Carl Orff was a 20th-century German composer, most famous for his composition Carmina Burana (1937). He has also become very influential in the field of music education for his pedagogic methods, which survive through Orff Schulwerk.
Orff was born in Munich on 10 July, 1895, and came from a Bavarian family that was very active in the German military. His father's regimental band had supposedly played the compositions of young Orff. Moser's Musik-Lexikon states that Orff studied at the Munich Academy of Music until 1914. He then served in the military during World War I. Afterwards, he held various positions at opera houses in Mannheim and Darmstadt, later returning to Munich to pursue his music studies.
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,.
Carl Orff burial location in AndechsOrff's association with the Nazi Party has been alleged, but never conclusively established. His Carmina Burana was hugely popular in Nazi Germany after its premiere in Frankfurt 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. But Orff had already composed music for this play as early as 1917 and 1927, long before this was a favor for the Nazi government.
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.
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 his most recent publication "Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits" Kater has taken back 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.
Orff died at the age of 86 and is buried in the Baroque church of the beer-brewing Benedictine priory of Andechs, south of Munich. His tombstone bears his name, his dates of birth and death, and the Latin inscription "Summus Finis"(the ultimate goal).
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. O Fortuna from Carmina Burana is often used to denote satanic forces, for example in the Oliver Stone movie The Doors.
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 Frankfurt 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.