Behind the Scenes: Albany Pro Musica Tenor Jonathan Hansen shares his perspective
This is my fourth time singing Carmina, the first of which involved the performance of select movements from the choral work when I was in high school. My high school choral director had the choir memorize the text for the first movement, the iconic “O Fortuna.” I remember that I had made flash cards and worked on memorization while on the school bus. At the time, I did not understand the worth of this exercise – after all, singers have scores with the words printed in them. I performed Carmina again in college and, curiously, the choral director for the University at Albany (who also conducts Albany Pro Musica in his spare time) urged the singers to memorize the text to “O Fortuna.” After performing Carmina six years ago with Albany Pro Musica and again this Spring, it is fair to say that, for many years, I have had the text memorized to “O Fortuna.”
Why? What is the point? My own answer to this question has been nearly two decades in the making, since I first sang excerpts of Carmina in tenth grade. This is what I have come up with:
Carmina is very easy to sing, but very difficult to sing well. And “O Fortuna”, both the first and last movement of the piece, is illustrative of this paradox which exists throughout the larger work. The music is very emotive, at times searing with fury, at other times dripping with love-fueled elation, and at still other times doubling over and sobbing in despair. And the choir, as the deliverer of the text, bears a significant share of the responsibility to communicate these mood swings to the audience.
The difficulty, then, is in the communication. A task which is complicated by the fact that the text is not in English, and further complicated by the fact that there are a lot of words, many of them sung at fast tempi. So the simple, singable melodies that have helped to make Carmina one of the most beloved choral works of all time also create a bit of a pitfall for the performers. It would be very easy to sing the tunes by rote and spend the concert focusing on all of those Latin words.
But then the emotion is lost. The searing fury, the love-fueled elation, the doubled over despair, they never make it off the page and out into the concert hall. So in order to get to a place where you can focus on communicating those fantastic and dramatic emotions to the audience, you can’t be preoccupied with all those words.
That is the reason why, then, I was told to memorize the words to “O Fortuna” in tenth grade. That is why we rehearse the piece for months even though the vocal parts can be learned in weeks. That is why our director talks to us as much about what the text means as he does about any other facet of the performance. So that we can develop a comfort level with not only those simple, singable melodies, but also with those unforgivingly tongue-twisting texts, and free ourselves to focus on communicating Carmina’s wild impassioned moods during the concert. That is the goal. That is why Carmina is easy to sing, but difficult to sing well.
If the audience feels every broken heart, every shattered dream, and every loving caress without ever knowing about the school bus flash cards, then I have done my job.