Born in Munich, Germany, on July 10, 1895; died of cancer, March 29, 1982, in Munich, Germany; son of Heinrich and Paula (Koestler) Orff; married to Lise Lotte; children: Godela (daughter). Education: Received degree from the Akademie der Tonkunst (Academy of Music), Munich, 1915; studied with Heinrich Kaminski, early 1920s.
The work of German composer Carl Orff predates the late twentieth- century renewal of interest in the haunting, unusual melodies of medieval-era religious music by several decades. In the 1930s, Orff was composing works for the stage based on medieval Latin chants, and later revived the classic tales of love, lust, and blood from ancient Greek drama for modern audiences. Yet Orff's most famous work remains Carmina Burana, a 1937 homage to life's more earthy pleasures based on a long-lost collection of medieval songs. The melodies he adapted into the stirring Carmina Burana have entered popular culture in the form of background music for television commercials and entrance pomp at sporting events. "Orff's chorus seems to transcend period, place, authorship, even meaning," wrote Matthew Gurewitsch of Carmina Burana's lasting legacy in the Atlantic Monthly. "Part paean, part lament, it purrs and roars like some titanic flywheel. This is chant the cosmos might sing to itself, as impersonal as a landslide or a tidal wave. The din it makes has all but obliterated its maker."
Orff was born in the Bavarian capital of Munich on July 10, 1895, into a long line of military officers in service to the local princes or the German kaiser. Orff, however, strayed down a far different path from an early age, perhaps inspired by the rich and varied offerings Munich offered to music-lovers. He began piano lessons at age of five, and also took up the organ and cello. As a child he began writing his own musical compositions, and loved to stage puppet shows for his household. As a teenager he set verse by German Romantic poets Friedrich Hoelderlin and Heinrich Heine to music, and had his first compositions published in 1911. He graduated from Munich's music academy, the Akademie der Tonkunst in 1914, and at the age of 20 took a job as the assistant Kapellmeister, or orchestra conductor, at the famed Muenchener Kammerspiele.
Orff stayed at the Kammerspiele from 1915 to 1917, but was drafted into the German Army during the last year of World War I. The long military traditions of the Orff family seemed to have genetically bypassed him, and the demands of war tested him greatly. The following year, upon his return to civilian life and the end of the war, Orff became assistant Kapellmeister at the Nationaltheater in Mannheim, as well as holding the same position at the Landestheater (State Theater) in nearby Darmstadt. In 1919, he returned to Munich and began teaching music; he also studied under Heinrich Kaminski, and it was through this avenue that Orff became interested in Renaissance-era music.
In 1924 Orff and gymnast Dorothea Guenther founded a Munich school for children whose legacy would continue long after their deaths. The Guenther Schule's aim was to teach music to children by a set of aesthetic-awareness principles Orff and Guenther had formulated, based on the idea that nearly all human beings are "musical" by nature. Orff wrote the treatise Schulwerk, which explained these theories and gave teachers a curriculum of songs and activities employing German folk songs and poetry. Even in the late twentieth century, thousands of teachers around the world are certified in the program, and translated versions of Schulwerk incorporate the folklore and literature of each culture. Orff also developed easy- to-learn percussion instruments to use in the program.
Orff penned a number of works for the stage during the 1920s. His adaptation of one of opera's first great works, Orpheus, was performed in Mannheim in 1925 with some of the original instruments used in Claudio Monteverdi's 1607 production. The city of Karlsruhe hosted the debuts for Orff's Klage der Ariadne ("Ariadne's Lament") and Tanz der Sproeden ("Dance of the Merciless Beauties"), also adaptations of Monteverdi operas, in 1925 as well. In the late 1920s, Orff was preoccupied in writing Schulwerk; in 1930, the same year its first part was published, Orff was named conductor of Munich's Bach Society. In 1931 he adapted a Bach passion play into a controversial stage version set in rural Bavaria, the maligned St. Luke Passion, which set the story of Christ among southern German peasantry.
Fame came to Orff, however, with the 1937 debut of Carmina Burana, and the stage work marked a radical new direction in his career as well: he even wrote his publisher instructing him to destroy all his previous works, since the composer felt that his career rightly began here. Carmina Burana, or the "Songs of Beuren," was Orff's adaptation of a codex discovered in the archives of a Bavarian monastery in 1803. The manuscript was a collection of songs written down in the thirteenth century, and reflects the popular tastes of that age in its lyrics from wandering minstrels and spoofs written by the Benedictine monks. In the original Vulgar Latin, Old French, and Middle High German, its 200 songs poke fun at organized religion or celebrate carnal pursuits. Others reflect a love of nature or life's gustatory pleasures--a goose on a spit, for instance, sings a comic lament over the fire. The plotless stage work Orff created from this used only about ten percent of the original manuscript--much of it the risque text--and its performance, though dance and pantomime, won him great praise upon its debut in 1937.
