Ode to a Festive Bird

With the imminent approach of the American harvest feast known as Thanksgiving, which traditionally centers around a roast turkey, I am reminded of one of my favorite musical compositions which includes not an ode to the festive bird, but a veritable swan song.

Most people likely aren’t familiar with Carmina Burana – either the assortment of mostly bawdy Latin and Medieval German poems written from the 11th through the 13th centuries by the Goliards (students, defrocked friars, and secular troubadours who satirized the church) that were discovered in the Bavarian monastery of Benediktbeuren, or the 20th century collection of some of these poems set to music by the German musicologist and composer Carl Orff – with one exception: the dramatic opening and closing selection, O Fortuna, a powerful description of the ups and downs of the Wheel of Fortune, which has taken a life of its own in films and television commercials.

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One of the selections found in the second of the four divisions of Orff’s work is Olim lacus colueram (Once I swam on a lake), the lament of a swan as it turns on the spit before being served to the hungry people whose gnashing teeth are its final sight. It’s a spare, harsh song scored for tenor (or countertenor) accompanied by assorted percussion. I can think of no better choice to serve as an epitaph to the bird I will partake of this Thursday. Below are the original Latin text, followed by an English translation, and then a performance of the selection by Metropolitan Opera tenor Philip Creech and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine.

OLIM LACUS COLUERAM

Olim lacus colueram,
olim pulcher exstiteram,
dum cygnus ego fueram.
Miser, miser!
modo niger
et ustus fortiter!

Girat, regirat garcifer;
me rogus urit fortiter;
propinat me nunc dapifer.
Miser, miser!
modo niger
et ustus fortiter!

Nunc in scutella iaceo,
et volitare nequeo;
dentes frendentes video.
Miser, miser!
modo niger
et ustus fortiter!

Once I had dwelt on lakes, once I had been beautiful, when I was a swan. Poor wretch! Now black and well roasted!

The cook turns me back and forth; I am roasted to a turn on my pyre; now the waiter serves me. Poor wretch! Now black and well roasted!

Now I lie on the dish, and I cannot fly; I see the gnashing teeth. Poor wretch! Now black and well roasted!

Since I mentioned O Fortuna (Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi – Fortuna, Empress of the World), which both opens & closes Orff’s Carmina Burana, here’s an excellent rendition from the same recording with the Chicago Symphony Chorus & Orchestra, conducted by James Levine:

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