Carl Orff (July 10, 1895 – March 29, 1982) was a 20th-century German composer, best known for his secular cantata or oratorio Carmina Burana (1937), who, in addition to his career as a composer, developed an influential approach toward music education for children. Orff was born in Munich, Germany, on July 10, 1895. His family was Bavarian and was active in the Army of the German Empire. His paternal grandfather was a Jew who converted to Catholicism. Studying the piano at the age of five, he also took organ and cello lessons. He soon found that he was more interested in composing original music than in studying to be a performer. Orff wrote and staged puppet shows for his family, composing music for piano, violin, zither, and glockenspiel to accompany them. He had a short story published in a children’s magazine in 1905 and started to write a book about nature. In his spare time he enjoyed collecting insects.
By the time he was a teenager, having studied neither harmony nor composition, Orff was writing songs. His mother helped him set down his first works in musical notation. Orff wrote his own texts and, without a teacher, learned the art of composing by studying classical masterworks on his own. In 1911, at age 16, some of Orff’s music was published. Many of his youthful works were songs, often settings of German poetry. They fell into the style of Richard Strauss and other German composers of the day, but with hints of what would become Orff’s distinctive musical language. In 1911-1912, Orff wrote Zarathustra, Op. 14, an unfinished large work for baritone voice, three male choruses and orchestra, based on a passage from Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel Thus Spake Zarathustra. The following year, he composed an opera, Gisei, das Opfer (Gisei, the Sacrifice). Influenced by the French Impressionist composer Claude Debussy, he began to use colorful, unusual combinations of instruments in his orchestration.
Orff studied at the Munich Academy of Music from 1912 until 1914. He also studied with the German composer Heinrich Kaminski and later conducted in Munich, Mannheim, and Darmstadt. He then served with the First Bavarian Field Artillery in the German Army during World War I. In 1917 he was severely injured and nearly killed when a trench caved in. Afterwards, he held various positions at opera houses in Mannheim and Darmstadt, later returning to Munich to pursue his music studies. Orff was married to Alice Solscher in 1920, and his only child Godela was born in 1921. In the mid-1920s, Orff began to formulate a concept he called “elementare Musik,” or elemental music, which was based on the unity of the arts symbolized by the ancient Greek Muses and involved tone, dance, poetry, image, design, and theatrical gesture. Like many other composers of the time, he was influenced by the Russian-French composer Igor Stravinsky. But while others followed the cool, balanced “neoclassic” works of Stravinsky, it was works like his Les noces (The Wedding), a pounding, quasi-folkloric evocation of prehistoric wedding rites, that appealed to Orff.
Orff also began adapting musical works of earlier eras for contemporary theatrical presentation, including Claudio Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo (1607). Orff’s German version, Orpheus, was staged under Orff’s direction in 1925 in Mannheim, using some of the instruments that had been used in the original 1607 performance. The passionately declaimed opera of Monteverdi’s era was almost unknown in the 1920s, however, and Orff’s production met with reactions ranging from incomprehension to ridicule. In 1924 Dorothee Günther and Orff founded the Günther School for gymnastics, music, and dance in Munich. Orff was there as the head of a department from 1925 until the end of his life, and he worked with musical beginners. There he developed his theories of music education, having constant contact with children. In 1930, Orff published a manual titled Schulwerk (School Work) in which he shares his method of conducting. This title was also used for a set of pieces composed and published for the Güntherschule students ranging from 12 to 22. These pieces, developed together with Gunild Keetman, are collectively called Musik für Kinder [Music for Children]. Before writing Carmina Burana, Orff also edited 17th-century operas. However, these various activities brought Orff very little money.
Orff’s relationship with German fascism and the Nazi Party has been a matter of considerable debate and analysis. His Carmina Burana, a “scenic cantata” and the first part of a trilogy called Trionfi, or “Triumphs” that also includes Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite, and reflected Orff’s interest in medieval German poetry, was hugely popular in Nazi Germany after its premiere in Frankfurt in 1937. Given Orff’s previous lack of commercial success, the monetary factor of Carmina Burana’s acclaim was significant to him. 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. Defenders of Orff note that he had already composed music for this play as early as 1917 and 1927, long before this was a favor for the Nazi regime. Orff had a long friendship with German-Jewish musicologist, composer and refugee Erich Katz, who fled Nazi Germany in 1939. He was also a friend of Kurt Huber, one of the founders of the resistance movement known as the White Rose, who was condemned to death by the Volksgerichtshof and executed by the Nazis in 1943. Orff referred to his works Der Mond (The Moon, 1939) and Die Kluge (The Wise Woman, 1943) as “Märchenoper” (“fairytale operas”).
Most of Orff’s later works – Antigonae (1949), Oedipus der Tyrann (Oedipus the Tyrant, 1958), Prometheus (1968), a trilogy of “music dramas,” and De temporum fine comoedia (Play on the End of Times, 1971), a mystery play, sung in Greek, German, and Latin, summarizing Orff’s view of the end of time, which had its premiere at the Salzburg Festival on August 20, 1973, and was performed by Herbert von Karajan and the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne and Chorus – were based on texts or topics from antiquity. They extend the language of Carmina Burana in interesting ways, but they were expensive to stage and by Orff’s own admission are not operas in the conventional sense. Live performances of them have been few, even in Germany. His other works include an Easter cantata, Comoedia de Christi Resurrectione (1956); a nativity play, Ludus de nato infante mirificus (1960). Orff died of cancer in Munich on March 29, 1982, at the age of 86. His body was buried in the Baroque church of the 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), which is taken from the end of De temporum fine comoedia.
The following works by Carl Orff are contained in my collection:
Carmina Burana (1936).
Schulwerk: Musica Poeta.
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources