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Carl Orff
Carl Orff ( – ) was a 20th-century Germanmarker composer, best known for his oratorio Carmina Burana (1937). In addition to his career as a composer, Orff developed an influential method of music education for children.

Early life

Orff was born in Munichmarker on July 10, 1895. His family was Bavarian and active in the German military.

Orff started studying the piano at age five and also took organ and cello lessons. However, he was more interested in composing original music than in studying to be a performer. Orff wrote and staged puppet shows for his family, composing music for piano, violin, zither, and glockenspiel to accompany them. He had a short story published in a children's magazine in 1905 and started to write a book about nature. In his spare time he enjoyed collecting insects.

By the time he was a teenager, Orff was writing songs, although he had not studied harmony or composition; his mother helped him set down his first works in musical notation. Orff wrote his own texts and he learned the art of composing, without a teacher, by studying classical masterworks on his own.

In 1911, at age 16, some of Orff's music was published. Many of his youthful works were songs, often settings of German poetry. They fell into the style of Richard Strauss and other German composers of the day, but with hints of what would become Orff's distinctive musical language.

In 1911-1912, Orff wrote a large work for baritone voice, three choruses and orchestra, Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) op. 14, based on a passage from Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical novel of the same title. The following year, he composed an opera, Gisei, das Opfer (Gisei, the Sacrifice). Influenced by the French Impressionist composer Claude Debussy, and began to use colorful, unusual combinations of instruments in his orchestration.

World War I

Moser's Musik-Lexikon states that Orff studied at the Munich Academy of Music until 1914. He then served in the military in World War I, during which he was severely injured and nearly killed in a trench cave in. Afterwards, he held various positions at opera houses in Mannheimmarker and Darmstadtmarker, later returning to Munich to pursue his music studies.

The 1920s

In the mid-1920s Orff began to formulate a concept he called elementare Musik, or elemental music, which was based on the unity of the arts symbolized by the ancient Greek Muses (who gave music its English name) and involved tone, dance, poetry, image, design, and theatrical gesture. Like many other composers of the time he was influenced by the Russian-French emigré Igor Stravinsky. But while others followed the cool, balanced "neoclassic" works of Stravinsky, it was works like the composer's Les noces (The Wedding), a pounding, quasi-folkloric evocation of prehistoric wedding rites, that appealed to Orff. He also began adapting musical works of earlier eras for contemporary theatrical presentation, including Claudio Monteverdi's opera L'Orfeo (1607). Orff's German version, Orpheus, was staged in 1925 in Mannheim, Germany, under Orff's direction, using some of the instruments that had been used in the original 1607 performance. The passionately declaimed opera of Monteverdi's era was almost unknown in the 1920s, however, and Orff's production met with reactions ranging from incomprehension to ridicule.

From 1925 until the end of his life, Orff was the head of a department and co-founder of the Guenther School for gymnastics, music, and dance in Munich, where he worked with musical beginners. This is where he developed his theories in music education, having constant contact with children. In 1930, Orff published a manual titled Schulwerk, where he shares his method of conducting. Prior to writing Carmina Burana, Orff edited 17th century operas. He had previously founded a school for gymnastics with Dorothee Günther in 1924.

Carmina Burana

Based on the Carmina Burana, an important collection of Latin and German Goliard poems discovered in 1803 in the library of the Benedictine monasterymarker of Benediktbeuernmarker, near Munich. Written by monks and minstrels, the collection appealed to Orff because of the variety of its humorous, sad, and suggestive verses. He selected about twenty featuring the wheel of fortune and arranged them into bawdy songs for soloists and chorus, accompanied by instruments and magic images.

This work exemplifies Orff's search for an idiom that would reveal the elemental power of music, allowing the listener to experience music as an overwhelming, primitive force. Goliard poetry, which not only celebrates love and wine, but also pokes fun at the clergy, perfectly suited Orff's desire to create a musical work appealing to a fundamental musicality that, as he believed, every human being possesses. Eschewing melodic development and harmonic complexity, and articulating his musical ideas through basic sonorities and easily discernible rhythmic patterns, Orff created an idiom which many found irresistible. The perceived "primitivism" of Carmina Burana notwithstanding, Orff believed that the profound appeal of music is not merely physical.

Carmina Burana forms the first part of a trilogy of staged cantatas called Trionfi (Triumphs), all based on Latin texts. The other two parts are Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite. The first performance, in 1937, was a stylistic breakthrough, and brought Orff instant fame. Orff regarded Carmina Burana as the real beginning of his career, and ordered his publisher to destroy all his previous works (an instruction that fortunately was disregarded ).

The Nazi era

Orff's relationship to German fascism and the Nazi Party has been a matter of considerable debate and analysis. His Carmina Burana was hugely popular in Nazi Germany after its premiere in Frankfurtmarker in 1937, receiving numerous performances. But the composition with its unfamiliar rhythms was also denounced with racist taunts . He was one of the few German composers under the Nazi regime who responded to the official call to write new incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream after the music of Felix Mendelssohn had been banned — others refused to cooperate in this. Defenders of Orff note that he had already composed music for this play as early as 1917 and 1927, long before this was a favour for the Nazi government. Critics, however, note that writing music for the play in those years, when the Nazis were not in power, is not the same as writing such music in response to a request from the Nazi party, following the party's racist attacks on Mendelssohn because he was a Jew.

Carmina Burana made Orff's name in Nazi cultural circles.

Orff was a personal friend of Kurt Huber, one of the founders of the resistance movement Die Weiße Rose (the White Rose), who was condemned to death by the Volksgerichtshof and executed by the Nazis in 1943. Orff by happenstance called at Huber's house on the day after his arrest. Huber's distraught wife begged Orff to use his influence to help her husband, but Orff denied her request. If his friendship with Huber came out, he told her, he would be "ruined". Huber's wife never saw Orff again. Wracked by guilt, Orff would later write a letter to his late friend Huber, imploring him for forgiveness.

Post war

After World War II, Orff, faced with the possible loss of royalties from Carmina Burana, claimed to a denazification officer that he was a member of the White Rose, and was himself involved in the resistance. There was no evidence for this other than his own word, and other sources dispute his claim. Canadian historian Michael H. Kater made in earlier writings a particularly strong case that Orff collaborated with Nazi authorities, but in Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits (2000) Kater rescinded his earlier accusations to some extent. Orff's assertion that he had been anti-Nazi during the war was accepted by the American denazification authorities, who changed his previous category of "gray unacceptable" to "gray acceptable", enabling him to continue to compose for public presentation.

Most of Orff's later works - Antigonae (1949), Oedipus der Tyrann (Oedipus the King, 1958), Prometheus desmotes (1967), and De temporum fine comoedia (A Play for the End of Time, 1971) - were based on texts or topics from antiquity. They extend the language of Carmina Burana in interesting ways, but they are expensive to stage and are not operas in the conventional sense. They are occasionally performed, most often in Germany.

Personal life

"He had his life and that was that," his daughter, whom he rejected, tells Tony Palmer in the documentary O Fortuna.

He was married four times: Alice Solscher (m. 1920, div. 1925), Alice Willert (m. 1939, div. 1953), Luise Rinser (m. 1954, div. 1959) and Liselotte Schmitz (m. 1960). His only child Godela, from his first marriage, was born in 1921.


When Carl Orff died in 1982 at the age of 86, he had lived through four epochs in the course of his life: the Kaiserreich, the Weimar Republicmarker, the Nazi Third Reich and the post World War II West Germanmarker Bundesrepublik. Orff was buried in the Baroque church of the beer-brewing Benedictine priory of Andechsmarker, south of Munich. His tombstone bears his name, his dates of birth and death, and the Latin inscription "Summus Finis" (the ultimate goal).

Musical work

Orff is most known for Carmina Burana (1937), a "scenic cantata". It is the first of a trilogy that also includes Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite. Carmina Burana reflected his interest in medieval German poetry. Together the trilogy is called Trionfi, or "triumphs". The composer described it as the celebration of the triumph of the human spirit through sexual and holistic balance. The work was based on thirteenth-century poetry found in a manuscript dubbed the Codex latinus monacensis found in a Bavarian monastery in 1803 and written by the Goliards; this collection is also known as Carmina Burana. While "modern" in some of his compositional techniques, Orff was able to capture the spirit of the medieval period in this trilogy, with infectious rhythms and easy tonalities. The medieval poems, written in an early form of German and Latin, are often racy, but without descending into smut. Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi, commonly known as O Fortuna, from Carmina Burana is often used to denote satanic forces, for example in the Oliver Stone movie The Doors.. The work's association with Fascism also led Pier Paolo Pasolini to use the movement Veris Leta Facies to accompany the concluding scenes of torture and murder in his final film Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma .

With the success of Carmina Burana, Orff disowned all of his previous works except for Catulli Carmina and the Entrata, which were rewritten until acceptable by Orff. As an historical aside, Carmina Burana is probably the most famous piece of music composed and premiered in Nazi Germany. Carmina Burana was in fact so popular that Orff received a commission in Frankfurtmarker to compose incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, which was supposed to replace the banned music by Mendelssohn. After the war, he claimed not to be satisfied with the music and reworked it into the final version that was first performed in 1964.

Orff was reluctant to term any of his works simply operas in the traditional sense. His works Der Mond (The Moon, 1939) and Die Kluge (The Wise Woman, 1943), for example, he referred to as "Märchenoper" ("fairytale operas"). Both compositions feature the same "timeless" sound in that they do not employ any of the musical techniques of the period in which they were composed, with the intent that they be difficult to define as belonging to a particular era. Their melodies, rhythms and, with them, text appear in a union of words and music.

About his Antigone (1949), Orff said specifically that it was not an opera, rather a Vertonung, a "musical setting" of the ancient tragedy. The text is an excellent German translation, by Friedrich Hölderlin, of the Sophocles play of the same name. The orchestration relies heavily on the percussion section, and is otherwise fairly simple. It has been labelled by some as minimalistic, which is most adequate in terms of the melodic line. The story of Antigone has a haunting similarity to the history of Sophie Scholl, heroine of the White Rose, and Orff may have been memorializing her in his opera.

Orff's last work, De Temporum Fine Comoedia (A Play of the End of Time), had its premiere at the Salzburg music festival on August 20, 1973, performed by Herbert von Karajan and the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. In this highly personal work, Orff presented a mystery play, in which he summarized his view on the end of time, sung in Greek, German, and Latin.

Musica Poetica, which Orff composed with Gunild Keetman, was used as the theme music for Terrence Malick's film Badlands (1973). Hans Zimmer later reworked this music for his True Romance (1993) score.

List of compositions

  • Bairisches Welttheater (Bavarian World Theatre)
    • Die Bernauerin (1947)
    • Astutuli, eine bairische Komödie (1953)

  • Treatments
    • Claudio Monteverdis Klage der Ariadne, Orpheus (1925, reworked 1940)
    • Entrata für Orchester, nach „The Bells“ von W. Byrd (1928, reworked 1941)

  • Classics
    • Antigone (1949)
    • Oedipus der Tyrann (1959)
    • Prometheus (1968)

  • Orff-Schulwerk
    • Musik für Kinder (with Gunild Keetmann) (1930–35, reworked 1950–54)

Pedagogical work

In pedagogical circles he is probably best remembered for his Schulwerk (1930-35), translated into English as Music for Children. Its simple musical instrumentation allowed even untutored child musicians to perform the piece with relative ease. Much of his life Orff worked with children, using music as an educational tool — both melody and rhythm are often determined by the words.

Orff's ideas were developed, together with Gunild Keetman, into a very innovative approach to music education for children, known as the Orff Schulwerk. The term Schulwerk is German for "school work". The music is elemental and combines movement, singing, playing, and improvisation.


Further reading

  • Alberto Fassone: "Carl Orff", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 27 November 2004), (subscription access)
  • Michael H. Kater, "Carl Orff im Dritten Reich," Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 43, 1 (January 1995): 1-35.
  • Michael H. Kater, "Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits". New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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