O Fortuna! The Charm of the Wheel of Fortune

Goliardic Poems and Songs from the 13th century.

O Fortuna, the well-known prelude of Carl Orff’s cantata Carmina Burana, has been used widely across media — concerts, movies, even reality shows. Even if you are not a fan of classical music, you must have heard this epic melody before, or you might have come across its parody version on social media networks, in which people are making fun of its Latin lyrics. That was hilarious, yet did you know that O Fortuna was originally about something more serious, something from a darker time in history?

Image Source: Theater Erfurt

“Medieval” marks the period between the fall of the Roman empire and the Renaissance, a term used since the 19th century which means “middle” and “age” with its literal roots in Latin. These 1,000 years were known as the Middle Ages from the 5th to the 15th century. In contrast to the Renaissance, which was taken as a rebirth of the ancient Greek and Roman ideas, the medieval period was dubbed the Dark Ages as it was considered a time of restricting and suppressing humanity. It was also a millennium when feudalism was born, developed to its prime and faded away in European history.

Primogeniture was one of the signature customs under the feudal system. By law, it granted the inheritance of properties, status, and businesses to the family’s eldest son. In this case, the younger brothers needed to seek their futures on different paths. Either they would be sent to the military and became knights to honour their families, or they would be sent to universities and monasteries and be trained to be clergies to serve the Church—the place that centralised the governance, law and economy during the medieval period.

With the rise of the university system during the 12th and 13th centuries, more young men were sent to study. Thus the supply of scholars and clergies exceeded the demands. The Church, monasteries and universities were running out of vacancies. Those younger sons of wealthy families who planned to pursue their careers in academia or religion foresaw they had no place to go after graduation. It could be disappointment, frustration or rage that caused these young students, scholars and clergies became rebellious. Despite their closeness to the religious life, what they went for was indulgences, alcohol, women, gambling…They expressed themselves through writing and singing songs and poems against the Church and the unfairness of life. This group of renegades have been called the “goliards.”

“Form follows function” is a modernist art principle commonly believed by designers and architects during the late 19th century and the early 20th century. The idea asserts that the functions of an object or building decide how it looks on the outside. Similar things happen in other forms of art. Politics and social factors have always shaped the styles of music and literature throughout history. 

For example, the Greek ideology promoted aesthetics and benevolence, believing music could shape a person’s ethics. Plato, one of the greatest Greek philosophers, even argued that music was never only for enjoyment but for education. Therefore, music pieces should avoid immoderate musical notes and frenzy melodies; music should be written and played following the rules set by the politicians and thus should be noble, solemn and pure.

On the other hand, Romans worshipped power and violence; they believed music was purely for entertainment. Romans trained talented slaves into musicians massively so they could form big-scale bands to play in colosseums and theatres during the fights and performances. Thus, Roman melodies became more complex and extravagant.

Goliards were the by-products of the social factors during the High Medieval Period in the 13th century. Living in a society with a strictly hierarchical structure promising no future, these wandering young men had no choice but turned themselves into unappreciated and irreverent poet-musicians. They travelled across central Europe, wrote poems and sang songs about drinking and women for a living. Goliardic poetry mirrors Central Europe in the 13th century, reflecting the cruel reality of the uncontrollable fate of people. Erotic, satirical, parodic, and scurrilous are the general descriptions of goliardic poetry, which was also considered then the “earthly pleasures,” utterly opposite to the pious lifestyle in their time.

Most goliardic poetry comes down in history anonymously and is collected in manuscripts, such as Arundel 384 in the British Library, Rawlinson G109 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford and the Cambridge Songbook. Some historians even described the opaque authorship of goliardic poetry as the “realm of ghosts.” Written by so many unknown authors over such a long time in history, “there is no common dominator for all the poems, except for wit, linguistic dexterity, and a fluency in rhyme and rhythm (none of which are features confined to Goliardic poetry).” 1 Yet, perhaps this is one of the many reasons why people have been fascinated by this rebellious art form.

Pictured is the opening page of the rebound collection of the 18th-century Carmina Burana, though it was not the original opening of the manuscript written in the 13th century. The scholars of the modern ages believe that the central illustration (right top) is a Holy Roman Emperor instead of the goddess Fortune. The manuscript is now housed in the Bavarian State Library. (Image Source: Crónicas de San Borondón)

One of the most beautiful and renowned examples of goliardic poetry is the Carmina Burana, which O Fortuna mentioned at the beginning of this article was from. Being rediscovered in the Benediktbeuern Abbey, Germany, in 1803, Carmina Burana literally means “Songs of Benediktbeuern” in Latin. Latin, German and Old French are the languages used in Carmina Burana, an anthology of over 1,000 goliardic poems and dramatic texts collected in a manuscript full of delicate illustrations. This treasure of arts is now housed in the Bavarian State Library in Germany, which inspired Carl Orff to compose O Fortuna, one of the most classical masterpieces of all time, in the mid-1930s.

From the manuscript of Carmina Burana, Orff, the German composer, selected 24 poems and organised them into five sections: In Springtime, On the Green, In the Tavern, The Court of Love, and Blanziflor et Helena. These form the complete cantata of Carmina Burana, with O Fortuna framed as the prelude and epilogue. “Picture and words seized hold of me. […] a new work, a stage work with singing and dancing choruses, simply following the illustrations and texts, at once came into my mind,” recalled Carl Orff. On the very same day, when he saw the manuscript of Carmina Burana, he outlined the short score of the first chorus, O Fortuna.

Following the heavy rhythmic percussion with dramatic melodies, the choir sang “O Fortuna!” which means “O Fate!” in Latin. It is how the fatalistic chorus in praise of Fortune starts in Carl Orff’s cantata (click to watch Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich’s performance of O Fortuna and to see the English translation of the Latin lyrics.)

The Wheel of Fortune has been a popular theme beloved by artists across mediums throughout European history. There are paintings, writings and music depicting this mythology from ancient Rome. Fortuna was the goddess of Luck, Fate and Fortune who had the power to either bring happiness to a person’s life or completely destroy it. Rota Fortunae (“Wheel of Fortune” in Latin) was a medieval concept associated with Fortuna, symbolising people’s life is like riding on a wheel. At the top of the wheel sits happiness and leisure, while the bottom is where pain and tragedy await. The Wheel of Fortune would rotate as same as the Moon would wax and wane. It is precisely what the lyrics in O Fortuna were about: as a stark warning of the ebb and flows of luck and misfortune, it depicts an ancient mythological picture of the Wheel of Fortune in which triumph and disaster take turns to happen randomly, and it goes:


“O Fortune,
like the moon
you are changeable,
ever waxing,
ever waning,
hateful life
first oppresses
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;
poverty
and power
it melts them like ice
fate – monstrous

Fortuna, as the goddess of Luck, Fate and Fortune, always held a cornucopia in one hand, symbolising the good things in abundance. In the other hand of hers, the goddess held a ship’s rudder to imply that she had the power to steer the fate of the mortals. (Image Source: Wikipedia)

The premiere of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana was held in Frankfurt in 1937, which was a great success. It was the pre-wartime when the Nazi Party was in-charge in Germany, an era of suffering, uncertainty and fate, a replica of the Dark Ages. It was, perhaps, why people were charmed by this goliardic poem of sarcasm composed with Orff’s epic and magnificent melodies during the Word War II period and made O Fortuna a masterpiece of classical music, which has passed on through generations in the past 80 decades.

Pictured is the premiere of Carmina Burana in Frankfurt in 1937. Carl Orff’s original idea was to have Carmina Burana performed as a whole which included scenery, music, choreography, etc. Yet, in the modern days, the piece is usually played in concert halls with the choir and the orchestra band only. (Image Source: Nordfront)


1/ A. G. Rigg, ‘Golias and other pseudonyms,’ Studi medievali, 3rd ser. I8/I (1977), 65-109 at p. 109

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