Symbolism and themes in 'O Fortuna'

Nobody can foretell what is coming in the future but prepare to tighten our belts unless inflation, the Russian war and cost of living continue to worry us next year



here is no direct or explicit link between the cyclical changes in global wealth and the vagaries of fate depicted in "O Fortuna".  However, one could draw metaphorical connections between the themes of fate, fortune, and the unpredictability of life portrayed in the fluctuations in future prosperity.

"O Fortuna" is a part of Carl Orff's cantata "Carmina Burana", which draws inspiration from medieval poetry and themes. The lyrics of "O Fortuna" express the idea of fate, the wheel of fortune, (see picture) and the capriciousness of life.  Europe’s dwindling wealth experiences cyclical changes influenced by various factors such as inflation cycles, challenges of A.I, market trends, geopolitical events, and robotics.

These fluctuations can lead to shifts in the distribution of wealth, affecting individuals, businesses, and nations differently.  The concept of fate in "O Fortuna" can be metaphorically linked to the unpredictable nature of wealth cycles.  Just as the wheel of fortune in the famous Carl Orff lyrics represents the ups and downs of life, the cyclical changes in wealth can bring bounty or adversity to individuals and societies.

The dramatic and intense nature of the “Cantata” can symbolize the volatility and uncertainty that often accompany life cycles and economic fluctuations. While there is no direct historical or empirical evidence linking "O Fortuna" to cyclical changes in private wealth or happiness, one can interpret the themes and emotions conveyed in the music to draw metaphorical connections to the unpredictability of economic fortunes.

“O Fortuna”, the first of the two pieces that comprise the Carmina Burana’s opening sequence, turns out to be a great fit for readers to act contrite and prepare their road map to face the New Year with solid intentions.  I chose the theme of the spinning wheel of fortune for my article as fate itself is an immutable, inscrutable, and above all, fickle force.

Over and above, the poet calls Fortune, veiled and shadowed; ravaging and healing; and treating human life as a game.  Fortune cuts down even the strongest man, the poet sings, “so everyone, lament with me”.

Looking back on 2023, we witness the vagaries of war, famine, triumph, disease, love, forced migration and loss.  In the Carmina Burana “O Fortuna” shows two key differences that separate this poem from the third one.  First, in “O Fortuna,” theme, Fortune is portrayed as almost a disembodied force.

Fortune might seem good, fortune might seem bad; the point is, fortune is beyond us all.  This, in the end, marks the significance of the Wheel of Fortune in a ceaseless parade of torment, but also a cycle of rising and falling, and a warning not to take anything for granted.

Having discussed the immediate past, what are the prognosis for next year?  The IMF economists make sobering comments on the prospects of the global economy.  They comment: “The painful recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic followed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine remains slow and uneven”.

Despite economic resilience in early 2023, with a reopening rebound and progress in reducing inflation from previous year’s peaks, it is too soon to give comfort. Economic activity still falls short of its pre-pandemic path, especially in emerging markets and developing economies.

Even if companies are becoming increasingly wary of the need for broader responsibilities, particularly in terms of their carbon footprint on the environment, they also need to recognise that lasting sustainability is best achieved provided it does not unduly compromise their competitiveness.  Refer to COP28, climate conference in Dubai where highly camouflaged comprises were heard saying fossil fuel will be phased out.

Conversely, even though green solutions may sometimes seem costly, they can also lead to value-added growth by setting a stronger corporate reputation, apart from some consequential social and financial benefits. This change in mindset is slowly but steadily gaining traction, so “Fortuna” is smiling.

But on a domestic scene we must come to terms to the issue of expensive housing, many agree that government subsidies cannot keep up with the spiralling cost of houses.  Particularly for the low-income families.  A recent study has discovered a new social stratum termed the ‘stretched class’ who suffer from this syndrome.  Malta hosts a number of persons who are not welfare dependents but whose income from work is not sufficient for them to find adequate housing arrangements with banks at affordable repayment rates.

Perceptions on specific issues can ebb and flow, but a long-term negative trend is developing in the public’s view of the country.  This year has certainly not been a good year for those who value integrity in public governance.

In fact, conferences on Ethics and State Governance have not featured prominently in the annual libretto of Castille even though it appointed a Czar to head a coalition of hand-picked members of the ESG Alliance.   

National protests by NGO’s, death threats towards civil activists, inflammatory language online and over the airwaves, and the language of politicians themselves are turning Maltese politics into a tug of war.

It is worrying that 85 per cent of Maltese expect their standard of living to decrease over the next year.  Is O Fortuna turning its face towards the dark face of the Wheel?  How will this transform the very nature of our democracy?  In this environment, politicians have little to gain and much to lose by not trying to find common ground with the opposition.  Issues that are not inherently partisan such as electing a president with a two thirds majority are becoming politicised.

What is even more of concern is that a terrifying culture of impunity has been created in the heart of the administration at Auberge de Castille, where several scandals have been rooted with the ultimate goal of buying the votes (a flurry of cheques soon to hit the letterboxes).

But it is not all doom and gloom as the Wheel of Fortune grinds on. The positive economic contribution of tourism, large as it may be, should be considered as a panacea given the strong competition from other resorts in the med. Again, realists caution us of the negative social and environmental side effects associated with this booming industry.  The social downsides relate mostly to social discomfort caused by overcrowding (eg Comino), traffic congestion and disagreeable behaviour by some tourists, including late-night noise.

In conclusion, nobody can foretell what is coming in the future but prepare to tighten our belts unless inflation, the Russian war and cost of living continue to worry us next year.

Best wishes for the festive season.

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