Sunday, May 25, 2008

Roast Swan

Not long ago, the Oakland Symphony Chorus performed Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. For those of you who don't know about the 13th century manuscript collection this is based on, there's a Wikipedia article. Carl Orff wrote the modern piece, based on the manuscripts, in Germany in the middle 1930s, and that's what we did. Three times, which is a lot. And under two different conductors, which was interesting, as they didn't interpret it the same way at all.

Whenever you spend 5 months rehearsing something and then most of a solid week doing concert prep, after the concert the music doesn't necessarily stop running through your head right away. Or for a while. But there's one part of it that's stuck in my head for nothing directly to do with the music. Of the 5 parts of Carmina Burana, the long middle section is about drinking and taverns, sung by the men; and it contains an extremely weird little solo piece called, alternatively, Cignus ustus cantat or Olim lacus colueram (the first line) - which is usually referred to as "The Roast Swan."

It's significant for 2 reasons: musically it's one of the higher tenor pieces in the repertoire, the tenor has to hit a high D; and textually it's the story of a roast swan being served up for dinner, from the swan's point of view. Unless the text is published in the program or they've looked it up, the audience usually misses this, because it's sung in medieval Latin, which is less common than it once was. Here is the text, in the excellent translation provided by classical.net:
Olim lacus colueram,        Once I lived on lakes,
olim pulcher extiteram, once I looked beautiful
dum cignus ego fueram. when I was a swan.

(Male chorus)
Miser, miser! Misery me!
modo niger Now black
et ustus fortiter! and roasting fiercely!

(Tenor)
Girat, regirat garcifer; The servant is turning me on the spit;
me rogus urit fortiter; I am burning fiercely on the pyre:
propinat me nunc dapifer, the steward now serves me up.

(Male Chorus)
Miser, miser! Misery me!
modo niger Now black
et ustus fortiter! and roasting fiercely!

(Tenor)
Nunc in scutella iaceo, Now I lie on a plate,
et volitare nequeo and cannot fly anymore,
dentes frendentes video: I see bared teeth:

(Male Chorus)
Miser, miser! Misery me!
modo niger Now black
et ustus fortiter! and roasting fiercely!
You can see where they might not always print the translation. The chorus, sung by the basses and tenors, is one of the best known parts of Carmina, it's very exciting.

In the first two concerts, the tenor stood in the usual stiff concert pose. He had a beautiful if rather light voice and hit all the notes correctly, but he didn't try to do any physical interpretation.
The soloist in the third concert (under the second conductor) chose to act out the story. (He's an opera singer; in fact, his name is Brian Staufenbiel, and he's the head of the opera program at U.C. Santa Cruz.) As he sang the first verse, he waved his arms as if flying, and looked around. As he sang the second verse, he stood with his hands locked behind his back, as if trussed up. As he sang the last verse, he stood straight and stiff with his hands at his side.

It made the swan quite uncomfortably real, and I can't get it out of my head.

It didn't help that, at the dress rehearsal, the soprano and bass soloists were sitting over to the side during the solo, making synchronized cranking motions, as if turning a spit. It was funny in a very black way. From what I know about the middle ages, all of this would have been hilarious to them; so maybe this is just a measure of how much we've changed in 700 years.

But I still can't get it out of my head.

7 comments:

  1. absolutely hilarious even though I wasn't aware that people ate swans.

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  2. Orff's "savagery" has been a cliche for decades. The music served as a rallying call for the "deep dark powerful German soul" the Nazis loved to evoke - and Orff, though perhaps not a follower, nevertheless played ball with them, writing music for Midsummer Night's Dream to replace the scorned Jew Mendelsohn's works.

    Carmina Burana is obviously wonderful stuff, but its underlying spirit is primitive, even bestial. It shares that quality with Stravinsky's Rite. Primitivism was one preoccupation of Modernism in music. Bartok and others exploited folk rhythms and crude effects, "demonic" tempi and heavy bass notes, etc., to achieve quasi-nationalistic qualities. I don't think we have a parallel tradition in America. Jazz tends toward "cool" or "hot" but not that "tribal" frenzy business.

    As for eating birds, humans are carnivorous.

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  3. As far as I know, people in the middle ages ate about anything they could hunt (I've read references to lark pie, and the "four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie" from the nursery rhyme was quite real except that I seriously doubt the birds actually sang...), which would include swans. In England (where my medieval studies focused) at one point all swans belonged to the crown, which would make roast swan a very rare delicacy indeed, but the manuscripts this was based on came from Germany where the rules would have been different.

