We translated the lyrics to ‘O Fortuna’ from Carmina Burana, and they’re really intense

12 January 2018, 15:42

André Rieu - O Fortuna (Carmina Burana - Carl Orff)

03:39

Whether you know it as the great choral number from Carmina Burana or simply as The X Factor song, most of us have heard the brilliant ‘O Fortuna’. But what is the choir actually singing about?

‘O Fortuna’ was written in the 13th century as a medieval Latin poem, which was part of a collection known as the Carmina Burana.

It literally means ‘Oh Fate’, and it is a complaint about the inescapable power of fate. Sure, this might seem a tad negative, but fate had greater relevance in the lives of men and gods in Roman and Greek mythology.

Around 1935-6, German composer Carl Orff set the poem to music as part of his cantata Carmina Burana, which was based on 23 other poems from the medieval collection.

His harmonic treatment, which is modal until the last nine bars, gives ‘O Fortuna’ a menacing, ominous tone which has made it suitable for a number of films and TV shows over the last 75 years. Here’s what it does to André Rieu:

via GIPHY

Now, let’s find out what the Latin lyrics actually translate to in English (feel free to chant along in your head, it’s quite catchy).

Here are the lyrics in Latin:

O Fortuna
Velut luna
Statu variabilis
Semper crescis
Aut decrescis;
Vita detestabilis
Nunc obdurat
Et tunc curat
Ludo mentis aciem,
Egestatem,
Potestatem
Dissolvit ut glaciem.
Sors immanis
Et inanis,
Rota tu volubilis
Status malus,
Vana salus
Semper dissolubilis,
Obumbrata
Et velata
Michi quoque niteris;
Nunc per ludum
Dorsum nudum
Fero tui sceleris.
Sors salutis
Et virtutis
Michi nunc contraria,
est affectus
et defectus
semper in angaria.
Hac in hora
Sine mora
Corde pulsum tangite;
Quod per sortem
Sternit fortem,
Mecum omnes plangite!

Here they are again, translated into English:

O Fortune,
like the moon
you are changeable,
ever waxing,
ever waning,
hateful life
first oppresses
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;
poverty
and power
it melts them like ice
fate – monstrous
and empty,
you whirling wheel,
you are malevolent,
well-being is vain
and always fades to nothing,
shadowed
and veiled
you plague me too;
now through the game
I bring my bare back
to your villainy
fate is against me
in health
and virtue,
driven on
and weighted down,
always enslaved.
so at this hour
without delay
pluck the vibrating strings;
since Fate
strikes down the strong man,
everyone weep with me!