Touhill This Weekend

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

Two hundred and 20 dancers, musicians and singers will take the stage this weekend at Touhill Performing Arts Center in a massive performance of “Carmina Burana,” one of the most popular pieces of classical music ever written—even if you don’t recognize the title immediately.

Check out this excerpt, “O Fortuna,” to see if you recognize it:

And that’s just the opening of the piece. Onstage, with 120 singers, 60 musicians and 40 dancers, the scale of it is huge, even sublime. The Nashville Ballet is coming in to dance and UMSL’s Orchestra & Singers, The Bach Society of St. Louis, and the St. Louis Children’s Choirs are performing the piece as part of Dance St. Louis’ 50th anniversary.

Scene from "Carmina Burana" | Photo courtesy Dance St. Louis

Scene from “Carmina Burana” | Photo courtesy Dance St. Louis

Having dancers in this piece—while it has been done before—is still unusual, says Nashville Ballet Artistic rector Paul Vasterling, who provided choreography: “The majority of the piece’s performances have been orchestra and chorus. [Composer] Carl Orff always wanted it and meant for it to be staged, to have dancers and actors and staging.”

Vasterling took inspiration from the origin of the lyrics: They’re based on poetry that dates back to the 11th-13th centuries, found in a Bavarian monastery. “They were kind of racy poems, poems of a secular nature,” says Vasterling. “They were hidden because someone could have gotten in trouble for them—likely monks wrote them, and they had to hide them from the world. I saw some pictures of the originals all on parchment paper, so the idea of parchment and writing on parchment gave it a kind of structure—a palimpsest, something is erased and something else is written on it, something is erased and something else is written on it.”

The piece explores the lifecycle and the balance between life’s dichotomies: good and evil; lust and love. “Life goes on and on and on and on … we are all of the layers of the people who have gone before us,” Vasterling adds.

The background for the piece is also quite interesting: Orff, a German composer, debuted the music in 1937. The lyrics come from secular German poetry during a time of permeating religion. With the Nazis’ secular state ideology, their claim that music was the “most German of all the arts” and their approach to it as a vehicle to influence the masses—plus the bombastic, spectacular, emotionally stirring nature of the piece—well, it does seem a bit like then-contemporaneous state propaganda.

“That’s a really good point,” says Vasterling. “It’s one of Hitler’s favorite pieces of music, but I don’t talk about that or go that direction really.”

As it turns out, during my research while writing this, Orff’s relationship with the Nazi party is debated by historians, and he rebranded the piece as “covertly anti-Nazi” after the war. But whether propaganda was the intent or not, the Nazis embraced it as a symbol of “youth culture” and it became a massive hit.

All that unpleasantness aside, Vasterling would much rather audiences simply enjoy his take on the piece—and it is quite a show. As he said, we are all layers of what’s come before, and his take on the work is yet another layer that buries the dark further below the surface. What shines through in a more modern context—and the piece does appear frequently in a modern context, at football games and in films, to the point where it’s instantly recognizable—is completely different.

“Even though the songs and lyrics were written in a secular, non-religious bent, there is a feeling about the piece that feels very spiritual and transforming,” says Vasterling. “That’s what I would want people to go away with—it is very sublime when everything is working together with the choir and gigantic orchestra and all the dancers are working in tandem.

“We’re super-excited to be coming back to St. Louis. We had a great time last time. It was fun to work with the orchestra there and the chorus was very, very good, and the audiences were really, really receptive last time.”

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