What Is The Story Behind Carmina Burana? 3 Lesson Activities

image what is the story behind carmina burana? with 3 lesson activities

I played some of Carmina Burana for my students recently, and one of them asked me about the history. So I did some research and found out what the story is behind Carmina Burana. 

Carmina Burana, translated to Songs of Beuran, is a setting of 13th century songs by Carl Orff. Originally imagined as a piece with choreographed dance happening at the same time, this 1936 piece is in three parts with bookended summonings of Fortune. 

We all know about the importance of folk songs, but exposing students to quality art music is just as important. Which is why I love sharing this piece.

Read on for more details about the piece to share with your students. 

Carmina Burana Lessons

I often play movements from this piece for my students. Usually, I’ll introduce each of the movements separately with the following story along with it. 

The story I use is based on the actual text and elements of the movements. I don’t share all the movements (there are 25!), but I do hit a few of the most popular ones. 

After the students are familiar with all the movements (I typically only do one per day, and then move on to our other music activities), I will then have the students listen/move to the entire thing. 

In this section, I’ll share the story I tell and the activities I ask the students to do. 

1. O Fortuna

“Carl Orff wrote this collection of movements based on poems from the 13th century and called it the Songs of Bueran or Carmina Burana.”

“At the end of the year, the people cry out to Fortune (spirit of good luck). They cry out O Fortuna! In hope for a better life. In the music, you can feel the people’s desperate pleading for a better future.“

These are the movements I teach my students (2nd on up loves this.). 

You can also use the movements from Feierabend’s Move It! 2 DVD. There are a lot of great movement to art music activities in this. 

Movement Suggestions

  1. Beginning: Right hand up, make fist, slowly lower
  2. Repeat with left 
  3. Repeat with two hands
  4. Quiet Part: Tap right knee
  5. Tap left knee
  6. Tap both knees
  7. Tap chest with right hand fist
  8. Tap chest with left hand fist
  9. Tap chest with both hands fist
  10. Loud part: Right foot stomp while shaking right fist at a low level  
  11. Left foot stomp while shaking left fist at low level  
  12. Repeat 10 with right fist up
  13. Repeat 11 with left fist up
  14. Ending: Tip toe on each foot back and forth quickly until the end and then sit quickly 

O Fortuna English Lyrics 

Use as you wish, I sometimes share with my older students.

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!

Lyric translation from ClassicFM.  

5. Ecce Gratum 

“As the new year begins, the people set out to welcome a new age of experience. The people call to the world and go out with hope. 

As they find the joy of nature, they get excited, dancing and singing until they collapse exhausted.” 

Creative Movement Activity

For this activity, I like to turn much of the work to the students. Their goal is to create a movement piece to the distinct sections of this work. 

First, I have the students listen to the piece asking them to notice when I hold up a number for each section. 

On the first repetition, I ask them to think of a word to describe each part. We record these words down. 

At this point, you or the students should then narrow it down to one word. 

Now, you guide the students however you see fit to get a specific movement for each section. Then, practice and perform those sections with the music. 

Here is how I personally label the parts: 

  1. Dramatic greeting
  2. Slow exploring
  3. Flowing
  4. Dancing
  5. Explosion of joy

The song repeats these 5 parts three times. 

For those afraid of guiding students in movement (don’t be!)here’s an example of one of my classes came up with.

  1. R hand up and down with scarves. L hand up and down with scarves. 
  2. Everyone march to the right in a circle while shaking scarves to the beat. 
  3. Start at the bottom and wiggle scarves up and down with the music. 
  4. Jump and down while waving scarves up and down. 
  5. Spin in place and freeze at repeat. (Final time fall down).  

English Lyrics To Ecce Gratum

Be sure to proofread and change slightly or don’t read depending on what you feel is appropriate for your class. I included possible edits of italicized parts in brackets below. 

Behold, the pleasant and longed-for

Spring brings back joyfulness 

Violet flowers fill the meadows

The sun brightens everything

Sadness is now at an end!

Summer returns now withdraw

The rigours of winter. Ah !

Now melts and disappears

Ice, snow and the rest

Winter flees and now spring

Sucks at summer’s breast

[Longs for the summer]

A wretched soul is he who does not live

Or lust under summer’s rule. Ah !

[Or wish for] 

The glory and rejoice

In honeyed sweetness

Who strive to make use of

Cupid’s prize at venus’ command

Let us glory and rejoice

In being paris’ equals. Ah !

Translation courtesy of Lyrics Translate. 

6. Tanz 

“In this instrumental movement, we hear the music of a meadow in summertime and fall. We hear the different motion of the quick footed squirrels, leaping frogs, and fluttering birds as they enjoy the freshness of a new season.“


Intro – long notes 

A – Microbeats 

B – Macrobeats

A – Microbeats

C – Slow (Repeats) 

A – Microbeats 

B – Macrobeats

A – Microbeats 

Coda – Drumroll 

For Tanz (dance), I like to have students move to show macrobeats, microbeats, and form. I’ll start with the introduction long pitches just as jazz hands. 

During the A section, I have students tap the microbeats on the floor left-right-left-right to the division of the macro. 

For the B section, students then switch to tapping the macrobeat on their laps with both hands at the same time. 

During the slower C, I have students wiggle their hands like birds or butterflies with the flute. When it repeats, I’ll have students switch the other hand or have them make two birds that chase each other. 

For the coda, students are just doing a drumroll on the floor. 

Eventually, I also add instruments, often drums or rhythm sticks. You could also use scarves for the C section. 

25. O Fortuna (Reprise)

“As summer turns to fall and fall turns to winter, another year passes. The cycle completes itself once again as the people cry out for the favor of fortune. O Fortuna!”


I hope you found the story behind Carmina Burana and my lesson ideas helpful. 

There are a ton of different things you could do with this, but whatever you do, just know you’re giving kids and good experience using this great music by Carl Orff (who also started one of the main methods for teaching music). 

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher in Michigan with 12 years of experience. He's the President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and founder of the Dynamic Music Room.

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