Speech on the occasion of Carl Orff's 100th birthday
Munich, Prinzregententheater, 7 July 1995
O Fortuna velut luna! Carl Orff has often been portrayed and also misrepresented in his long life, though hardly ever with such malicious over-simplification as in this year of celebration and jubilation. There has never been any lack of distorted pictures, of mischievous personal descriptions of such multiform and protean characters. Already in the time of the Weimar Republic, Orff was suspiciously regarded by the conservatives as an anti-traditionalist and a taboo-breaker, largely because of the nature of his performances, but also as a music pedagogue: Alexander Berrsche spoke of Hottentot rhythm with regard to the Schulwerk. Opinions such as these lasted well into the time of the Nazis when his works were successful in spite of all opposition, but also had to survive some highly officious forms of excommunication; in this connection Goebbels' music adviser, Heinz Drewes, described Carmina Burana without hesitation as Bavarian Niggermusic. After the war Orff really fell between two stools; for those who belonged to the aesthetic of music attached to the Viennese School he was considered for several decades - as was his contemporary Paul Hindemith - to be a non-person. In the seventies the taboos relaxed somewhat. Orff's name surfaced again in musicological seminars and in the company of critics. The theoretical boycott had hardly harmed his works. They had remained young through being performed. In today's descriptions of music history there are frequent conciliatory attempts to attach the label "populism" to Orff - in reference books he appears as the director of a musical folkpark, in which people like Prokofiev and Gershwin go in and out, where children eagerly practise on xylophones, where open-air performances for huge audiences take place and where the fence between serious and light music is lower than it is elsewhere. It remains open to conjecture if that is his definitive place.
A hundred years of Orff, a hundred years of judgements and prejudices. My short lecture cannot give voice to all the stupid and wise, accurate and inaccurate, intelligently witty and plainly nonsensical statements that have been made about Orff. But thirty minutes will serve at least to place Orff in his time and to make his life and work understandable in reference to his environment. Let us try then; it is partly political, partly the music history of our time, and even partly an appreciative history of his work, the time that divides us from him being so short.
The time before the First World War, the time of the Empire and particularly of the Prince Regent, was indeed a time through which the descendent of a well-educated Munich officer's family, born in 1895 would have lived. It was rather like the Bavarian Belle Époque. Those familiar with the reminiscences of Hermann Heimpel and Karl Alexander or the historical writings of Karl Möckl will have gained the impression that only those who lived through this time would have known the real douceur de vivre. The young Orff grew up in his parents' house free from any material worries. He was not drawn to military honours but rather to books, musical scores and old languages. He was already having piano lessons at the age of five. He made up the music to accompany his puppet theatre. The first song cycles were written. From the autumn of 1912 he studied composition with Anton Beer-Walbrunn, a friend of Max Reger's who embodied the modem trend at the Academy of Music in Munich. Orff strove for a theatrical career; he achieved this by working with Hermann Zilcher as a repetiteur with the necessary pianistic gifts. From 1915-1917 he was a conductor at the theatre called the Munich Kammerspiele. Karl Marx, later to become a friend, noticed the fair-haired young man with the characteristic profile, who passed the time during the troop medical inspection in May 1917 by studying the pocket score of Reger's string quartet in F# minor. After a short period of compulsory duty with the First Royal Regiment of Bavarian Field Artillery in Poland, where he was buried alive and became consequently ill, Orff worked as a conductor at the National Theatre in Mannheim, and then at the Court Theatre in Darmstadt; he returned to Munich in 1919 and dedicated himself to composing songs. Taking lessons (amongst others from Pfitzner and Kaminski) and giving lessons (amongst others to Werner Egk), progressing slowly, discovering much, searching doggedly, interested in old scores, he became fundmentally an eclectic and self-taught working artist.
In the stormy, culturally so productive years of the Weimar Republic, the "Roaring Twenties", one would at first glance have taken Orff to be a stranger. Was he not primarily interested in music education, a man who, with Dorothee Günther, was working at the revitalisation of Dance and Movement, who was composing songs with piano accompaniment, and who was preparing his Schulwerk? One thereby overlooks two points, of course: first that the school music of the Weimar Republic, as it had been newly conceived in 1920, had a thoroughly political character, that it was in fact a showcase for a political education of the people - one has only to mention the name of Leo Kestenberg. Within this scheme there was room for much of what was currently being sung, played and newly discovered, from the songs of the Youth Movement to the eagerly collected "Verklingende Weisen" of folk songs and hymns - not to forget the work and protest songs of the time. In the Memorandum concerning the total involvement of Music in school and society (1923), conceived by Kestenberg and issued by the Prussian Ministry of Culture, one reads: Music must once more become a part of the life of all our people, its practice must lead to personal activity, to singing and playing oneself. The boat builder on his boat who plays the accordion, the worker who goes from his workplace to the rehearsal room of his male choir - they are perhaps as inwardly rich as the subscribers to big symphony concerts who go on a fixed day and time to hear a familiar symphony conducted by their favourite conductor (Quoted by Heide Hammel, Die Schulmusik in der Weimarer Republik, Stuttgart 1990, p.140). On the other hand the music of the time, particularly the avant garde, addressed itself with educational pathos to the general public, to nation and state. Educational works were produced not only in the field of contemporary literature - Brecht, Bronnen, Kaiser - but also in the field of contemporary music. And Orff also had his place in this spectrum, formed from expressionistic world-friendliness, humanist-social involvement and a revolutionary agitprop mood, that ranged from Fritz Jöde to Paul Hindemith and Hanns Eisler; it is no surprise that he set poems by Franz Werfel, wrote choral pieces to texts by Bert Brecht, and worked together with Kestenberg and Hermann Scherchen.
Had the Weimar Republic been granted a longer life, Orff might have become a musical educator of the people within the limits of democratic conditions. None of his undertakings were foreign to the political-educational aspirations of the First Republic. He was no conductor of worker choirs; his combinations and predilections, his educational models were different; above all, they were musically, not politically motivated. But with his inclination to combine old and contemporary, to bring new life to old instruments and performance techniques and at the same time delivering some well-aimed blows at the middle class music culture as an example: degrading the pianoforte to the status of percussion instrument! Considering all this he certainly did not stand alone during these years.
Did this rise have anything materially to do with the Nazi time? Did an elective affinity exist? Did the new "national community" offer a sounding board for the work of the composer in his middle forties? Fierce battles have raged about this in Germany and elsewhere in most recent times - and not only then! There is no doubt that some elements can be clarified - and even the most recent controversy about Michael Kater's study Carl Orff in the Third Reich has contributed much to this clarification if one disregards some of the terrible simplifications appearing in the media. Orff was no Nazi. Inwardly he had nothing to do with National Socialism; he had absolutely no political aspirations, neither before 1933 nor after (and also not after 1945). He was a composer and he wanted to have his works performed. He believed in his gift, if you will: in his mission. Composers have a hard time in totalitarian regimes - the biographies of Schönberg, Hindemith and Shostakovich in our century, to name but these three, show this very clearly. For composers in this situation there is fundamentally only one alternative: to emigrate or to remain. To go underground, to appear in clandestine publications, to paint pictures in secret, this is all possible within limits for writers and painters who oppose the status quo, but remains denied to the composer. For the Gods have ordained that there shall be a performance before musical fame can be achieved. Music, particularly dramatic music, is not simply there; it consists of notes in a score. It is an arduous process, it demands preparation, contracts, rehearsals, singers, an orchestra, the contribution of many people, inclusion in theatre repertoires, advertising in the media - already a colossal collective endeavour in normal times, how much more so under the requirements of a malicious, unpredictable, capricious system, often led from different sources of power that did not agree and were in fact rivals! I know only a few leading composers of the twentieth century who deliberately withdrew from the music business and regarded their scores as private works available for future generations, quite unconcerned about their being realised. The most significant of these was Anton Webem, tragically killed in 1945 by the bullet of an American soldier in the Occupation Forces. But this was not the normal way; it requires an extreme, idealistic understanding of musical workmanship. Most composers do not want to withdraw. Even in the "Reich des Menschenfressers" (regime of the cannibal) - according to Thomas Mann - they wanted to have their works heard and made available to others. To achieve this of course one had to make compromises. As Carl Orff also had to in the Third Reich.
