Carl Orff: An Unknown Master

Carl Orff in lighter mood
Carl Orff in lighter mood

The name Carl Orff always conjures up images of massive orchestras, choirs and big juicy voiced soloists letting rip with the marvellous “O Fortuna” opening from his work Carmina Burana. To some of us of a certain age it conjures up images of a particular aftershave connected with it, but for the modern generation it is one of the main pieces of stolen music that is used in that debacle of a TV show, X Factor. You want epic, then look no further than that opening section of the work.

But what of his other work? Well, does anyone else know anything beyond that masterpiece of Germanic culture? Probably not, and yet behind this blockbuster lay an incredible output of some of the finest subtle and unique music written in the twentieth-century, comparable in stature to that of Stravinsky’s work in many ways, and yet still unknown or heard but rarely.

Orff was born in Munich, Bavaria, Germany in 1895 to a prosperous German family. After the usual education of a young boy in Germany of that period, Orff became fascinated in the theatre and this was to be a lasting love of his throughout his career. To look at Orff is to actually study the history of music theatre in Germany in the 20th century. His music was predominantly geared towards the theatrical, even his concert hall works such as Carmina Burana and Carmina Catulli I and II, the companion pieces to the famous Carmina Burana written before and after the more famous work and were written for choir, soloists, four pianos and percussion, and are originally for the stage rather than concert hall performance. The original version of Carmina Burana was for this line up and a few other solo instruments before Orff turned it into the masterpiece we all know today. When the work is performed as the stage ballet-come-opera that it was intended to be, this reduced version is very often used.

All of his main works have high theatrical impulses at their root of existence. He wrote some very interesting operas over the years, some of which have remained in the repertoire, especially in his native Germany. The best of these are his retelling of the tale of Antigone and the Grimm Brothers tales Der Mond and Die Kluge. Der Mond particularly has a unique lyricism and comedy that was at the base of all that Orff wrote and loved and is a fine example of his style:

The last two works mentioned are based on tales by the Grimm Brothers which connected with Orff’s love of music for children as well as for theatre and spectacle. He worked on a system of music education that was adopted in Germany, both East and West, after the country was divided in 1949. The outcome of many years of this tireless education work was “Schulwerke” a series of progressive pieces that engaged the attention of children, of all ages, and is still used in much of the German education system. It is a set of pieces that takes simple building blocks of rhythm and melody, and builds up a piece of exciting and original music. This is done as a group as well as with individual students and is probably one of the most effective and progressive works in this field, along with Zoltan Kodaly’s system of music education. It is certainly loved by all pupils who have gone through the system. Not only is it an educational work but there is some very fine music in its leaves.

Orff did not distinguish between serious and popular, the same as he did not distinguish between adult and children’s music. His music for children informed much of his music for the stage and some of this is apparent in the works Comodeia de Christi Resurrectione, Die Sibyllen (De Temporum Fine Comoedia) and Ludus de nato Infante mirificus. The lightness of touch found in his educational work was also present in these works.

Throughout his life Orff reinvented the Medieval. He looked towards the medievalism of Northern-Central Europe and in Comedeia de Christi Resurrectione he takes a traditional Easter play of the Passion of Christ and looks at it in the more rustic folk tradition of his native land. The Roman Guards become rough drinking and gambling Bavarians who enjoy a game of cards, while the Devil, who in folk traditions is usually something of a stupid character, becomes enamoured and distracted by the game and misses the true aim of his lingering about below the cross; that of the collection of the soul of Christ who rises from the dead while the Devil is otherwise engaged in the card game activities. The devil then slumps off defeated and angry at his stupidity.

This is a simple tale, but one that appeals to all; good triumphs over evil. In Orff’s treatment, even the Devil gets a fair deal and is treated sympathetically, well, to an extent. Orff’s interest in the medieval world informed many of his finest works and in some cases Ancient Greece too in the guise of his opera on Sophocles’s Antigone.

