One of the most reliable needle-drops in film history, Carmina Burana's Medieval-style chanting and ominously forceful rhythm make it the go-to choice for horror filmmakers trying to serve up their dose of the uncanny with a schmear of religiously tinged gravitas (as well as action filmmakers who have dropped it into hundreds of film trailers). Go ahead and listen to this familiar clip – which appears in the trailers of hundreds of films, from Natural Born Killers to South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut - and we'll catch up on the other side.
Despite the eldritch trappings, Carmina Burana is not an artifact from the Middle Ages. It's not even really a straight-forward religious song. The work was composed over the course of 1935 and 1936 by the German composer Carl Orff. The lyrics, which most powerfully evoke the feel of the Dark Ages, do come from a collection of Medieval poems original written in Latin, Provençal., Old French, and Middle High German (often the poems appear in an odd pidgin fusion of two or more of these languages). Although we now associate these lyrics mostly with tense action film sequences or moments of uncanny horror, the original collection was written as a satire. The poets, a collection of church scholars, used verse to create Rabelaisian satires of the Catholic Church's power structure. Of the 228 poems in the collection, 55 poke fun at the church, 40 are about drinking and gambling, 131 are somewhat randy love poems (with a special fondness for the seduction/rape of shepherdesses – a class Medieval religious scholars apparently found especially enticing), and a final two are spiritual pieces. The book was discovered in 1806 and Orff seems to have run across it in Wine, Women, and Song, a collection of poems featuring more than their fare share of wine, women, and song, anthologized by the famed English cultural historian John Addington Symonds. Symonds's collection featured translations of some 40 poems from Carmina Burana. Orff not only composed the musical setting for the poems, giving a bombastic context for the poems' often surreal and scandalous imagery, but he conceived of a richly multimedia experience for the whole work: a combination of moving sets, elaborate costumes, operatic acting, and music that he called the Theatrum Mundi. The youtube clip above shows all these pieces in action.
Orff's piece does arrive with some sinister baggage. When Orff's composition premiered in 1937, Nazi censors were nervous about the overt eroticism in some of the lyrics. However, government officials failed to take action and the work quickly became one of the most popular pieces composed by a German during the Nazi Era. Orff's own relationship to the Nazi party remains a touchy subject. Though never a major figure of the Nazi's efforts to deploy the arts for the glorification of their regime in the way Leni Riefenstahl, Orff did officially submit music to replace the banned music of Jewish composers and, in a particularly damning incident, refused to assist a friend who was arrested in connection to the anti-Nazi White Rose resistance movement. Some later historians have claimed Orff was himself part of the White Rose movement, but the evidence for this is somewhat lacking.
Whatever the reality of Orff's political sympathies during the time, his work emerged from the era unscathed: by the 1960s it was a standard piece in the quiver of any significant classical orchestra. Modern music critic and scholar Alex Ross actually makes the case that its popularity is linked directly to the fact that the music itself lacks any ideological thrust: "That Carmina Burana has appeared in hundreds of films and television commercials is proof that it contains no diabolical message, indeed that it contains no message whatsoever." For horror fans, however, the charm of the song is the faint suggestion of the diabolical. It's just diabolic enough.