Carmina Burana, it should be noted, was first staged in Frankfurt am Main's opera house during the height of Nazi power in Germany. Most of the country's artists of this era--the composers, painters, or writers who were not Jewish and had not emigrated--found themselves bound to a strict ideology to celebrate "German" traits in their work. Artists who kept out of trouble during this period have sometimes been looked upon as quasi-collaborators with the fascist regime, and Orff's name has often been mentioned in the same sentence as the phrase "Nazi composer."
Orff, however, was certainly aware of the necessity to keep out of trouble during this time, and it seems unlikely that he was a "favorite" of anyone in power, with the Nazi leadership better remembered for its fondness toward the operas of Richard Wagner. In 1934, when the Munich Bach Society came increasingly under the control of a Nazi group, the Kampfbund, Orff resigned his director's post. The Kampfbund was a government agency set up to weed out modernist or "Jewish" tendencies in all aspects of the arts in Germany.
Furthermore, around the time of Carmina Burana's premier, Orff came to the attention of Heinz Drewes, the newly appointed head of the music section of the ministry of propaganda for the German government. The functionary, according to Michael H. Kater in The Twisted Muse: Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich, "took an immediate dislike to Orff and, while never censuring outright any of the composer's current or future works, successfully intimidated him, keeping him in abeyance until well into the war." Later, Orff would write Astutuli, completed in 1945. This allegorical tale slyly criticizing Hitler and the Third Reich was not staged, however, until 1953.
Though he is best remembered for Carmina Burana, Orff wrote several other works for the stage. Reflecting his interest in medieval music--the chants of the Gregorian monks, for example--Orff's compositions were repetitious in tone, and often described as "primitive" or "skeletal." The same note might be played continuously, taking minimalist music to new extremes; a performer might be required to sing a "C" 200 times straight in other instances. Orchestras for Orff's compositions usually consisted of a heavy percussion section and banks of pianos, with their pianists instructed in the notation to smash the keys with vigor.
As with Carmina Burana, Orff enjoyed the challenge of adapting works from unusual sources. In 1939's Der Mond ("The Moon"), which he based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, four men steal the moon, with predictably disastrous consequences. Die Kluge: The Story of the King and the Wise Woman, which had its first performance in 1943, told the story of a farmer's daughter who gains the love of a despot by solving his riddles. Orff penned Die Bernauerin ("The Tragedy of Agnes Bernauer") for his daughter Godela, an actress. It premiered in Stuttgart in 1947 and is still performed annually in the Bavarian city of Augsburg, where some of it is set. In this harsh tale, recounted by a chorus of male witches, the title character is an impoverished young woman from the lower classes who wins the heart of a duke and marries him. For this she is despised as a villain and then lynched.
Orff also adapted the works of others besides Monteverdi and Grimm. His version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Ein Sommernachtstraum, debuted in 1939 but was revised by Orff a total of six times over the next four decades. Later in his career Orff took the works of the ancient Greek playwrights--upon which the very principles of opera were based--and adapted them for the modern German stage. To do so he used translations from the Greek undertaken in the late eighteenth century by the poet Hoelderlin, whom modern scholars have theorized probably suffered from schizophrenia. Hoelderlin, according to Gurewitsch in the 1995 Atlantic Monthly essay, "mimicked the original Greek with breathtaking disdain for accepted German usage, creating in effect a language within a language." Orff's Greek adaptations include Antigonae (1949) Oedipus der Tyrann (1959), both by Sophocles.
