In 1934, Orff encountered the 1847 edition of the Carmina Burana by Johann Andreas Schmeller, the original text dating mostly from the 11th or 12th century, including some from the 13th century. Michel Hofmann, then a young law student and Latin and Greek enthusiast, assisted Orff in the selection and organization of 24 of these poems into a libretto, mostly in Latin verse, with a small amount of Middle High German and Old Provençal. The selection covers a wide range of topics, as familiar in the 13th century as they are in the 21st century: the fickleness of fortune and wealth, the ephemeral nature of life, the joy of the return of Spring, and the pleasures and perils of drinking, gluttony, gambling and lust.
Carmina Burana is structured into five major sections, containing 25 movements total. Orff indicates attacca markings between all the movements within each scene.
Much of the compositional structure is based on the idea of the turning Fortuna Wheel. The drawing of the wheel found on the first page of the Burana Codex includes four phrases around the outside of the wheel:
"Regnabo, Regno, Regnavi, Sum sine regno". (I shall reign, I reign, I have reigned, I am without a realm).
Within each scene, and sometimes within a single movement, the wheel of fortune turns, joy turning to bitterness, and hope turning to grief. "O Fortuna", the first poem in the Schmeller edition, completes this circle, forming a compositional frame for the work through being both the opening and closing movements.
Orff developed a dramatic concept he called "Theatrum Mundi" in which music, movement, and speech were inseparable. Babcock writes that "Orff's artistic formula limited the music in that every musical moment was to be connected with an action on stage. It is here that modern performances of Carmina Burana fall short of Orff's intentions." Although Carmina Burana was intended as a staged work involving dance, choreography, visual design and other stage action, the piece is now usually performed in concert halls as a cantata. A notable exception is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra version which features strobe lights and what appears to be flames engulfing the stage, wings and balconies, pulsing intensely in time to the music. A danced version choreographed by Loyce Houlton for the Minnesota Dance Theatre in 1978 was prepared in collaboration with Orff himself.
Orff's style demonstrates a desire for directness of speech and of access. Carmina Burana contains little or no development in the classical sense, and polyphony is also conspicuously absent. Carmina Burana avoids overt harmonic complexities, a fact which many musicians and critics have pointed out, such as Ann Powers of The New York Times.
Orff was influenced melodically by late Renaissance and early Baroque models including William Byrd and Claudio Monteverdi. It is a common misconception that Orff based the melodies of Carmina Burana on neumeatic melodies; while many of the lyrics in the Burana Codex are enhanced with neumes, almost none of these melodies had been deciphered at the time of Orff's composition, and none of them had served Orff as a melodic model. His shimmering orchestration shows a deference to Stravinsky. In particular, Orff's music is very reminiscent of Stravinsky's earlier work, Les noces (The Wedding).
Rhythm, for Orff as it was for Stravinsky, is often the primary musical element. Overall, it sounds rhythmically straightforward and simple, but the metre will change freely from one measure to the next. While the rhythmic arc in a section is taken as a whole, a measure of five may be followed by one of seven, to one of four, and so on, often with caesura marked between them. These constant rhythmic changes combined with the caesura create a very "conversational" feel – so much so that the rhythmic complexities of the piece are often overlooked.
Some of the solo arias pose bold challenges for singers: the only solo tenor aria, Olim lacus colueram, is often sung almost completely in falsetto to demonstrate the suffering of the character (in this case, a roasting swan). The baritone arias often demand high notes not commonly found in baritone repertoire, and parts of the baritone aria Dies nox et omnia are often sung in falsetto, a unique example in baritone repertoire. Also noted is the solo soprano aria, Dulcissime which demands extremely high notes. Orff intended this aria for a lyric soprano, not a coloratura, so that the musical tensions would be more obvious.
Carmina Burana is scored for a large orchestra of three flutes (second and third doubling first and second piccolos), three oboes (third being English horn), three clarinets in B-flat and A (third doubling piccolo clarinet in E-flat, second doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, one contrabassoon; four horns in F, three trumpets in B-flat and C, two trombones, one bass trombone, one tuba; a percussion section with 5 timpani, two snare drums, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, suspended cymbal, antique cymbals, ratchet, castanets, tambourine, sleigh bells, tam-tam, tubular bells, three bells, three glockenspiels, gong, xylophone; two pianos, one celesta; strings; two SATB mixed choirs (one large and one small, although a subset of the large chorus may be used for the small chorus) and one boys' choir; and soprano soloist, tenor soloist, baritone soloist, and short solos for three tenors, baritone and two basses.
A reduced version for soloists, SATB mixed choir, children's choir, two pianos and six percussion (timpani + 5) was prepared by Orff's disciple Wilhelm Killmayer in 1956 and authorized by Orff himself, to allow smaller ensembles the opportunity to perform the piece.
See also Subsequent arrangements, below.
