Orff's Carmina Burana and Gorecki's Symphony No. 3: Profound or Faux Profound?

Consider two phrases we don’t often hear in proximity: “contemporary concert music” and “audiences deeply moved to joy and tears.”  Yet that reaction was abundantly evident in two recent performances for which I gave preconcert talks: Carl Orff’s CarminaBurana (performed by Brott and the New West Symphony) and Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs)— performed by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Notwithstanding a small handful of people who actually walked out in the middle of both these pieces, audience reaction was intense adoration, and I have the emails to prove it. Many people went beyond thanking me for my talks to say that the Gorecki 3rd particularly was the most moving concert experience of their lives. So why did I leave both concerts with such complex feelings? Unlike my listening friends, I did not leave either concert walking on air. Somehow, despite the certainty that I had heard many beautiful moments, I couldn’t decide if I was genuinely moved or whether I’d been had!

Before you get upset (but don’t let me stop you!), allow me to stress what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that there is anything phony or fake about either piece, or that both pieces weren’t carefully composed. I also don’t mean to imply that the composers themselves were manipulative or in any way ungenuine in their musical aims. Instead, what I think was bothering me was that both of them have a grand intention to achieve a state of transcendence and profundity. It apparently worked for most of the audience. But for me, I sensed an almost mechanical calculation and I wasn’t entirely buying it. The totality just didn’t add. 

In Carmina Burana , the final return of O Fortuna (Oh, Fortune!),with its famous choral wall of sound, certainly rounded out the architecture of the piece, but it neither summarized or elevated all the music before it. It’s a marvelous piece on its own—as attested to by the innumerable uses in various films and commercials. But I’m damned if I can figure out how it actually relates to the rest of the piece.

With the Gorecki Symphony No. 3, I had the irreverent notion of switching the order of the second and third movement. Such a switch probably would not do much to change the overall effect of the piece. True, the last movement in Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3finally arrives at a major tonality and implies peace and arrival, but this was a deliberate move determined again by architecture, not the struggling evolution of a musical idea that we hear, say, in a journey through a Mahler symphony. If we interchanged the two movements, I don’t think anyone would mind. Heck, the second movement is a much stronger piece than the third. But can you imagine trying that same trick with a Mahler symphony? No way.

I should explain why I connect the Orff and Gorecki works. Although Orff’s Carmina Burana and Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 sound vastly different, they share surprising similarities. I’m not talking so much about the fact that they are both tonal works and last about an hour long, or that they both rank among the most popular concert pieces of the 20th century, despite their length. Carmina was premiered in Nazi Germany during the 30s to wild acclaim. After World War II, that popularity extended throughout the world. Gorecki composed his third symphony in 1976, but it was Dawn Upshaw and the London Symphonietta’s recording in 1992 that has continued to be a top selling classical CD. No, instead I’m talking about their similarity in three other key areas: they both employ a deliberate architecture meant to be heard on the surface, they both rely lovingly on hypnotic repetition, and, most curiously, they both invent a kind of faux Medieval or Renaissance music—harmonies and rhythms that conjure our general sense of earlier music—without actually embodying the actual complexity of the great composers of those early polyphonic eras.

By similar architecture, I don’t mean that both pieces are organized the same, but that they both have structures as aurally perceived as the tunes of the music itself—and that’s unusual. The opening movement of the Gorecki symphony is an obvious case in point. We literally watch its structure unfold in the strings. First the double basses play a very long modal tune. Then the cellos join in, followed by violas and violins. This process takes a long time, but we can’t escape seeing the systematic addition of players as Gorecki builds his very slow 8 part canon. After all the instruments are engaged, the music compresses to a single tone and a middle section begins with the entry of the voice and its song. The voice builds intensity and then the entire process reverses. The eight part canon begins where it left off and slowly disintegrates leaving out the violins, the violas, and finally the celli so that we end quietly with the basses as we began. The aesthetic process is as much about following this structure with our eyes as the beauty of the music itself as this canon begins to create very moving harmonies.

One of my listening friends pointed out the similarity to the opening movement of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. This was a keen observation, because this Bartok piece was probably the intentional model for Gorecki’s. The Bartok also is very systematic—an unfolding canon/fugue with two opposing string orchestras that climax to a middle section built on one tone and then the process reverses. But the Bartok also makes my point for why I wasn’t as convinced with Gorecki’s piece. The Gorecki is a machine. It is an example of the minimal movement that began sweeping contemporary music in the later 1970s and 1980s; it initiates a process and then slavishly follows it, almost like a computer program. You can begin to predict where each note will fall and what will happen next. The Bartok is not a machine at all. While it too has a process, the pacing of that process is in continual flux and filled with surprises. The gap between fugal entrances becomes shorter as the piece develops. A highly unpredictable surprise occurs at the end of the movement when the celesta enters, giving the music a novel and eerie iridescent timbre. No such surprise concludes the Gorecki first movement. It unwinds its canonic procedure descending back from the full string section to just the low double basses like clockwork. The Bartok on the other hand is like life itself, filled with irregularities and strange details that create a complex surface above the deeper structural process. Wefeel the structure, but we don’t literally hear it. It is the skeletal structure of the piece, not its flesh and blood.

