Wheel of Fortune: Program & Notes


FORTUNE’S WHEEL: Music from the Original Carmina Burana


  • Tempus adest floridum
  • Veris dulcis in tempore
  • Veni, veni, venias
  • Axe Phebus aureo


  • Verbum bonum et soave
  • Verbum bonum (instrumental)
  • Nomen a solemnibus


  • O Fortuna levis
  • Procurans odium
  • Fortune plango vulnera
  • Gaude cur (instrumental)
  • O Fortuna velut luna


  • Planctus ante nescia
  • Ave nobilis


  • Fortunae Rota (instrumental)


  • Ecce tempus gaudii
  • Musa venit carmine
  • Tempus est iocundum
  • Bache bene venies


Fortuna, the goddess of fortune and fate in Roman mythology, was worshipped all over medieval Europe. She was thought to govern how one fared in love and war, in commerce and personal life. In many medieval representations (such as the one from the Carmina Burana on our program cover) Lady Fortune is depicted seated on her throne at the center of the ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ the Rota. Around her we see the four stages of life, clockwise from the left: regnabo (I shall reign), regno (I reign), regnavi (I have reigned) and on the bottom sum sine regno (I am without a kingdom). It comes as no surprise that she is the subject of many of the poems and songs of the ‘goliards’ — students and clerics traveling to and from the newly founded universities. Because they often depended on the good will of strangers for lodging and food, Fortuna played a huge role in their lives.

One of the major sources of goliard poetry is the 13th-century manuscript of the Carmina Burana. Compiled by one or more of the traveling clerics, the collection of poems eventually ended up in the southern German abbey of Benediktbeuren, which gave it the name Carmina Burana: ‘Songs of Beuern.’ Most of the pieces are in Latin, the common language among clerics and scholars in the Middle Ages; some are in early German, and many are macaronic — they combine different languages, such as Latin with early German or French. Compiled by one or more of the traveling clerics, the collection of poems eventually ended up in the southern German abbey of Benediktbeuren, which gave it the name Carmina Burana: ‘Songs of Beuern.’

The repertoire of the Carmina Burana is by no means sacred only. Besides ecclesiastical songs and a religious play (a Passion play), there are many love songs, moralistic and satirical songs, and drinking songs. The poems are neatly organized in categories. The poets represented (Walter of Chatillon, Peter Abelard, Peter of Blois, Philippe the Chancellor of Paris) indicate that the compiler(s) had a thorough knowledge of the learned world of Paris, which had become the intellectual and cultural center of Europe in the 12th-century.

The Carmina Burana manuscript includes music with a few of the poems, but in a very vague notation: neumes without a staff, so that pitch, intervals and rhythm cannot be determined. In some cases we can retrace melodies because they appear in other manuscripts. Most of the songs in our concert consist of lyrics matched with melodies from other 12th- and 13th-century manuscripts, most of them from Paris; the melodies fit the poetic structure of the lyrics. This process of mixing and matching lyrics with tunes is known as making a ‘Contrafactum,’ whereby the melody of a known song is used with a new text.

Some of the songs, such as Nomen a solemnibus and Planctus ante nescia, use what are sometimes called ‘narrative’ melodies: melodies that are very adaptable to different texts, and therefore very useful for the recitation of long epic poetry. These melodies are not onomatopoetically expressive; they do not ‘paint’ the words. They are vehicles to deliver the text. So it can be that we hear the same melodies used for sacred, even liturgical songs, for courtly love songs, for battle songs and for laments. Expression of emotion comes from the text and from the performer, who imbues these ‘neutral’ melodies with the meaning of the poems.

Instrumental music was the domain of the jongleur, the wandering minstrel. The medieval instrumentalists improvised their music. Most jongleurs probably did not read or write, either music or language. We, 21st-century minstrels, are left with the daunting task of trying to re-create a repertoire, based on the vocal models of the time. Fortunae Rota a medley of medieval dance tunes, is named in honor of the medieval Rota, a wheel to which several bells have been attached. Our percussionist, Peggy Monroe, designed her instrument after a medieval painting.


Many medieval love songs refer to the renewal of nature in the springtime. The arrival of spring with its promise of new life and joy amidst budding flowers and beautiful bird song inspires the lover/poet. One such composition is Tempus adest floridum, which also appeared centuries later in a Christianized version in a Finnish collection, the Piae Cantiones. If the song seems familiar, it might be because the melody is also used for the popular carol Good King Wenseslas. Axe Phebus aureo is a classic example of medieval Latin poetry: a masterful use of metre and verse is combined with allusions to mythological lovers of Roman antiquity.


Verbum bonum et suave is a well-known Christmas hymn that uses the tune of the hymn Pange lingua. It appears in manuscripts all over Europe, from the Carmina Burana to the Italian Laude collections.

Nomen a solemnibus celebrates the capture of Jerusalem by the crusaders in 1099. The structure of the poem is unusual: each stanza consists of three parts, each with its own meter, rhyme scheme and pattern of repetition. The last part of each verse is the refrain Festum agitur. The text refers to some very localized events as well: the abbey of Solignac; a certain monk, Serracus, who had castrated himself and did not participate in the celebration. After this rather obscure introduction the subsequent verses praise the great City of David. Biblical references abound in the lyrics.


The first chapter of the Carmina Burana is devoted to Lady Fortune. O Fortuna levis contains several short poems, proverbs almost, that I have combined with instrumental dances. Of the other three texts, only Procurans odium was provided with music. For the remaining two (Fortune plango vulnera and O Fortuna velut luna) I have used melodies from one of the great Parisian collections, the Florence Manuscript. Although it rests in Florence now, there is no doubt that the manuscript was compiled in Paris. Among the composers represented are the great innovators of polyphonic music in the 12th-and 13th-centuries, Leonin, Perotin and Philippe the Chancellor.


In Planctus ante nescia Godefroy of St. Victor (a canon and sacristan at St. Victor in Paris, who lived from c. 1125 to 1194) presents the Virgin Mary at the Cross in a heart-wrenching personal lament. Not only does this lament appear in eleven of the important manuscripts of the time; the music is used a century later for various other laments, in French, in Anglo-Norman and in English. The rather formulaic melodic phrases contrast with and add urgency to the charged emotional context of the poem.


To end our program we return to some of the more lighthearted love and drinking songs. A few lines of Bache bene venies appear with music in the famous Play of Daniel from Beauvais Cathedral, which made it possible to reconstruct the rest of the song from its original source.

~Margriet Tindemans