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Origins and History:
The songs and plays in the Carmina Burana were written down sometime in the 13th century, though many of them are probably much older in origin. The work of some of the few known goliards is evident in the style and content of many of the songs. The manuscript was discovered in 1803 at Benediktbeuern, a Benedictine monastery in Bavaria from which the term "burana" is derived.
The songs, which number more than 1,000, vary widely in style and subject matter and include religious poems, political satires, drinking songs, and both serious and bawdy love songs. They are composed of rhymed lyrics, primarily in Latin with a few in German. Some musical notation was included in the manuscript, but it has been difficult to decipher, and only about 40 melodies have been reconstructed.
The six plays are all in Latin and include the only two complete texts of medieval Passion dramas known to exist today -- one with music and one without. The other plays are an Easter play, a Christmas play, a play depicting Christ's first two appearances to the disciples, and a play of the king of Egypt.
The Carmina Burana is the largest and greatest collection of secular lyrics from the Middle Ages. It has proved useful in understanding the goliards, and it has demonstrated that music flourished widely in medieval times beyond the confines of the Church.
In 1937, the German composer Carl Orff wrote the secular cantata "Carmina Burana," which was based on the medieval poems but did not use the original melodies. Orff's work was very popular in Nazi Germany, and has since been used in numerous TV programs, advertisements and films, most notably John Boorman's Excalibur.
You can listen to MIDI versions of Orff's work at Bot Productions.