So here is an example of my first discomfort with Gorecki’s work. The piece sounds absolutely beautiful, but its structure and sound are so in agreement, that having heard it once, I’m not sure I’m interested in going through the process again. It is mechanical to such a point that there is a question if successive hearings lead to the new connections we make with other moving masterworks, or whether they will simply repeat the same experience, like playing a familiar pop song to create a particular mood. I had a similar feeling with Carmina Burana. Though written long before the Minimal movement, it too wears its musical structure on its sleeve. Carminais essentially a playlist of 24 songs. Most of them are strophic—music that repeats with different verses of text. And like most folk or pop songs, these each have two parts, a verse and a chorus. This pattern becomes very familiar as the piece unfolds. The entire collection intends to be a cycle, invoking the wheel of fortune with the first song being repeated to end the piece and close the circle. The songs move through four different themes—the nature of fortune, the fertility of spring, the tavern and its earthy songs about worldly pursuits, and both love, but carnal and spiritual. Like the Gorecki, Off’s music at times is just drop-dead gorgeous. But its architecture seems contrived. The songs have don’t evolve into each other in the way, say, the songs of Schubert’s Winterreise all seem to fall one to the other. Instead I get the sense that Orff has constructed an iTunes playlist that makes the best progression for these songs. When the O Fortuna is repeated at the end, it doesn’t really seem to follow from the previous love songs. Rather, it’s just an indication that the “wheel” has traveled full circle in terms of structure, not musical evolution. Carmina Burana has a structure that feels to me more akin with the careful but artificial structure of the songs of a good pop album. They work together well and follow each other with some kind of theme, but they are individual works not dependent on each other for creating a larger whole. I left theCarmina Burana concert having a hard time holding it all together in my head. There’s this wonderful opening chorus about fortune, some beautiful music about spring and love, a ridiculously funny song from the perspective of a roast swan about to be eaten, and a short ravishing soprano cadenza. So many different kinds of pieces! All of them are effective. But do they all really fit together with some sense of inevitability that forms the experience of a true emotional cycle? I’m still not sure.

Repetition in both pieces is a big help for listeners. So much contemporary concert music is lost on us because it is hell-bent against repeating its material in obvious enough fashion that we have time to get acquainted with it. That stems from the late 19thand 20th century aesthetic of avoiding literal repetition. For the late Romantic composer, mechanical repetition thwarts the evolution of ideas and material so central to his aesthetic. For the modern 20thcentury composer, avoiding literal repetition frees music from stale forms and conventions of earlier times. But with Carmina Buranaand Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, repetition is the predominant idea underlying their structures. Like pop music, Carmina Burana lets us become so familiar with the choruses of the songs that even on a first listening, we are tempted to hum along. Of course most classical songs and choral music also rely on repetitive forms. But the tunes themselves are usually more complex structurally than pop songs. Bach, for instance, uses phrase extensions and unusual rhythmic groupings to make even his most popular tunes astonishingly complex—think of Sheep May Safely Graze or Air on the G String, for instance. Orff’s songs have none of this complexity. They do have some exciting irregular rhythms in fives and sevens—that is very true. But the melodic phrase structures are quite symmetrical and brief—what today we call “hooks”—so they stick in memory easily. Like good pop music, the grooves are infectious. And that is a primary reason that audiences feel such joy in hearing the piece. It’s interesting and surely not accidental that most of the songs lie within the range of the “unofficial pop song limit” of three minutes.  Many musicians find the Orff boring to play because of all this static repetition. One friend told me he finds Carmina Buranaenjoyable to perform, but interminable to rehearse.

If Carmina Burana bores some players, Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3actually causes pain! Several LA Philharmonic musicians complained of real shoulder and back pain from playing this piece in three performances. Even conductor Gustavo Dudamel had a hard time holding his arms up with such slow gestures for nearly an hour. Talk about suffering for your art! The human body is not designed for incessant repetitive motion. Playing slow notes with long drawn bows on string instruments without variety or a break can be excruciating. Of course, the aesthetic of minimalism is to evoke a mechanical repetition not unlike Andy Warhol’s repetitive series on subjects like Campbell’s soup cans or celebrities. In music, synthesizers and drum machines do a terrific job performing licks over and over identically.  Human beings not so much. Recall too that the three movements of Gorecki’s symphony are all in v e r y   s l o w  tempi.