He was also the first person to bring back into the world the works of Monteverdi and made performing editions of Orpheus as well as setting German texts to Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna, and in German Tanz der Spröden, which are well worth searching out for the beginnings of the modern movement of authentic performance traditions which began with these realisations.

His sense of the theatrical was encouraged under the Nazis and a new Germanism was highly prized. Orff’s music and ideals fell into step surprisingly well, and comfortably, with the regime, as did many creative artists in Germany at the time. He was encouraged and supported as the atypical example of what a German National-Socialist composer should be. In 1936 he provided music towards the Berlin Olympics. The music created was not what most people expected. A few sound records of the music actually still exist and those that do are on 78rpm discs. They are predominantly music for recorders played by the Hitler Youth of the time, although this is not stated on the record information slip. An interesting time capsule, if in hindsight extremely sinister, with what was to happen in the very near future to so many people and children under the Nazis.

In 1937 his famous Carmina Burana was debuted much to the delight of the Nazis who were able to capitalise on the Germanic elements as propaganda and the ‘New Order’s’ great new style of nationalistic sound, provided by none other than their pet composer, Carl Orff.

After the Nazis fell, Orff was ridiculed for being a supporter and a member of the Nazi Party, regardless of whether he agreed or not with the doctrines of the Party. For many in Germany at the time, membership was mandatory and for Orff, it was the only way to survive the regime and continue working. His reputation suffered greatly for it and his music was boycotted by many in the West and America as well as being virtually banned in the Eastern Bloc. He was tried but never convicted of his part in the Nazi regime.

There is evidence that before he died, in 1982, he destroyed many documents and letters and doctored others to try and lessen his association with the Third Reich. Unfortunately, his participation in the culture of that period was enough alone to condemn him in the eyes of many as a Nazi for life. He was accused of not doing enough to help fellow composers and musicians and for being complicit in their persecution by the Nazis and so, to try and lessen the blow to his reputation, he doctored the papers and letters that were sent to him from leading Nazis and rewrote many from Jewish musicians to show himself in a better light, as someone who was trying to help them, when in fact he was actually powerless to do anything.

After the full horrors of the Reich came out, it was even harder for people like Orff, who had used by the former regime, to make a living and to make headway. However, he did progress and his music took on a new vigour through paring down much of the excesses of works like Carmina Burana. His love of theatre resumed and he wrote many interesting and unique works such as Antigones and Oedipus der Tyran. This last work could almost be a musical apology for his role in the Third Reich’s culture, without actually saying as much:

Click here to see the video:

If we overlook history for a moment, and just assess the music of Orff for what it is, we come across a unique concept of music and particularly music theatre and opera, as well as music education. It has a drive and harmony that is unique and strikes a chord in everyone who hears it, for the beauty as well as the primal barbarism he conjures up in his sound worlds. The repetitive elements predate minimalism by many years, the beauty of his melodies comes from their simplicity of line, and his rich simple orchestrations appeal on many levels. The colours and textures are simple and basic yet, just like with his “Schulwerke”, these simple blocks build into some of the finest music written in the twentieth-century by any composer.

Take a trip around his world and marvel at the simple child-like joy of the sound he creates, the textures, the melodies and the inner emotional joy he and his music conjures up in us; a heart-warming joy that very few composers of any age have been able to create.


  1. Chris Lawry 20 November 2014 at 10:01 am

    A fantastic post Andy. I had only superficial knowledge of Orff’s work and, as you say, it has rather fallen by the wayside perhaps for the history inextricably linked to him. Never the less, it is very compelling music. I particularly like the Ludus de Nato on your last link. You can definitely hear shades minimalism there, and certainly John Adams, in the mix. Most enjoyable.

  2. Richard Brown 20 November 2014 at 10:34 am

    Great Article, I remember the excellent use of Carmina Burana in Boorman’s visually and sonically stunning Excalbur, but,as you say, shame its been high jacked by the X Factor.


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