Friday, 8 November 2013

The unbearable appropriateness of being Carmina Burana

Anyone who is an aficionado of The X-Factor (or even hears the start of it as they rush out of the room screaming) will be aware of its producers' tendency to use a striking bit of classical music as a background, typically at the beginning and as the judges come on stage. The older members of the audience may recognise it as 'that music they used to have on the Old Spice ad' - not to mention in numerous movies. What it really is, of course, is 'O Fortuna', the opening and closing chorus of Carl Orff's choral masterpiece, Carmina Burana.

What I wonder, though, is whether those involved in the X-Factor know just how appropriate this particular number is, for two reasons, to their peculiar form of entertainment/torture. I suspect not.

The first appropriate aspect is that the chorus is about the wheel of fortune in the sense of the random hand of fate meaning that at one moment we might be on top and the next on the way down. Spookily accurate. But even more interesting is the second aspect, which used to really depress me as a student.

I first came across Carmina Burana when we performed it in a concert at my college music society, and it rapidly became one of my favourite pieces. But this didn't stop me finding the ending, in my idealistic student fashion, rather unpleasant. The second half of the piece is largely the story of a seduction, with the antepenultimate section being an electrically soaring climax from the soprano soloist. We then have the penultimate section, Ave Formosissima, celebrating love to a rising, uplifting ending... which crashes into the final, grinding repeat of O Fortuna. The message is clear. You go through this apparently life-changing experience and afterwards the world goes on and everything is just the same.

I have to say I find it less depressing now (perhaps because as an older person I am more accepting that this is a realistic rather than a cynical view). But oh how it should resound for those X-Factor entrants who tell us that they don't want to be a cleaner or a van driver or whatever it is anymore. And the judges, putting them through, tell them 'You can say goodbye to all that.' But actually the Carmina Burana music is much more honest. They might be going through an apparently life-changing experience, but afterwards, for most of them, the world will be exactly the same.

I really would encourage you to listen to this clip to hear that transition from affirmation to inevitability. It is quite spine tingling:

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