Did he go too far in this respect? Orff's contribution as a composer to the Olympic Games in 1936 does not constitute a corpus delicti. On that occasion the representatives of all nations, including those who later fought against Germany, were sitting at Hitler's feet in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. (Kurt Schumacher, at that time in a concentration camp, did not refrain from pointing this out with biting sarcasm in the speeches he made after the war.) Shortly before the eleventh hour in 1944, Orff was able to avoid having to compose "battle music" for the weekly cinema news reel. The fact that he was prepared to make a new musical setting for Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, a suggestion that even Hans Pfitzner firmly rejected, is more questionable. To manage to become a musical replacement for the "Jew Mendelssohn" at the particular behest of a top functionary of the Nazi Party - that appears to us today as a bad example of kowtowing to the powerful of that time. Certainly, Orff's Shakespeare plans were long-standing, they went back to when he was conductor at the Munich Kammerspiele in Falckenberg's time. Orff's reasons were aesthetic, not political. He had never found Mendelssohn's stage music appropriate - it was too gentle, too sweet. He thought he could match Shakespeare's drama more nearly with his own. The argument that it was immaterial to Orff that Mendelssohn was a Jew (and this is verifiable in the available source material!) can hardly be accepted unexamined; it overestimates the scope of musical autonomy in a state committed to a particular Weltanschauung. The National Socialists merely added Orff's aesthetic arguments to their other political triumphs. They would have taken no notice of his insistence on the absolute power of music. For the Nazis there was nothing musical that was not also political.
This is how the Nazis were - and Orff had assessed the time correctly when in the fairy tale play Die Kluge (1943) the imprisoned father sings: Those who have power are in the right, and those who are in the right will turn it to their own uses, for force rules over everything. In this sentence one could clearly have recognised, as in the mischievous exchange of the three vagabonds (Faith is struck dead. Justice lives in great penury...), an allusion to the conditions current at the time. I only fear that Orff saw politics in this light at all times in his life. It might not always have appeared so tyrannical and criminal as in the Third Reich, but for a man who wanted to create, to produce, it could be dangerously distracting and disturbing. If the powers in control gave music full scope and freedom, all was well - that is why Orff had absolutely no problems or difficulties with either of the two democratic republics, those of Weimar and Bonn. His musical realm should remain without disturbances or disputes, this was the most important maxim. His ideal was represented by an inwardness protected from those in power (not by those in power!). And for Orff, tyranny was mainly evil and wicked because it destroyed the autonomy of the Arts, because everything was sucked into the undertow of politics.
Only these conclusions make it understandable that the friends Kurt Huber and Carl Orff, according to trustworthy witnesses, talked exclusively about music, and not about politics, on the many occasions when they met. And one also understands Orff's first reaction to Huber's arrest, as transmitted by Clara Huber: Now I shall no longer be able to compose. Politics had overpowered Music. That Carl Orff later tried nevertheless to make political capital out of his musical association with his friend, or, more accurately, tried to avert the possible harm of a ban on performances of his works imposed by the American Occupation Forces - that was rather a kind of satyric drama after the end of the tragedy. For if Orff was certainly no Nazi, and if he heartily despised the Nazis -he was also certainly no resistance fighter. Nevertheless how can one, how may one - especially when born at a later time -so ingenuously expect this from an artist living in the Third Reich?
When Orff had survived the war and the Third Reich, when his "Bavarian Play' Die Bernauerin, could be performed in Stuttgart in 1947, when his post-war and mature productions began: Antigone (1949), Trionfo di Afrodite (1953), Oedipus the King (1959), Prometheus (1968), the Easter and Christmas plays and finally De temporum fine comoedia (1973), he seemed finally to have circumnavigated the dangerous cliffs of the first half of his life. Orff was an established master. The young Republic - also establishing and consolidating itself - was adorned by his fame. In 1950-1960 he directed a master-class for composition at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik (State College of Music) in Munich. In 1961 a training centre and seminar for the development of the Orff-Schulwerk - later the Orff-Institut - was opened at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. His ideas about music education, like his dramatic works, spread all over the world. They found acceptance in kindergartens and schools, in teacher training and adult education, in remedial education and in music therapy. Orff was compensated for the withdrawal of a large number of musicologists and critics through many friendships with philosophers, historians and philologists. His home in Diessen, where he both worked and lived, became a place of pilgrimage. It was here that the composer worked in the early morning hours amongst his books and collections, here he heard the "Amixl" (dialect for the blackbird in Die Bernauerin) singing and here he looked at the "Mond-Eiche" (the oak tree from which the moon hung in DerMond) in the park. The comfortable country house with its old family pictures, his wife Liselotte's Iceland ponies, the Chinese and Javanese gongs, the cymbals, bells and drums seemed - with characteristically different emphases - to be comparable to Richard Strauss' Villa in Garmisch. Since Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss there has been no composer living in Bavaria who has achieved such undisputed world-wide recognition as Carl Orff.
We could thus say goodbye to this idyll as a happy ending to Orff's long and sometimes stormy journey through life - were there not in the end one question, as with any life's work, what remains? What remains of Orff's personality, of Orff's music? To try to answer this question we must look back again at the life of this Bavarian master - this time not confronting the political world, but looking at the musical and music historical connections with his life.
This late romantic world collapsed in the First World War. Strictly speaking its demise started earlier; the catastrophe only made the occurrence clearly visible and audible. In poetry, music and art there was a whirl of new experiments, new starting points and beginnings. Above all the musical cards were reshuffled. Much was clarified and simplified. In the course of time Orff's compositions also became simpler, more elemental; the linear became more prominent, rhythm, at first barely significant adapted itself to the word; dissonances, but not the kind appearing to require resolution, "Personanzklänge" as they were later called, started the replacement of functional harmony.
Hans Joachim Moser, Werner Thomas, Wilhelm Keller and Horst Leuchtmann have analysed the elements of this new tonal language: the monotony, the repetition, a consciously barren tonal landscape, a musical principle of economy, ostinato techniques, the restriction of melody and others besides. The music brings about the most concise expression, the narrowest enveloping of the words. It releases and gathers its rhythmic and musical energies. Once the musical formula is found, as Orff says, it remains the same for each repetition. The conciseness of the verbal expression makes the repetition and its effect possible. Listening to Orff's music with today's ears, with the ears of the nineties, some of it sounds like an early foretaste of something like Techno; and parallels to Rock, to Klang-art cannot be ignored. The uncovering of musical energies in pulsing, almost toneless rhythm, in stamping, thundering and drumming seems in no way to have exhausted all its possibilities. Carl Orff may be considered as one of the forerunners of those placing such a concentration on the value of rhythmic movement in music. Melodies become sequences of notes. The flow of speech is stemmed, breaks up in pieces till only sounds, crackles and hisses remain. Of course a possible surplus of monotony in Orff's music dramas is carefully balanced through new forms of recitativo secco and arioso, through melody that is freely modal and through orchestral primary colours produced by an orchestra that, in contrast to that of the classic-romantic period, consists of xylophones, percussion, double basses, woodwind and brass.
This is no longer traditional music. In the music dramas of his mature years, as spacious as they are concentrated, Orff distances himself ever more decisively than before from the dominant music schools of thought of the twentieth century. His way is different from the musical constructivism of the Viennese School - but he also leaves the great stimulus and source of his youth, Igor Stravinsky, somewhat far behind him. In a certain sense, in turning away from opera and turning towards drama, he is continuing the work of Richard Wagner - except that he supports the words much more radically than the master of Bayreuth, and in contrast to him avoids using the symphonic commentary of an orchestra opposite the singing and reciting human voice. In the end, practically all that remains is the language, Greek or Latin, old Bavarian or old French, and it is both inexhaustible and at the same time the hidden source and storehouse of all tonal and rhythmic energy. "There would be no sound, where the word is lacking" - One could thus adapt Stefan George's verse in relation to Orff.
Orff's music, his mousike - I use the Greek expression purposely - offers less to the ear than traditional opera. But on the other hand it includes all the senses; for it is not only tone but also dance, not only sound but also play, not only song but also scene, theatre - it is music in the sense of an art that unifies and embraces all the other arts, as the Greeks first conceived it.
The idea of such a music, one that is constantly renewing itself through its language forms, is perhaps the boldest idea that the musician Carl Orff has left to posterity. It reaches far beyond his own work and its future historical evaluation. Therein lies its significance for the future. In a world that grows ever closer its separate individualities are maintained through their languages. Out of all languages, every single one - this is Orff's idea - music can be made. Such a music would no longer be an artificial creation of its own, removed from the visual and language arts, it would remain closely connected with the cultural archetypes of mankind, their languages and speakers. And it would thus to some extent be both universal and indi-vidual, both archaic and modern: a foretaste of the new music of one world.
Produced by Schott Musik International, Mainz
In cooperation with Orff-Zentrum Munich
Orff's Musical and Moral Failings
By RICHARD TARUSKIN NYT May 6, 2001
Was Carl Orff a Nazi?
DON'T look now, but Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra are teasing us again about music and politics. In recent concerts they have given us politically excruciating but musically attractive cantatas by Franz Schmidt, who toadied to Hitler, and Sergei Prokofiev, who did it to Stalin. As a follow-up, one might expect a program of musically excruciating but politically attractive works.
But no, we don't need the American Symphony for that. Such pieces are all over the map, what with Joseph Schwantner's banalities in praise of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ("New Morning for the World"), John Harbison's in furtherance of Middle East peace ("Four Psalms"), Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's in defense of the environment (Symphony No. 4: "The Gardens") or Philip Glass's on behalf of every piety in sight (Symphony No. 5: "Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya"), just to name a few.
Instead, the same formula, with its implied torture to our collective conscience, will be ridden again, pitting politics everybody loves to hate against music many hate to love but find vexingly irresistible. Under the title "After `Carmina Burana': A Historical Perspective," the orchestra is sponsoring a daylong symposium next Sunday at LaGuardia High School near Lincoln Center, and a concert on May 16 at Avery Fisher Hall, devoted to Carl Orff's "Catulli Carmina" (1943) and his rarely heard "Trionfo di Afrodite" (1951).
Together with "Carmina Burana" (1936), which, as it happens, Zdenek Macal and the New Jersey Symphony will perform beginning on May 16 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, these two cantatas or, as originally intended, choral ballets make up a trilogy called "Trionfi," first performed at La Scala in Milan in 1953. Widely regarded as a magnified (or inflated) and popularized (or dumbed- down) sequel to (or knockoff of) "Les Noces," Stravinsky's choral ballet of 1923, "Trionfi" stands as a monument to . . . what? The triumph of artistic independence (and prescient accessibility) in an age of musical hermeticism and conformism mandated by the cold war? The persistence of instinctive affirmation of life in an age of thermonuclear threat and existential disillusion? The survival of Nazi-inspired artistic barbarism under cover of classical simplicity?
The possibilities don't end there, although these three have had vocal exponents, and they will probably get a heated airing at the symposium. But why, exactly, has the Nazi taint stuck so doggedly to Orff, who (unlike Herbert von Karajan or Elisabeth Schwarzkopf) never belonged to the Nazi Party? Is it because two-thirds of his trilogy was very successfully performed under Nazi auspices? If being loved by the Nazis were enough to damn, we would have to take leave not only of Orff, and not only of Wagner, but also of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Is it because Orff's cantatas are the only musical fruits of the Third Reich (apart, perhaps, from the later, less popular operas of Richard Strauss) to survive in active repertory today? Then why do we tolerate
all that Soviet music?
Or is it merely because the Nazis offer an "objective" pretext for dismissal to those who subjectively disapprove of Orff's music for other reasons: reasons having to do, could it be, with prudery?
Unlike Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Orff never wrote music in actual praise of his Leader or explicitly touting a totalitarian party line. Prokofiev's "Toast to Stalin," performed by the American Symphony in December, is fairly well known. Shostakovich's film score for "The Fall of Berlin" ends with a resounding paean to the dictator. ( It will take a heap of ingenuity to find hidden dissidence in that one.) Both Russians also wrote plenty of Communist mass songs to order. Orff's controversial cantatas, by contrast, set medieval German poetry (in Latin and Bavarian dialect), and classical texts by Catullus, Sappho and Euripides in the original languages, along with additional Latin lyrics by the composer himself, a trained "humanist."
The worst Orff can be accused of is opportunism. He accepted a 1938 commission from the mayor of Frankfurt to compose incidental music for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to replace Mendelssohn's racially banned score. But even here, an extenuating case can be argued. Shakespeare's play had long attracted Orff. He had composed music for it as early as 1917, and he added more in 1927, before there was any Nazi government to curry favor with.
Shabbier than anything he did under the Nazis was his behavior immediately after the war. An obvious beneficiary of the regime, one of only 12 composers to receive a full military exemption from Goebbels's propaganda ministry, Orff regaled his denazification interrogators with half-truths and outright lies to get himself classified Gray- Acceptable (that is, professionally employable) by the Allied military government.
The "Midsummer" score, he assured them, was not composed under orders (true only insofar as a commission can be distinguished from an order). "He swears that it was not written to try to replace Mendelssohn's music," reads the official report filed by the American officer in charge of political screenings, "and he admits that he chose an unfortunate moment in history to write it." Orff also maintained that "he never had any connection with prominent Nazis." the truth of such a statement depends, of course, on definitions: of "prominent" as well as "Nazi."
But these prevarications pale before the whopper Orff put over on his personal hearing officer: Capt. Newell Jenkins, a musician who had studied with Orff before the war and who later became familiar to New York audiences as the director of Clarion Concerts, a pioneering early-music organization. Orff convinced Jenkins that he had been a cofounder of the White Rose resistance movement and that he had fled for his life into the Bavarian Alps when the "other" founder, the musicologist Kurt Huber, was exposed, arrested and executed in 1943.
Orff and Huber were well acquainted: they had collaborated on an anthology of Bavarian folk songs. As Huber's widow has testified, when Huber was arrested, Orff was terrified at the prospect of guilt by association. But his claim to that very "guilt" in retrospect has been exploded by the historian Michael H. Kater in his recent book "Composers of the Nazi Era."
Not every recent commentator has been as scrupulous as Mr. Kater. Alberto Fassone, the author of the Orff article in the second edition of The New Grove Dictionary (sure to become the standard source of information on the composer for inquiring English-speaking minds), colludes with the composer's exculpating equivocations. Orff told his screeners that "his music was not appreciated by the Nazis and that he never got a favorable review by a Nazi music critic." Mr. Fassone elaborates: "The fact that `Carmina Burana' had been torn to shreds by Herbert Gerigk, the influential critic of the Völkischer Beobachter, who referred to the `incomprehensibility of the language' colored by a `jazzy atmosphere,' caused many of Germany's opera intendants to fear staging the work after its premiere." Case dismissed?
Not so fast. Gerigk's paper was the main Nazi Party organ, to be sure, and the critic was a protégé of Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi ideologist. But another reviewer, Horst Büttner, a protégé of Joseph Goebbels, waxed ecstatic after the 1937 premiere about "the radiant, strength-filled life-joy" Orff's settings of bawdy medieval ballads expressed through their "folklike structure." And that opinion won out. By 1940, even the Völkischer Beobachter was on board, hailing "Carmina Burana" as "the kind of clear, stormy and yet always disciplined music that our time requires."
