Beyond Burana: The Mask of Orff

A Nazi sympathiser, a recluse, a man obsessed with primitive rhythms, Carl Orff is the composer critics love to hate. But with his Carmina Burana as popular as ever, Michael Oliver marks RCA’s centenary edition by discovering the truth behind the man and his music.

There’s no more like-him-or-loathe-him composer than Carl Orff. For a lot of people his Carmina Burana is almost the only piece of modern music they can stand, but he’s held in such withering contempt by some musicians and critics that most books about contemporary music ignore him entirely. Personally, I’m in two minds.

Orff was 42 when he wrote Carmina Burana in 1937, and to all intents and purposes it’s his Op. 1. Before then he was best known as a musical educator. His graded system of primary education known as the ‘Orff-Schulwerk’ (enormously respected) appeared in 1930. It teaches children music as naturally and practically as possible, beginning with rhythmic speech, clapping and the chanting of nursery rhymes. This work led him into a study of various forms of ethnic music, especially ancient ones: mystery plays, seasonal rituals, counting games, peasant theatre. All have elements of magic in them. Many folk songs have their origin in spells to ensure that crops are fertile, or in rituals to banish winter. Nursery-rhyme nonsense often hides a superstition or a folk memory: Ring-a-ring-a-roses is said to be about the Black Death, the ‘roses’ being sores, the ‘pocket full of posies’ the nosegay that was thought to avert infection but, if it didn’t, ‘all fall down’; on the other hand in Germany it’s believed to originate in a round-dance to invoke the goddess Holda. Orff had uncovered some of music’s deepest roots.

At the same time he was studying and performing early music: Gluck, Bach (the St Luke Passion – now known not to be by Bach – staged like a medieval mystery play), Schütz and, above all, Monteverdi. He’d been composing all this while as well, under the influence firstly of Debussy, then Schoenberg, finally Strauss and Pfitzner. At that point, having surveyed all the opulent riches the twentieth century could offer, the discovery of Monteverdi must have been a shock: a composer who, with a single vocal line, sparingly accompanied, could produce effects of intense expressive force. Orff had also discovered from Stravinsky, but also from what he had learned of ‘primitive’ music, something of the power of pure rhythm.

Why is Carmina popular?
The constituents were now all present; the reaction between them produced Carmina Burana, and Orff withdrew or destroyed everything that he had written before it. It was seen as a counter-blast against modernism, but its enduring popularity has as much to do with the way that it celebrates universal human pleasures (love, conviviality, the return of spring) as it does with music that seems timeless. Orff’s melodies remind us of folk songs or children’s games, of early music or religious chant, occasionally of what you might hear at a football match on a Saturday or a pub later the same evening.

He continued the style in two more ‘scenic cantatas’ (Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite) and in four operas drawing on folk tales and Bavarian popular theatre. Several of these were successfully performed during Hitler’s regime. Orff also wrote music for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and, when Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was banned on racial grounds, wrote a replacement for it. All this was probably more unwise than wicked (there are what seem to be anti-Nazi references in two of those operas of the 1940s), but Orff didn’t help his reputation outside Germany by refusing to give journalists and other writers any biographical information at all: his standard curriculum vitae read: ‘Carl Orff, born 1895 in Munich; still lives there’.

More and more in his later years he concentrated on the area where legend, religion, magic and theatre overlap. These works are often more austere than Carmina Burana: Antigonae, for example, sets much of Sophocles’ text as monotone chant over a simple pounding bass. Wide-spanned melodies are only heard at moments of great dramatic tension, and the strange but impressive orchestra (six each of flutes, oboes and trumpets, four harps, six pianos, nine double-basses and a vast array of percussion, including giant xylophones, tuned stones and Javanese gongs) isn’t often heard at full, thrilling, barbarous strength. But Antigonae has a power that can seem very close to the mingling of religious rite and civic spectacle that Greek theatre probably was. It was followed by a similarly scored Oedipus Rex and a setting of Aeschylus’s Prometheus (in Greek, with an even larger percussion section, plus two organs and four banjos) which Orff’s admirers regard as his masterpiece. Along with this Greek trilogy went a Christian one: a Christmas Nativity play, a Resurrection drama for Easter and, Orff’s last work for the stage, The Play of the End of the World.

Why two minds about him?
To anyone used to Beethoven and Brahms, let alone Schoenberg or Strauss, Orff is primitive. His music leaves out so much: it usually has little harmonic or formal interest, little or no counterpoint, much rhythmic force but little subtlety. He would have replied that the same is true of most music that can appeal to a whole society, not just to an educated few, and that he was trying to recreate a universal music.

Perhaps the best of him is in the Schulwerk, which teaches children that they can find joy in making music, and that music and magic are very close. Maybe adults need reminding of this once in a while?

Classic CD magazine, 1995

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