What are the lyrics to ‘O Fortuna’ from Carmina Burana?

1 July 2022, 16:45

What are the lyrics to ‘O Fortuna’ from Carmina Burana?
What are the lyrics to ‘O Fortuna’ from Carmina Burana? Picture: Getty
Classic FM

By Classic FM

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 magnificent ‘O Fortuna’. But what is the choir actually singing about?

‘O Fortuna’ has its origins in the 13th century as a medieval Latin poem, which belonged to a collection known as the Carmina Burana.

It literally means ‘Oh Fate’, and it is a lament about the inescapable power of fate, a central theme to Roman and Greek mythology, in which fate is a force that rules both gods and mortals.

Between the years 1935 and 1936, 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, creates a resplendently ominous feeling, making ‘O Fortuna’ the perfect musical soundtrack for several films and TV shows over the last 75 years – including The X Factor, in which Orff’s melody is used to introduce the four judges.

One of the earliest uses of ‘O Fortuna’ on screen was in the trailer for the 1981 movie Excalibur, which uses the poem in its entirety and likely sparked an obsession with the melody’s ominous, even heroic mood among advertising agencies and film trailer composers.

Read more: The story of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana

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

What are the lyrics to ‘O Fortuna’?

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!

What is the English translation?

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!