O Fortune, like the moon, you are changeable, ever waxing and waning. Hateful life first oppresses and then soothes, as fancy takes it. Poverty and power, it melts them like ice. Fate, monstrous and empty, you whirling wheel, you are malevolent. Well-being is vain and always fades to nothing. Shadowed and veiled, you plague me, too.
Now, through the game, I bring my bare back to your villainy. Fate is against me in health and virtue, driven on and weighted down, always enslaved. So at this hour, without delay, pluck the vibrating strings. Since Fate strikes down the strong man, everyone weep with me.
These are the opening lines of “Carmina Burana,” the opera-like “scenic cantata” by the German composer Carl Orff. And while Orff was never directly tied to the Nazi regime, the premiere of “Carmina” in Frankfurt in 1937 caused considerable excitement in the Third Reich. The work also earned Orff a great deal of money.
The question is this: What does “Carmina Burana” have to do with Tennessee football?
Though no obvious connection jumps out at me, for many years now the Pride of the Southland Band has played the powerful riffs of the cantata’s first section, “O Fortuna,” countless times at Neyland Stadium and elsewhere.
You hear it at dramatic moments in a game, but also in time-killing lulls in the action. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, but it never fails. “Time out, Tennessee … ” and here comes ol’ Orff. For all the reasons “Rocky Top” makes perfect sense, “O Fortuna” makes absolutely none.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s definitely evocative music, made to stir things up. It has been used in countless movies, beginning in 1981 with “Excalibur,” and continuing with (to name just a few) “The Hunt for Red October,” “Natural Born Killers,” “The Doors,” and reaching a climax, so to speak, with “Jackass: The Movie.”
“It’s third and 11 for Indiana State, and the Sycamores call a hasty timeout.” Cue the band. “O Fortune, like the moon, you are changeable.”
Orff adapted a 13th-century manuscript of Latin poems found at a Benedictine monastery in Beuren, Bavaria. He took 24 pieces of the manuscript – written by monks, mind you, about wine, women, love and mayhem – and applied to them a concept of operatic composition that was at once modern and medieval. The result is a kind of musical timelessness that audiences consistently have loved. Thematically, it’s sort of a “Sunday in the Park With George” (Sondheim) set in the “Garden of Earthly Delights” of Hieronymus Bosch.
But as far as I know (and I do read Latin), these 800-year-old poems contain no references to checkerboard end zones, Smokey or Butch Jones. And yet, every UT game is peppered with snippets of “O Fortuna.”
The first time I encountered “Carmina” was nearly 45 years ago in Boston. I was studying theater at the Boston Conservatory of Music, and I wrangled a ticket to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Seiji Ozawa conducting. I hadn’t heard of Orff or “Carmina,” but I sure as hell knew ‘em both by the time I left Symphony Hall that evening.
The BSO is a big beast in its own right, but for “Carmina,” with the combined adult and children’s choruses of the New England Conservatory, plus featured soloists Kathleen Battle and Sherrill Milnes, there wasn’t an unoccupied square inch on the stage at the venue.
And when Ozawa dropped that baton for the first crashing tympani blast of “O Fortuna,” I thought my head had exploded.
A couple of years later, in 1974, my younger brother was in the Houston Ballet’s realization of “Carmina” by choreographer Jim Clouser at Jones Hall. Once again, all sensory precedent went by the boards. What the Boston Symphony had imparted as aural revelation, the Houston Ballet topped with stunning, visceral, visual audacity. And there was my little brother, Michael, in the middle of the fray. It was un-freaking-forgettable. Literally.
So, when ESPN calls a TV timeout at a crucial moment of a Vols vs. Gators game, and the UT band cranks up “Carmina,” I go to a place that is so jarringly distant from football that it makes my head hurt.
It’s like imagining Ozawa conducting with a drum major’s hat on his head or hearing the Boston Symphony play a totally straight-faced rendition of “Rocky Top,” sandwiched between Mendelssohn’s “Piano Concerto #2 in D Minor” and, say, Orff’s “O Fortuna.”
If deciphering Latin is too much for you, you always can check out “O Fortuna, Misheard Lyrics” on YouTube for a good laugh. “Gopher tuna. Get more tuna.” Et cetera. But when the laughing has passed, there’s a serious question left hanging in the air.
Why “Carmina Burana?” How about a rousing marching band version of “Back Where I Come From” instead?