Carmina Burana premiered to American audiences in the late 1950s, and won Orff great acclaim. He continued to adapt the work of the Greek dramatists during the latter years of his career; Prometheus (after Aeschylus), debuted in Stuttgart in 1966. One of his last works was written for the 1972 Summer Olympic Games held in Munich. Orff was married more than once and enjoyed his last years on his home on the Lake Ammersee outside Munich. He died of cancer in 1982. A concert hall in Munich, part of a contemporary arts center and home of the Munich Philharmonic, is named in his honor.
by Carol Brennan
Carl Orff's Career
Composer and music teacher; assistant Kapellmeister, or orchestra conductor, at the Muenchener Kammerspiele, 1915-17; also served in the same position at the Nationaltheater, Mannheim, and at the Landestheater, Darmstadt, both from 1918-19; co-founded Guenther Schule, Munich, with Dorothea Guenther, 1924; first work for the stage was Klage der Ariadne, which premiered in Karlsruhe, Germany, 1925; was active in Munich's Bach Society in the early 1930s and served as its director until 1934; taught a master class at Munich's Hochschule fuer Musik, 1950-60; was an instructor at the Orff School for Music at the Mozarteum Academy for Music and Dramatic Art in Salzburg, Austria, instructor, for over a decade, beginning in 1949; later served as its director until his death in 1982; received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Tuebingen (1955) and Munich (1972).
Carl Orff's Awards
Munich Music Prize, 1947; New York Music Critics' Prize, 1954, for Carmina Burana; Bremen Music Prize, 1956; Order pour le Merite for Science and Art, West Germany, 1956; Cross of Merit, 1959; Mozart Prize, Basel Goethe foundation, 1969.
- Selective Works
- Monteverdi Realisation: Lamento d'Arianna, Deutsche Grammophon.
- Carmina Burana: Scenic Cantata (with the Bavarian Radio Chorus and Orchestra; title means "Songs of Beuren"), Deutsche Grammophon.
- Entrata (with the Viennese State Opera Orchestra), Westminster.
- Der Mond: A Narration with Four Episodes (title means "The Moon"), Columbia.
- Die Kluge: The Story of the King and the Wise Woman, Angel.
- Catulli Carmina: Ludi Scaenici, Deutsche Grammophon.
- Die Bernauerin: Ein Bairisches Stueck, Deutsche Grammophon.
- Antigonae: Setting of Hoelderlin's Vision of Sophocles' Tragedy, Deutsche Grammophon.
- Trionfo di Afrodite: Concerto Scenico, Deutsche Grammophon.
- Music for Children, Volumes 1 & 2, Columbia, Volumes 5 & 6, Mundi 2-Harmo.
- Klage der Ariadne (after Monteverdi; title means "Ariadne's Lament"), Karlsruhe, 1925; rev., Gera, 1940.
- Orpheus (after Monteverdi), Mannheim, 1925; rev., Munich, 1931; rev., Dresden, 1940.
- Tanz der Sproeden (after Monteverdi; title means "Dance of the Merciless Beauties"), Karlsruhe, 1925; rev., Gera, 1940.
- St. Luke Passion (after Bach), Munich, 1931.
- Carmina Burana (cantiones profanae, medieval Lain lyrics), Frankfurt, 1937.
- Der Mond (kleines Welttheater, after Brothers Grimm), Munich, 1939.
- Catulli Carmina (luda scaenici; title means "Songs of Catullus"), Leipzig, 1943.
- Die Kluge (title means "The Clever Woman"), Frankfurt, 1943.
- Die Bernauerin: Bairische Stueck (title means "The Tragedy of Agnes Bernauer"), Stuttgart, 1947.
- Antigonae (Sophocles, trans. Hoelderlin), Salzburg, 1949.
- Astutuli: Bairsiche Komoedie, Munich, 1953.
- Trionfo di Afrodite (concerto scenario; title means "The Triumph of Aphrodite"), Milan, 1953.
- Trionfi (includes Carmina Burana, Catulli carmina, Trionfo di Afrodite; title means "Triumphs"), Salzburg, 1953.
- Comoedia de Christi resurrectione (Osterspiel), Stuttgart, 1957.
- Lamenti (includes Klage der Ariadne, Orpheus, Tanz der Sproeden), Schwetzingen, 1958.
- Oedipus der Tyrann (Sophocles, transl. Hoelderlin), Stuttgart, 1959.
- Ludus de nat infante mirificus (Weihnachtsspiel), Stuttgart, 1960.
- Ein Sommernachtstraum (after Shakespeare), 1939-62; final version, Stuttgart, 1964.
- Prometheus (after Aeschylus), Stuttgart, 1966.
- De temporum fine comoedia (Buehnenspiel; title means "Play of the End of Time"), Salzburg, 1973.
- Kater, Michael H., The Twisted Muse: Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich, Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Liess, Andreas, Carl Orff, translated by Adelheid and Herbert Parkin, Calder and Boyars, 1966.
- The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie (Volume 13: Muwashsha-Ory), Macmillan, 1980.
- Periodicals Atlantic Monthly, August 1995, pp. 90-93.
- New York Times, March 31, 1982, p. B5.