“Orff’s music, his musikē – I deliberately utilise the Greek expression – offers less for the ear than traditional opera music. In exchange, it involves all the senses; it is not just sound, but also dance; not just tones but also playing; not only singing but also scenes and theatre – it is music in the sense of an artistic muse uniting and fusing all the arts , as originally conceived by the Ancient Greeks.” – Hans Maier
“His Carmina Burana exhibits exquisite beauty, and if we could get him to do something about his lyrics, his music would certainly be very promising.” – Josef Goebbels
Although Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana swiftly became one of the most-performed choral works of the twentieth century, its composer remains something of an enigma thirty years after his death. For the broad musical public, Orff is commonly regarded as a ‘one hit composer’. Among musical commentators, the general consensus seems to be that the musical direction on which he set out turned into a cul-de-sac, leaving him an isolated figure whose most valuable contribution lay in the field of music education and therapy, where his work with his wife Gunild Keetman was hugely influential.
There is ambivalence, too, about his life and career. Orff was born on 10th July 1895 into an upstanding Munich family of officers and scholars. His mother was an accomplished pianist who taught him when he was a child. While still a teenager he enlisted, but returned home in 1917 after a near-lethal case of shell shock. After several years of experimentation, sampling various musical career possibilities, Orff became a partner in the Munich Günther School, an educational institution that united music and movement. The composer maintained a life-long interest in music education.
By the late 1920s, Orff had established himself as a significant figure in the small but important modernist musical oasis in otherwise conservative Munich, the League for Contemporary Music. Founded in 1927, it presented works by Bartók, Hindemith, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, among others. The young musician also collaborated briefly with Bertolt Brecht, and participated in the innovative new Bach Club in Munich, all of which solidified his reputation for being outside the mainstream, even avant-garde. Nonetheless, his star was slowly rising by the early 1930s, when Hitler came to power and the reality of making music in Germany was to change dramatically.
Like many other artists of the time, Orff was considered a leftist. He had many Jewish friends, including Kurt Weill and the poet Franz Werfel, and collaborated with well-known Marxists like Brecht. There are also reports that Orff was a quarter Jewish, a fact that could only have added to his insecurities. As an artist, the odds seemed stacked against him when the Nazis came to power: it was to be expected that the composer would become yet another victim of the Third Reich’s oppressive cultural policies. Yet Orff managed to establish a place for himself and his music within Nazi Germany. Like that of Paul Hindemith and Ernst Krenek, Orff’s music was often categorised as ‘degenerate’, but the artist’s attempts to ingratiate himself with the regime paid dividends.
Orff neither overtly nor covertly resisted or opposed Nazi policies. Recognising the precariousness of his status in the new Nazi Germany, throughout the 1930s he tried to establish his loyalty to the regime. Awarded a job composing music for schools, he developed his theories on music pedagogy, trying to integrate his ideas into the music policies of the Hitler Youth, sometimes tailoring them specifically to Nazi demands. The music he wrote to a commission for the 1936 Olympic Games opening ceremony accompanies a procession of youth and is an example of his Schulwerk style. Choosing to forget all associations with Jewish, leftist, or modernist artists, Orff emphasised his hatred of jazz music and the atonality of Schoenberg and his disciples, and proclaimed his own sincere and deep-seated appreciation of folk music.
For years Orff had been targeted by the Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (Fighting League for German Culture, KfdK) as a cultural bolshevist. This dangerous reputation was initially confirmed at the controversial premiere of what was to become his best-known work, the Carmina Burana, in 1937. Despite Orff’s increasing contacts with Nazi officials, and his well-regarded work in music pedagogy, the premiere was met with a stinging critique by the influential Nazi musicologist Hans Gerigk. According to Gerigk, Carmina Burana suffered from a ‘mistaken return to primitive elements of instrumentalism and a foreign emphasis on rhythmic formulae’. For most, such a damning review would have signalled the end of the piece, if not of the career of the composer. However, his positive contacts with high-ranking figures, and the sheer popularity of the piece with the public, gradually transformed it into a hit. Despite its exotic sounds and sexual themes, the piece came to be perceived as ‘a celebration of the power of an uninterrupted life instinct’ and its elemental melodies and rhythms were said to bear witness to ‘the indestructible and always re-emerging power of the ways of the common people’.
By the early 1940s, his music was celebrated by many Nazi elites, and his Carmina Burana was one of the most popular pieces in Nazi Germany. Yet, later on, by means of a misleading representation of his own ‘resistance activities’ during the Nazi years, and by judiciously emphasising negative Nazi opinions of his music, he managed to secure a clean slate to perform and work in post-war Germany, untainted by his ‘accommodations’ throughout the Hitler years.
Right from the beginning, Orff concentrated exclusively on textually related music. His aim was to combine theatre, music, dance and acting to form a single unified whole in which the rhythmical organisation of language frequently provided the compositional framework. Orff composed his first choral work (“Also sprach Zarathustra”, based on Nietzsche) and an early opera strongly influenced by Debussy entitled Gisei, das Opfer, which was completed in 1913. Orff found his way to his own individual style through the study of the counterpoint of the old masters. His fascination for mediaeval and classical texts was reflected in works such as his cycle Trionfi (Carmina Burana, 1936, Catulli Carmina, 1943 and Trionfo di Afrodite, 1951), Hölderlin’s adaptations of Greek dramas Antigonae (1949) and Oedipus der Tyrann (1959) and Aeschylus’ Prometheus (1967). The works in the style of fairy tales such as Der Mond (1938/71) and Die Kluge (1942) belong to a further group of works. Orff was fascinated by the vocal richness of dialects and also wrote works utilising Old Bavarian: Die Bernauerin (1946). His final stage composition, the mystery play De temporum fine comoedia, was premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 1973.
Carl Orff received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Tübingen (1959) and Munich (1972) and also the Great Order of Merit with Star and shoulder ribbon of the Federal Republic of Germany (1972). In 1947, he was awarded the Music Prize of the City of Munich and in 1974 the Romano Guardini Prize by the Catholic Academy of Bavaria. Carl Orff was made honorary citizen of the City of Munich and became a member of the Order Pour le Mérite for science and the arts. The Carl Orff Museum in Dießen on Lake Ammer commemorates the life and work of the composer; numerous educational establishments, schools and institutions have been named after him. From 1955, he was resident in Dießen on Lake Ammer. Carl Orff died on 29 March 1982 in Munich.
Carmina Burana is Orff’s most famous composition. The staged cantata consisting of a collection of songs was based on texts from a mediaeval manuscript housed in the Benedictine monastery of Benediktbeuern. Orff created incredibly dynamic music combining archaic-sounding harmony and pulsating dance-like rhythms. The powerful chorus “Fortuna” which frames the vernal, drinking and love songs has become a stand-alone piece, an essential component in classical compilations and frequently used in film and advertising soundtracks. This release sets it in its proper context as the first part of the Trionfi trilogy.
The music calls for massive forces upon which the composer draws for maximum impact. It is scored for soprano and baritone soloists, large mixed choir, boys’ choir and vast orchestra: 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, cor anglais, 3 clarinets and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons and contrabassoon, 6 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, a tremendous array of percussion (requiring 10-12 players), 3 guitars, 2 harps, celesta, 4 pianos and as many strings as can be fitted on the platform!
These recordings were made in the presence of the composer and may be regarded as particularly authoritative.
Sleeve notes by John Kehoe