Monday, 23 November 2009

O fortuna, velut luna, statu variabilis


O fortuna, velut luna, statu variabilis...

'O Fortune, like the moon, ever changing' - these are the opening words of the mighty chorus which starts (and finishes) Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. 'Ever changing' expresses the meaning but is maybe a bit loose. Strictly the Latin statu variabilis means 'variable as to state', where variabilis refers back to luna, the moon, and statu is what those who ever suffered Kennedy's Latin Primer at school will recognise instantly as a Dative of Advantage. At least, all those who didn't spend their time defacing the cover of possibly the most hated book since William Caxton so that it read 'Kennedy's Eating Primer'.

(Holmes' Comprehensive Arithmetic, a Scottish instrument of torture banned at much the same time as the tawse, would run it a close second. Decimalisation in 1969 dealt HCA a kindly mortal blow: no more compound interest in halfpennies and farthings or long division of furlongs and chains to instil character into the Scottish soul.)

At the moment I'm on a composition jag, setting as choral music some poems of a little-known French poet called Jules Laforgue. (I've written music on and off all my life, and this is the last bracketed observation in this post.) Laforgue is a sort of late Romantic symbolist, a beat poet of his day. A snappy dresser, as you can see from the portrait below. He died very young after an extraordinary but short career partly as Reader to the Empress of Germany, Kaiser Bill's paternal grandmother. He married a girl called Lea Lee in Kensington. If she was Chinese it's not recorded. Both Jules and Lea died within a year of their marriage.

The line I'm struggling to make singable just now comes from a work called L'Imitation de Notre-Dame la Lune, The Imitation of Our Lady the Moon. It reads:

O Diane, à la chlamyde très dorique

'O Diane' is no problem, an address to Diana or Artemis, the goddess associated with hunting and the moon. But à la chlamyde? It has to mean 'with chlamydia', a really nasty sexually transmitted condition where the p - but I won't go into details. How can the goddess of the moon possibly be saddled with this? And très dorique, very Doric?

Neither Wikipedia nor Davepedia are much help. Dorique probably means plain, unadorned, artlessly simple, but I'm not certain. This makes even greater nonsense of chlamyde. How can people sing about artlessly simple Olympian venereal conditions with smirk-free conviction?

It turns out, after consulting several works including Abbott and Mansfield, the classical Greek equivalent of Kennedy, that chlamyde is the French version of the Greek chlamys. Chlamys means a short cloak or mantle, of the sort you see Artemis wearing, and not much else, in statues or her. The chlamys is heavily pleated and closely gathered or ruched, not to say puckered, at the collar. I begin to see a connection . . . but how to express it in music is beyond me. I wonder what Lea Lee thought about it all.

7 comments:

Dave said...

Despite decimalisation having been a few years in the past, when I started work in Insurance, comercial fire policies were still rated in LSD per cent - and when, a few years later, it was decided to decimalise (for the benefit of the newly-installed computers) I was one of those chosen for the task of conversion. Happy days.

I mention this because I know nothing of music or Latin.

I have sat through a performance of Carmina Burana, but it was all Greek to me.

Christopher said...

Well I have to say that while writing this post I thought Oh dear, this may not mean all that much to Dave. Never mind, thank you for rising from your bed of pain and sickness to comment.

I've played in Carmina Burana, which requires - in addition to an orchestra - 6 percussionists, moving from instrument to instrument. The percussionists' weaving in and out at the back of the orchestra was like the Grand Chain movement in the Eightsome Reel.

Rog said...

Carmina Burana?

No, a VW Golf. As the firemen said when they were rescuing PM Blair from a burning building - Sorry to lower the Tone.

Sarah said...

Wasn't Carl Orff's Carmina Burana the 'theme' tune for the film 'The Omen' ?...tsk ...you and me both Rog...ho hum

Dave said...

Or was it the Old Spice adverts?

Dave said...

Oh, and John Boorman's Excalibur.

Christopher said...

Rog: Thank you. Please don't think that I don't appreciate the consistency of your standards.

Sarah and Dave: (Ooh...) Are you asking or telling? It's used in various French adverts too, but I couldn't tell you what for. Clearly I should watch more daytime TV.