Among the hundreds of program notes that I’ve written over the years, perhaps the most elaborate and most detailed is that for Orff’s dramatic cantata Carmina Burana, the German composer’s setting of twenty-four poems from the famous Carmina Burana codex prepared at the Benediktbeuern in the fourteenth century. Many are familiar with the illustration that graces the first page of the manuscript, which I described as follows:
After the Christian philosopher Boethius (480–524) offered the randomness of Fate as answer to life’s vicissitudes, Fortune and her wheel became a common motif in medieval art and thought, appearing in literature, art, and architecture, including famous stained-glass windows in Amiens and Basel. Emphasizing Fortune’s dominance, the opening page of the Carmina Burana manuscript bears an appropriate illustration. In place of the expected portrait of Christ, or a sacred scene such as the Nativity, a disturbing depiction of Fortuna and her spiked wheel is superimposed on an upside-down cross. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Fortune’s wheel is almost indistinguishable from that most infamous medieval instrument of torture, the cruel Catherine wheel.) A king, representing human experience and destiny, is caught on the spikes, where he must rise and fall, finding both good and bad fortune, as the goddess turns the wheel.
This passage is fresh in my mind; I revised and updated that program essay only a few days ago, adding more illustrations and some details that have emerged in
This afternoon, as I was listening to a fine reading of Dickens’ Little Dorrit, this passage caught my attention: