O Fortuna: Carmina Burana and Springtime in Europe

The fifth episode of part two starts off very scenic and descriptive, placing the setting as springtime and Germany’s surrender right around the corner. The weather is warming up, flowers are blooming, and Pynchon chooses Carl Orff’s 1937 opera Carmina Burana to set the mood: “O, O, O,/Tot-us flore-o!/Iam amore virginali/Totus ardeo . . .” (Pynchon 240). Unlike some other operatic references in the novel (such as Verdi’s Rigoletto, Puccini’s La Boheme, or Rossini’s William Tell Overture), was there any reason for Pynchon to physically write Orff’s libretto onto the page? The four lines he references aren’t even that complex; the Weisenburger companion translation is “Oh, oh, oh,/I bloom entirely!/Now virginal love/Burns me entirely . . .” (Weisenburger 148). Considering that within the same paragraph, Pynchon writes that everything is “blazing for the love of spring” (Pynchon 240), it almost seems like these Latin phrases are excessive. Why Carmina Burana? Why Orff?

To this day, Carmina Burana is the only opera I have not fallen asleep to, so Pynchon’s allusion here is quite striking for me. More striking, however, is that he didn’t choose a more amoral part of the opera. There’s drinking, gambling, lust, rage, pompousness, pagan references, rampant hedonism, and more (Stein). Weisenburger tells us that the opera’s libretto originally came from a book of song lyrics written by thirteenth-century monks. Orff was interested in the “irreligious qualities of the songs” and who could blame him (Weisenburger 148)? Monks openly talking about gambling in a tavern? Or about a girl choosing a guy’s sexual advances over chastity? Monks who reference Cupid instead of God (“Carmina Burana Texts and Translations”)? And yet, Pynchon chooses Tempus est iocundum, or “This is the joyful time”—a minor translation that the Wiki captures a little better than Weisenburger (“Pages 236-244”). On an aural level, it’s also a very “boring” choice, in that this part of the opera is light and flowing, as opposed to the more cacophonous and darker tones in other parts of Carmina Burana (the fun parts). While the part of the libretto that Pynchon chose still has a “libidinous” quality to it evocative of the renewal of life in springtime and the end of the war, it’s nowhere near as good a parallel as others I can easily list between Gravity’s Rainbow and Carmina Burana (Avarind). But I’ll get to those other parallels later.

Layering on the questions and complexities, Carl Orff was a German composer and the opera is in Latin, German, and sometimes a weird mix of both or a Latin-French mix. Additionally, parts of Carmina Burana are heavily influenced by folk music, drawing from peasant dances and comic songs, while at the same time Orff “achieved such a total independence from tradition, in the twentieth or any other century” (Stein). Keeping in mind that the Germans are on the losing side of this war, the presence of Orff in this episode of the novel is another strange choice on Pynchon’s part.

Tying all these questions up, I’ll try to answer what I’ve posed in a sort of reverse order. While the Germans may have lost the war, the end of the war still signals an end to destruction and a forthcoming era of peace. Orff represents going back to simpler times and cultural pride, as well as progressing forward and creating something new. The fact that Orff takes largely from a centuries-old book of song lyrics is also very reminiscent of Pirate’s rooftop banana garden we discussed in class—the diversity of human vices and achievements are built upon to create something that can thrive literally and culturally (Pynchon 5-6).

As for the parallels between the novel and the opera, some might call it cheating to find such similarities when Carmina Burana does not have a plot or any true characters. I still feel, however, that certain themes between the two are hard to miss. While I feel the most blatant examples are the parallels between the drinking game Prince, the setting of Casino Hermann Goering, and In taberna quando sumus, the most thematically relevant one seems to be the presence of fate in both works. Carmina Burana begins and ends with Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi, or “Fortune, empress of the world,” in which fate seems to be unchangeable (Orff). Set against the ideas of nihilism and predetermination, the preterite and the elect, within Gravity’s Rainbow, Orff fits in neatly to repeat the motif. Moreover, the particular usage of Tempus est iocundum and its sandwiched position between the two Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi pieces also reflects the way in which spring comes after the war is almost at an end, yet “the the spring rebirth is soon cut off” when the episode continues and Slothrop uncovers more information about the rockets (Avarind). The ever-looming concept of predetermination and darkness in the world engulfs the lighthearted warmth and renewal of springtime and the promises it may carry towards a happier, more peaceful life. Perhaps Pynchon made this reference in this particular spot so as to emphasize this point.

Works Cited

Aravind, P.K., and Lance Schachterle. “The Three Equations in Gravity’s Rainbow.” Pynchon Notes 46-49 (2000): 157+. Academic OneFile. Web. 18 Mar. 2014.

“Carmina Burana Texts and Translations.” Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Carnegie Hall, n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2014. <http://www.carnegiehall.org/Carmina_Burana_Texts_and_Translations/&gt;.

Orff, Carl. Carmina Burana. Telarc, 1984. CD.

“Pages 236-244.” Thomas Pynchon Wiki. N.p., 2 Aug. 2010. Web. 18 Mar. 2014. <http://gravitys-rainbow.pynchonwiki.com/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page&action=edit&gt;.

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York, NY: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Stein, Jack M. “‘Carmina Burana’ and Carl Orff.” Monatshefte 69.2 (1977): 121-30.JSTOR. University of Wisconsin Press. Web. 17 Mar. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/30156812&gt;.

Weisenburger, Steven. A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel. Athens: University of Georgia, 2006. Print.

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4 Responses to O Fortuna: Carmina Burana and Springtime in Europe

  1. Monique, very interesting post. “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi” is an incredibly famous song (it’s used for EVERYTHING). Here’s a link to it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQrLpD12rfY.

  2. talarico4 says:

    Monique, I found your post very interesting, especially because you seem to have experience with the opera Carmina Burana. I think this definitely helped to make your post more in depth and to make your research really effective. You made some great connections to Pynchon’s novel with your research as well.

  3. Steph Roman says:

    Thanks for expounding on something I have absolutely no experience with. This is one of those references I just had to breeze by, because I don’t know the slightest thing about opera, even operetta. All your research seems really thorough on what possibilities of interpretation that reference could be (and I especially liked how you pointed out many other opera references at the beginning of the post). A firsthand knowledge of the opera helped place that reference into a useful context, especially since the similarities between both texts seem particularly interesting. However, the only thing I’d add is a link to the song on Youtube or something so we can all listen to what it sounds like.

  4. moniquebriones2014 says:

    Sure, Steph! Here’s a link to the UC Davis performance of it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEllLECo4OM

    The music starts around 1:20 if you want to skip all the instruments tuning. I believe Tempus est iocundum part that Pynchon references is at 59:50. Definitely stick around for the Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi starting at that 1:20 point, though, it’s much more powerful than the other link that plays it individually.

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