But repetition in Gorecki’s symphony is undoubtedly a key ingredient to why many find the piece deeply moving. Gorgeous modal clusters seep deeper in the ears with each repetition, creating something akin to a trance state. This is music that is best heard peripherally rather than head on, so it takes root in our subconscious. Take the opening of the second movement. It is a cluster of the first five notes of a D lydian scale. As the initial phrase repeats over and over, our ears focus on its sheer beauty. We are reminded of the first time we heard harmony, and what a miracle it is to hear tones played simultaneously together. The music lies inside the sound itself, rather than sound components combining to create music. When the opening music returns in the last part of the movement with the voice doubling the top violins, it is something of an epiphany. All the music is precisely the same. But the physicality, power, and effort in the soprano’s performance of these simple slow high notes brings us to our first experience when we noticed the sheer beauty of the human voice. It’s an aural example of a great truth all musicians know deep down—that instruments aspire to the qualities and expression of the human voice. Gorecki uses repetition to penetrate through our intellectual processes that seek narrative directly into the primal focus of enjoying purely beautiful sounds.

So part of my complex feelings for these two works arises from ambivalence about their musical structure and their repetition. Their structures are not just simple, but intended to be “heard” as the musical idea itself. Consequently, following the music is easy, and that’s wonderful. But once you hear these pieces, their predictability makes it seem less interesting to repeat the experience. In other words, having watched and heard a long-winded tune begin in the depths of the string section and rise systematically into the violins and then reverse direction over a half hour is fascinating once. But is it as interesting twice? Repetition in both pieces makes them accessible and even addictive, sometimes to the point of recapturing the first wonders of listening. But is the addiction as powerful an experience the second and third time when you know what’s coming? In Brahms and Beethoven, unexpected connections arise everywhere because of their many layers of irony and association. Repeated hearings become different experiences for an active listener. But is that the case with Orff and Gorecki where the composers work hard not to burden their music with these irregularities and layers?

That brings me to a third parallel in these two works, one rather striking, but like the other two, one that equally enchants and disturbs. It is this: both Orff and Gorecki create particular fauxMedieval/Renaissance musical styles to embody the particular sonic quality of both pieces. Of course, Carmina Burana is based on Medieval poetry, so Orff’s decision makes some sense. In my preconcert talk, I played the opening of Orff’s O Fortuna against the opening of 14th century Guillaume Machaut’s Kyrie from his mass. The parallel is obvious with a similar massive choral “wall of sound” in the same mode, D dorian. Many of the songs in Carmina Buranacapture the flavor of Medieval and Renaissance vocal music, the motets, chansons, frottola, and madrigals. Goerecki goes back further still. His chord clusters recall the 12th century Notre Dame school and the organum of Perotin. He deliberately restricts his notes to the ancient modes.

Isn’t it a little weird that such substantial 20th works consciously adopt a musical sound that evokes the 14th-15th century or earlier? Perhaps that in part explains the extreme popularity of these pieces. 20th century concert music infamously alienated mass audiences with atonal and exploratory musical languages. What a relief then to hear works so immediately accessible and beautiful that freely access the past instead of denying it. But isn’t something manipulative going on as well? Orff and Gorecki are doing the same thing that film composers do with period pieces. Music evocative of Baroque trumpet voluntaries in the 17th century accompanies a film set in the 9th century Middle Ages. For modern audiences, the 17thcentury is just as psychologically removed as the 13th century, yet the 17th century musical language is still somewhat familiar. So the subconscious “buys” it. Were film composers to be true to the period and use monophonic vocal and instrument music in style at the time, audiences would be confused. We don’t have immediate emotional connotations for those earlier styles. They are not part of our sonic vocabulary. Film music needs to provide familiar musical cues to stimulate correct emotional response. It often adopts exotic or archaic sounds to imply a remote times and exotic places, but the musical style is still in what we call “common practice” (music written from 1600-1900). Battle music needs to sound the way we are used to hearing battle music—brassy and percussive. And that is what is slightly disturbing about the faux languages Orff and Gorecki create. They are calculated to evoke historical sounds while still being familiar, and to do so, they reduce and homogenize the Renaissance and Medieval styles, removing the very essence that makes them so distinct and remarkable.

Were you to take a Medieval work of Machaut and just erase all the notes that don’t fit into the mode—in other words, restrict the music to just seven notes—you would have something that sounds a bit like Carmina Burana. By eliminating the strange chromatic twists and harmonic progressions that make Machaut’s music so distinct, what’s left is a “husk” of something antique. Machaut is far more difficult to absorb than Orff. But Orff gives us the sense of how we idealize Medieval and Renaissance music, without the grittiness of the real thing. It’s so comfortable to hear!

