How Orff’s Carmina Burana Became Classical Music’s Greatest Hit

How Orff’s Carmina Burana Became Classical Music’s Greatest Hit

Orff’s Carmina Burana will be performed in Carnegie Hall on May 27
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Even if you don’t know it by name, you’ve probably heard Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana at least once in your life. Although it achieved significant renown as a concert work during the composer’s lifetime, the piece gained a second life through its use in film, television, and advertisements. Despite its continuing popularity, Orff’s seminal work had humble beginnings.

Orff’s Carmina Burana is a cantata based on a collection of medieval poems by the same name dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries. The poems covered such topics as the fickleness of fortune, the ephemeral nature of life, and the pleasures and perils of vice — themes which resonate just as well with the people of the 21st century as the 12th, the perfect source material for any composer, but especially suited for Orff. He had developed a method of staging music, “Theatrum Mundi,” which involved producing performances where music, movement, and speech were interrelated.

Carmina Burana was premiered on June 8, 1937, by the Frankfurt Opera. The performance was a monumental success. The work was so well received that shortly thereafter, Orff attempted to disown all of his previous compositions, famously writing to his publisher: “Everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately, printed, can be destroyed. With Carmina Burana, my collected works begin.” At the end of World War II, Carmina Burana was the most famous piece of modern classical music in Germany, and by the 1960s it had become an internationally-recognized work in the classical canon.

The mass appeal and visceral affect of Carmina Burana, made it a perfect candidate for use in the fields of film and television. Although it is most typically featured as background music for dramatic scenes (as it was used for King Arthur’s battle in the 1981 film Excalibur), its first onscreen appearance was in a British advertisement for Old Spice aftershave in the early 1970s. Since then it has been heard so frequently that movie reviewer Jeff Bond has called it “the most overused piece of music in film history.” It is even played at sports arenas to stir up the crowd! No one would ever guess that poetry written by German monks in the 11th century could eventually become a cultural phenomenon, but that is exactly what Orff’s Carmina Burana has done.

Carmina Burana continues to be performed as a standalone concert work all over the world. On May 27, 2017, Michael Short will lead a festival choir in a performance of Orff’s work in Carnegie Hall as part of MidAmerica Productions’ 34th concert season. The choir will include members from Short’s own choir, Orange Community Master Chorale and Orange Friends of Music, as well as the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, and the New Orleans Children’s Chorus, Concert Chorus, and Youth Chorale. Tickets to the concert are available on our website.

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Over the past 34 years, MidAmerica Productions has produced over 1300 concerts in Carnegie Hall and at historic halls all over the world. To have your ensemble perform in Carnegie Hall or internationally, call us at 212-239-0205 or visit us at

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