    As for Orff's "savagery" - keep in mind that Orff just reset some of the lyrics, he didn't write the words; he wasn't a lyricist. The words came from 13th century Germany, and 13th century anywhere in Europe was a pretty brutal place. That is probably why the Nazis liked it.

    I didn't actually mean to put Carmina Burana down, it's great fun to sing; choruses love initial entrances at double forte, to "blow the audience's hair back." It isn't harmonically very complicated except for the extreme high notes (the first sopranos in the chorus have to hit high B regularly, which is unusual for the chorus), but rhythmically and dynamically it's very challenging indeed, changing time signatures frequently, and alternating between double forte and double piano on almost no notice. The only crescendos are where it gets louder at the end of the held loud passages. And some of the lyric sections are just gorgeous.

    Humans are omnivores. They eat anything. Like bears.

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  4. Anonymous12:28 PM

    Thoroughly enjoyed this post and the comments. Carmina Burana was one of my dad's absolute favorite works, and it became one of mine as soon as he played it for me (the Philadelphia Orchestra/Rutgers University Choir recording) after I found a copy and purchased it for him, probably 25 years ago. Anytime he needed "his hair blown back"(love that image) once cd players became the norm and his vision was failing, I would put it on for him and watch him become physically involved in the music.

    If indeed such is possible, he stopped whatever he was doing (riding around in that Silver Thunderbird?) and became totally engrossed in the Oakland Symphony Chorus's performances (all three of them), and absolutely loved Brian Staufenbiel's physical interpretation of the swan's tale.


    when I started reading this post, I thought immediately of Hemingway's rendering from the lion's point of view of being shot.

    Never know what I'll find on hedera's blogspot, and I'm never disappointed.

    Anonymous David

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  5. Speaking of classical music, I seem to be one of the very few on the internet these days, bemoaning the decline of the classical market--and with it, the heyday of the classical performer. With the demise of retail new recorded music stores, there has been a resulting steep decline in revenues for the sale of all non-"popular" music.

    Once upon a time, I would spend $75-200 a month on new CD's in Berkeley, but there's no where I can do that now. Online? How can you browse there? You really have to know exactly what you want first, and then maybe you can find it. But I'm sure I'm not alone. Most of the major metropolitan orchestras, and opera and ballet companies have been in big trouble the last 25 years, and this is making it much worse.

    The internet has spelled doom for brick-&-mortar book and music stores across the nation. It's a serious problem. Young people have no place to see and browse literature and music. That, coupled with the dramatic rise in cable television, and the decline of the 3/4 major networks, along with the decline in newspapers, and serious magazines, means our next generations are seriously deprived of cultural media. The internet can't replace what these provided. Sitting at a CRT isn't the same thing as reading a book, listening to a CD in a room, or perusing print news media.

    Maybe I'm just old-fashioned.

    If the media gets any more integrated than it already is, we could wake up in a fascist state one day. It's almost as if there's this little news censor sitting somewhere in a bunker, dictating what all the news services will say each day, verbatim. If you watch ABC/NBC/CBS/FOX, you can literally get exactly the same stories, often in exactly the same order, SYNCHRONIZED. Because none of them runs an independent news division, and instead just runs off the news service feeds. All the keywords are dictated. "Insurgents today bombed a mosque in Mosel, killing 24 and injuring dozens more. The Iraqi government vowed to locate and punish the perpetrators." No one questions the word "insurgents"--what does it mean? Who ARE these people? Why did they bomb the mosque? Are they actually friends of the people running the country? Will the soldiers who actually conduct the sweeps of the neighborhood where the "insurgents" live going to be American boys and girls? Do any of these soldiers speak the language? Does anyone have a clue about what's happening? With a little make-up and voice training-- these are just "readers" parroting a line.

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  6. Anonymous6:42 PM

    I guess I'm also old-fashioned, Curtis. Your comments make sense to me.

    Anonymous David

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  7. Boggart8:07 PM

    I've never eaten swan, and I don't have it on my wish list, but I can see possible humor. Obviously the folks sitting off to the side during your rehearsal saw some humor in it, and they were sober. I've a funny feeling that with enough mead or wine or whatever, good drinking companions, and loud music, the entire thing, lyrics and all, would be hilarious. No doubt someone would staggar up from the table and pretend to the the trussed swan.

    Do any of you know the French children's song, Alouette, gentille alouette? It is about plucking a lark, and is still taught and sung. We humans are a strange life form.

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