By the way, he doesn’t stop there. Several of the songs in Carmina Burana use a similar reductive process to simulate the feeling of 19th century operatic arias and ballet music. What we get is a potpourri of the way we might feel about older music. The songs are all effective. But how does this all hold together aesthetically? I personally get confused going from the feeling of a Medieval vocal mass to a Renaissance frottola and then to an operatic aria. Orff is clever and musically convincing the way he moves smoothly from one song to the next. But by the end, when the music swings back from its faux 19th century operatic style to its initial faux 13thcentury Medieval choral style, I’m aware of Orff’s sleight of hand to the point that I’m not entirely sure if the journey of Carmina Buranareally makes a cohesive aesthetic statement. The thought I’m left with is, “Is there anything really behind all this dazzling music?” Orff was clearly influenced by Igor Stravinsky’s neoclassic music. But even Stravinsky’s most neoclassic music like the Pulcinella Suite is filled with so many odd details, that it cannot be mistaken for earlier music. It might be more accurate to say that Orff is not so much reducing earlier music styles than he is reducing Stravinsky’s evocation of earlier music—an idealization of an idealization!

Gorecki is also a stylistic magician. His opening movement evokes a 12th century organum with its modal clusters, but like Orff’s music, this too is a simplification, stripped of the irregular polyphony and complex rhythmic interplay rhythms characteristic of the actual Medieval style. Gorecki does indeed employ a polyphonic structure, but it is one used centuries later—the canon. And his canon unfolds as regular as an assembly line (the reason that some refer to minimal music as “process” music). The magic lies in understanding the essence of all musical rounds—as parts overlap the same melody at different times, harmonies that we never expect begin to materialize. Gorecki calculates a process that produces extremely moving harmonic progressions. Yet like Orff, he jumps musical style in other parts of the symphony that recall chordal Renaissance motets and even the harmonies in the final movement of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Like Orff’s Carmina Burana, Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 is so much about the memory or ideal of the beauty and grandeur of earlier music, that its effect is aesthetically suspended between a sense that it genuinely carves moments of emotional depths with “first love” pungency, and a suspicion that these emotional moments are not intrinsic to the music itself, but are rather contrived events that play on our idealized memories of past music, calculated to hit us with our guard down.

For example, we wait 15 slow and intense minutes for the soprano in Gorecki’s symphony to make her first entrance. She sings four notes of a scale: E-F#-G-A.  Is this scale particularly moving, or has Gorecki triggered us to feel a profound moment by calculating that after 15 minutes of repetitive canonic string writing, we are vulnerable to any change that is simple and direct? What’s the difference? Well, there is a distinction between music that is intrinsically effective and music that is effective mostly by its structural placement. Again to use a film music analogy, at a critical cinematic moment, a single note on a violin can trigger a strong emotional response. We are not responding to the musical content itself, but to its precise entrance at a moment when we are emotionally vulnerable. It matters less what the violin is playing than that we become aware of it playing.

That is an important function of film music, which works on a subliminal level beneath awareness of images, dialogue, and sound effects. But in concert music, if awareness of placement becomes the primary affect, then we distance ourselves a level removed from the music itself. In other words, structure is most powerful when it remains subliminal and works in parallel with musical content. The structure of Mahler’s Song of the Earth is as calculated as Gorecki’s symphony. Mahler deliberately contrives a final movement that is slower and lengthier than all the preceding five movements combined. But this structure is not the thing itself. It is the support mechanism for a musical surface that astonishes in a hundred ways on every page of the score.

And that is the crux of my confused feelings about the Gorecki symphony. Gorecki’s final movement opens with a seemingly endless repetition of two alternating chords in minor. The movement ends with the a looped repetition of a descending chord pattern in major. The shift from minor to major is a cue for us to feel a transition from a place of sorrow to one of peace, acceptance, and tranquility. I was aware that the music wasn’t creating this emotion itself, not in the way Beethoven or Mahler prepare such transformations. Instead, a simple device—change of mode—was alone compelling me to feel a shift from dark to light. It wasn’t enough. While many moments moved me in the Gorecki symphony, this blunt change of mode in the final movement actually distanced me from the piece. I felt manipulated by the composer to feel something that wasn’t true and began to question whether the earlier moments I enjoyed were intrinsically beautiful or whether they too were simply a manipulation of timing and placement that might not affect me similarly on a second listening when I was expecting them. It was strange to leave a concert unsure whether I was moved by my own reaction to the music or whether my reaction was an emotional simulacrum created and manipulated by a composer’s structural plan.

I don’t really have a complete answer to that uncertainty, but it brings up important questions about the nature of authenticity and profundity. It is curious that none of Orff’s other music has gained much popularity and that Gorecki deliberately refrained from composing another work in a similar language to his third symphony.

I hope this discussion makes it clear that I have enormous respect for both Carmina Burana and the Gorecki Symphony No. 3. As a composer I envy their beauty, ingenuity, and communicative power. But as a listener I am also aware of their artifice. Their structure is showing! And I find their profundity to be coerced.