Carmina Burana was first staged in Frankfurt by the Frankfurt Opera on 8 June 1937 under conductor Bertil Wetzelsberger (1892–1967) with the Cäcilienchor Frankfurt, staging by Oskar Wälterlin and sets and costumes by Ludwig Sievert. Shortly after the greatly successful premiere, Orff said the following to his publisher, Schott Music:
Everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately, printed, can be destroyed. With Carmina Burana
, my collected works begin.
Several performances were repeated elsewhere in Germany. The Nazi regime was at first nervous about the erotic tone of some of the poems, but eventually embraced the piece. It became the most famous piece of music composed in Germany at the time. The popularity of the work continued to rise after the war, and by the 1960s Carmina Burana was well established as part of the international classic repertoire.
Alex Ross wrote that "the music itself commits no sins simply by being and remaining popular. That Carmina Burana has appeared in hundreds of films and television commercials is proof that it contains no diabolical message, indeed that it contains no message whatsoever."
The desire Orff expressed to his publisher has by and large been fulfilled: No other composition of his approaches its renown, as evidenced in both pop culture's appropriation of "O Fortuna" and the classical world's persistent programming and recording of the work. In the United States, Carmina Burana represents one of the few box office certainties in 20th-century repertoire.
Orff's disciple Wilhelm Killmayer in 1956 created a reduced version for soloists, SATB mixed choir, children's choir, two pianos and six percussion (timpani + 5). This version, authorized by Orff himself, allowed smaller ensembles the opportunity to perform the piece.
The popularity of the work has ensured the creation of many additional arrangements for a variety of performing forces.
An arrangement for wind ensemble was prepared by Juan Vicente Mas Quiles (born 1921), who wanted to both give wind bands a chance to perform the work and to facilitate performances in cities that have a high quality choral union and wind band but lack a symphony orchestra. A performance of this arrangement was recorded by the North Texas Wind Symphony under Eugene Corporon. In writing this transcription, Mas Quiles maintained the original chorus, percussion, and piano parts.
An additional arrangement for concert winds was prepared by composer John Krance and does not include chorus. Various arrangements of different movements for young bands also exist.
Australian classical guitarist Gareth Koch arranged and recorded Carmina Burana for the guitar. It was originally released by the ABC Classics label in 1998 and re-released in 2005.Herbert Kegel with the MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig, the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra and Jutta Vulpius, Hans-Joachim Rotzsch, Kurt Hübenthal and Kurt Rehm. Recorded and released 1960 (VEB Deutsche Schallplatten). Orff himself loved this version.
Eugen Jochum with the choir and orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and Gundula Janowitz, Gerhard Stolze, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Recorded October 1967 in Berlin's Ufa-Studio, released 1968 (Deutsche Grammophon). This version was endorsed by Carl Orff himself and was the first choice of the BBC Radio 3 CD Review "Building a Library" review in 1995.
Kurt Eichhorn with the Munich Radio Orchestra and Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Tölzer Knabenchor; Lucia Popp, John van Kesteren, Hermann Prey; film directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle for ZDF; recorded July 1973, released 1974 on Eurodisc; CD reissues on BMG in 1984 and 1995. Both the film adaptation and recording were endorsed by Carl Orff himself (Orff also collaborated on the film in honour of his 80th birthday)
Michael Tilson Thomas with the Cleveland Orchestra, Chorus & Boys Choir; Judith Blegen, Kenneth Riegel and Peter Binder; Recorded 1974, released 1975 CBS Records (quadrophonic); CD re-release 1990 MK 33172 CBS Records Masterworks
Riccardo Muti with Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus and Arleen Auger, John van Kesteren and Jonathan Summers. Recorded 1979 (EMI), featured in the top three of BBC Radio 3's review and is also recommended by Classics Today 
Leonard Slatkin with St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, RCA 09026 61673-2, featured in the top three of BBC Radio 3's review
James Levine with Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and June Anderson, Phillip Creech, and Bernd Weikl. Recorded 1984 (Deutsche Grammophon). This version won the 1987 Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance.
In 1988, Carmina Burana was recorded by the New York Choral Society accompanied by Jeffrey Reid Baker using synthesizers.
Christian Thielemann with the choir and orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and Knabenchor Berlin. Released 2003 by Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Hamburg. Named "Editor's Choice" by Gramophone.
Charles Dutoit with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal & Saint Lawrence Choir (Beverly Hoch (s), Stanford Olsen (t), Mark Oswald (bar). 1997, Decca 028945529028. High quality recording technically (balancing orchestra and choir).
Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic and Berlin Radio Choir; Sally Matthews, Lawrence Brownlee and Christian Gerhaher; 2005 EMI Classics. Very fast, percussive emphasis.
Seiji Ozawa with the Berlin Philharmonic and Shin-Yu Kai Chorus; Kathleen Battle, Frank Lopardo and Thomas Allen; 1990 Philips DVD video.
Jos Van Immerseel with Anima Eterna Brugge, Collegium Vocale Gent, and Cantate Domino; Yeree Suh (sop.), Yves Saelens (ten.) and Thomas Bauer (bar.); 2014 Zigzag. Recorded on period instruments