Carl Orff | Carmina Burana

“Experience first, then intellectualize.”1

Carl Orff was born in Munich, Germany, the one-time political and cultural capital of independent Bavaria. He showed his musical talent at a young age. His mother, an accomplished pianist, taught him the fundamentals of harmony as a preschooler; and his father played piano duets with him. By the age of 16, Orff had written lieder, published a song cycle, and discovered an affinity with the music of Debussy.  At 17, he enrolled in a music academy, but he didn’t like the uninspired approach to composition and left to become self-educated.

In 1916, at age 21, Orff became Kappellmeister (music director) of the Munich Kammerspiele (Chamber Theater), a decisive step in his musical development.  His work there, including collaboration on stage music, was interrupted by military service in 1917. After a near-suffocation experience in the trenches of World War I, Orff suffered crying fits and nightmares. It was a devastating year, and he was troubled the rest of his life by manic depression and what some speculate may have been untreated bipolar mental illness.

When he returned to Munich in 1919, Orff studied late Renaissance and Baroque composers. He was also influenced by his contemporary, Bertolt Brecht, with whom he shared a passion for percussion. Orff used a variety of rhythmic and percussive instruments at the Günther School of Music, Gymnastics, and Dance, which he co-founded in Munich in 1924 with Hamburg artist Dorothee Günther.  This school presented an ideal experimental educational setting for the development of his Schulwerk, a method for teaching music to young children.  “Long studies and experimentations with [international music] —from Greece to Africa to Japan—led him to develop an approach to education of the child as a totality—one who communicates genuinely.”2  Orff built a variety of percussion instruments for use in the school, assisted by his friend and celebrated harpsichord maker, Karl Maendler. Radio broadcasts of Schulwerk performances created a large demand for the Orff instruments.

In the late 1920s, Orff joined a group of forward-looking musicians, Vereinigung für Zeitgenössische Musik (Alliance for Contemporary Music), which organized festivals featuring modern composers and old masters.  In 1932 Orff became conductor of the Munich Bach-Verein (Bach Society), which performed works by J.S. Bach and his contemporaries. He was labeled an avant-garde composer after his major role in preparing a rustic Bavarian arrangement of the St. Luke Passion from a manuscript attributed to Bach. 

How did this highly intelligent, shy, Catholic man, known for bohemian leanings, survive the Nazi era, with its headquarters in Munich? Certainly the Nazis noticed his associations with Jewish and Marxist friends and his irreverent modernism. Unmoved by politics, however, Orff did not join the Nazi party. He focused instead on his school, tailoring the curriculum to Nazi direction, as necessary, in his use of folk music and broadening his music education system to include children throughout Germany.  Although he considered emigrating because his grandmother was Jewish, a hidden fact that put him at risk, he couldn’t bear to leave his native Bavaria. A certain amount of day-to-day pragmatism among local politicians allowed him and other artists enough latitude to survive and evolve, often surreptitiously.

Carmina Burana: Secular Songs for Soloists and Chorus with Accompanying Instruments and Magic Tableaux, as Orff originally titled it, was first performed at the Frankfurt Opera on June 8, 1937. A few critics initially condemned its exotic harmonies and sexual language as “degenerate,” but rave reviews prevailed. The Nazi regime soon embraced Carmina, hearing a Bavarian flavor they viewed as a celebration of early “Aryan” culture. When that regime fell and the war ended in 1945, the work’s popularity continued to grow. As the title suggests, Orff intended it to be performed semi-theatrically, with dance sequences. Carmina’s initial performances were staged—a cosmological music-drama in Hamburg, a world-theater epic in Vienna, a country-manor Minnespiel (love romp) in Dresden and Stuttgart, a Hessian-Bavarian peasant play in Darmstadt, and an allegorical medieval mystery play in Berlin. Though not often performed staged since then, Carmina has become an established part of classic choral repertory and has been excerpted in diverse movie scores, television commercials, and even video games!

Carmina Burana embraces contemporary settings of ancient love poems, medieval drinking songs, and texts from ancient mythology. In the 13th century or earlier, a diverse group called Goliards (after Golias, a fictional patron saint of debauchery) or Vagantes—consisting of unfrocked priests, runaway monks, and intellectuals—traveled through France, England, and Germany, earning their way with satirical songs in lilting bastard Latin verse. Several hundred of these songs surfaced in 1803 in a Benedictine abbey in Bavaria. The songs range from expressions of tender love to uninhibited sexuality, from praise of nature to dark humor about mortality. Taken together, they celebrate pagan lust fueled by the awareness of life’s brevity.

In the 25 songs he chose for Carmina, Orff used “many of [his] favorite structural elements: monody [a type of accompanied solo from the Renaissance], allusions to the Volkslied [folk songs], modal influence, a bareness in phrasing which, combined with repetitive techniques, bordered on the primitive but conveyed at the same time the impression of archetypal, elementary dynamics.”3

The musical influences are many: ancient Greek drama, Bavarian folk song, Gregorian chant, Baroque opera, and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Les Noces. Carmina is “underlined by blazing wind, keening strings and booming percussion” and begins with one of the most dramatic and famous choruses ever written, “O Fortuna,” an empassioned plea for Fate’s good favor.4  In the face of Fortune’s unstoppable wheel, the songs divide into three sections: “Primo Vere” (In Springtime), In Taberna” (In the Tavern), and “Cour d’amours” (The Court of Love).

“Primo Vere” portrays men and women awakening to nature. Latin verse paints beautiful pastoral imagery. But as flowers (Flora) scent the breezes and the sun (Phoebus) warms everything, Latin verse gives way to Low German, and poetic praise becomes a hormonal surge. In the last three spring songs, we hear the duple and triple dance rhythms of Bavarian folk song.5

In the “In Taberna” section, Dionysian rowdiness prevails at a peasant drinking fest. The songs in this section reflect Orff’s appreciation of Baroque opera (“Estuans interius”), Greek drama (the funny and macabre “Cignus ustus cantat”), and Stravinsky (“In taberna quando sumus” with percussive piano).

Cour d’amours” begins with pervasive but arbitrary Cupid and ends with noble Venus. In between, lascivious play reigns, characterized in the line, “My virginity makes me frisky” in “Tempus est iocundum.”  The final song, “Blanziflor et Helena,” moves from jubilant Dionysian revels to ecstatic spiritualism. Virgin, White Flower, Helen, and Venus are all terms of endearment for the beloved, a precious jewel (gemma pretiosa). Could this fulfillment but last forever; alas, Fortune’s wheel continues its cycle, as do the seasons, underscoring our mortality.

“With its concise style and rhythmic pregnancy, the music [of Carmina Burana] liberates the latent power of the texts to create their own images and comment on the imagines magicae being staged under the unsettling aegis of the goddess Fortuna.”6 The rhythm so prevalent in Carmina became the principal characteristic of Orff’s subsequent music. He viewed the piece as the beginning of his collected works and instructed his publisher to destroy all of his prior compositions. Orff took his place among the composers born in the 1890s who broke with neoclassicism: Prokofiev, Honegger, and Hindemith.

–  by Carol Talbeck

1     Widely attributed to Orff, source unknown.

2     Martha M. Wampler and Ronald R. Koegler, eds., Design for Creativity:  A  Symposium on Music, Movement, Language and Play (Institute Press, 1976).

3     Michael H. Kater, Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits (Oxford University Press, 2000), 122.

4     Adrian Tan with Ng Yeuk Fan, Inktroductions:  Carmina Burana, (June 1999).

5     Alberto Fassone, “Carl Orff,” New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd Ed. (Oxford University Press, 2001).

6      Ibid.