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Words and Music—Do You Know What You’re Singing?

I’m not sure what attracts listeners to large choral works, but for myself, I go for the musical line first.  Only later do I find out what the chorus or soloists are singing about.  But I wonder: are composers drawn to texts and create melodies to match, or do they have a file of melodies waiting to find the right words?

I recently had a patron request for Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (BRM 32013, complete work, BRM 36176, contralto chorus, BRM 35387, tenor chorus.)  It’s a work I’m familiar with (if you listen to it, beware; it will plant itself into your musical consciousness) but this time I realized I didn’t know precisely what the chorus and soloists were singing about. I enjoyed playing it and appreciated the transparent orchestration and effect it had on audiences.  Recently, it has been adapted to the stage with dance, creating a full-fledged theatrical event. Carmina Burana means ”Songs of Beuern” and Orff drew his texts from poems and phrases inscribed on the monastery (known as Benediktbeuern) walls located there in Beuern.  The opening/closing movement Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi, while having a victorious, rhythmic pulse, is raging against the bad luck that is always coming around: “Fate—monstrous and empty, you whirling wheel, you are malevolent; well-being is in vain and always fades to nothing.”  The biggest and saddest surprise was movement 12, Olim Lacus Colueram, (Once I Lived on Lakes) sung by a roasted swan!!  “Once I lived on lakes, once I looked beautiful when I was a swan. Misery me! Now black and roasting fiercely!” Orff’s orchestration pairs a bassoon in the high register, perfectly imitating a sad swan song indeed, with a countertenor solo adding to the eeriness. Bottom line, beauty (and sometimes life) is fleeting, so enjoy it while you can.

Black and white photo of Johannes Brahms, facing forward.

Johannes Brahms //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016872659/

We have other standard choral repertoire. Ein Deutsches Requiem (BRM 29956), written by Johannes Brahms as a young composer in memory of his mother, uses select verses from the German Luther Bible. Seeking to comfort the living, the fourth movement (How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place)  draws from Psalm 84, verses 1, 2, and 4. Melodically he presents a flowing line reminiscent of a gentle stream, and the combination is very calming. From the audio collection you can learn the text in German, Ein Deutsches Requiem (DBM 03587).

Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem (BRM 22817) delivers a comforting message musically and is a standard version of a Catholic mass for the dead. It is comprised of seven movements for chorus and soprano and baritone soloists.  Rather than inserting any turbulent movements, Fauré presents eternal rest as a peaceful state for the faithful. Instead of a wrathful “Dies Irae” he has a “Pie Jesu” giving all eternal rest in this comforting place.  The final movement, In paradisum deducant angeli (May angels lead you to paradise) features the soprano chorus gently leading the listener to the final Requiem (Rest.)

Sometimes learning a new work either by listening or performing can be overwhelming, but make time for researching exactly what you’re singing or playing about. Enlightenment awaits.


  1. Dee
    August 23, 2018 at 5:18 pm

    I appreciate this site filled with Music info and as a musician also use it for research for classes I facilitate as well. As a songwriter too, melody and words usually come together for me and then I edited it accordingly. In fact the titlte today of Words and Music, intrigued me since one of my songs in the past is similar ” WORDS TO MUSIC”. Thanks again, DEE

  2. Mary A. Revere
    August 23, 2018 at 8:01 pm

    I loved this site about music During the last 87 years I have sung on church choirs, high school groups,Christmas tours around the hospital as a student nurse and any other group that would let me in.
    I wanted to be a “Sweet Adeline” but five children and frequent moves didn’t allow that. I love music and can remember words and sing along to all the popular songs I heard in 1940’s, 1950’s and so on. Thank you for your site.

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