Phrases like "strength-filled life-joy," and the emphasis on stormy discipline, do begin to smack of Nazi slogans. Through them we can leave the composer's person behind and go back to the music, which is all that matters now. To saddle the music with the composer's personal shortcomings would merely be to practice another kind of guilt by association; and in any case, Orff is dead. His works are what live and continue to affect our lives. Even if we admit that "Carmina Burana" was the original "Springtime for Hitler," with its theme of vernal lust and its tunes redolent (according to a German acquaintance of mine) of the songs sung in the 30's by Nazi youth clubs, can't weN take Hitler away now and just leave innocent springtime or, at least, innocent music?
Sorry, no. The innocence of music is for many an article of faith, if often an expedient one. The German conductor Christian Thielemann, recently embroiled in discussions over whether he really called Daniel Barenboim's dispute with the Staatsoper in Berlin "the Jewish mess," sought refuge in the notion. "What has C sharp minor got to do with fascism?" he asked a British interviewer. But that is like asking what the letter F has to do with fascism. It all depends on what letters follow it that is, on the context. Sing the "Horst Wessel Lied" in C sharp minor all right, that tune is in the major, but just suppose and the key can have a lot to do with fascism.
But there are more sophisticated ways of asking the question. The American musicologist Kim Kowalke notes that Orff first employed his primitivistic idiom, the one now associated with his "Nazi" pieces, in songs predating the Nazi regime, to words by the eventual Hitler refugee Franz Werfel and by the eventual Communist poet laureate Bertolt Brecht. Armed with this information, Mr. Kowalke seeks to challenge a position that many, this writer included, have taken: "If the musical idiom of `Carmina Burana' derives from settings of Brecht's poetry, can it inherently inscribe, as Brecht would argue in general and Richard Taruskin would assert in particular, a `celebration of Nazi youth culture'?"
YET surely Mr. Kowalke knows that his italicized word loads the dice. There is no inherent difference, perhaps, between music that accompanies leftist propaganda and music that accompanies rightist propaganda. But one may argue nevertheless that Orff's music is well nay, obviously suited to accompany propaganda. What makes its suitability so obvious, one may argue further, are indeed its inherent qualities. And such music, one may conclude, can have undesirable effects on listeners, similar to those of propaganda.
The first point that Orff's music is "obviously" suited to accompany propaganda is corroborated by its ubiquitous employment for such purposes even today. Not all propaganda is political, after all; and most people who recognize Orff's music today do so because of its exploitation in commercials for chocolate, beer and juvenile action heroes (not to mention Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" tour). Alex Ross has argued in The New York Times that the co-optation of "Carmina Burana" for sales propaganda "is proof that it contains no diabolical message, indeed that it contains no message whatsoever." But change the word "contains" to "channels" and Orff is back on the hook. His music can channel any diabolical message that text or context may suggest, and no music does it better.
How does it accomplish this sinister task? That's what Orff learned from Stravinsky, master of the pounding rhythm and the endless ostinato. Repeat anything often enough, Dr. Goebbels said, and it becomes the truth. Stravinsky himself has been accused of the dehumanizing effect we now attribute to mass propaganda, most notoriously by Theodor W. Adorno in his 1948 book, "Philosophy of New Music." But Stravinsky's early music, though admittedly "written with an ax" (as the composer put it to his fellow Russian exile Vladimir Ussachevsky), is subtlety itself compared with the work of his German imitator.
And yes, "imitator" is definitely the word. "Carmina Burana" abounds in out-and-out plagiarisms from "Les Noces." The choral yawp ("niet-niet-niet-niet-niet!") at the end of "Circa mea pectora" (No. 18 of the 25 tiny numbers that make up Orff's 40-minute score) exactly reproduces the choral writing at the climax of Stravinsky's third tableau. Another little choral mantra ("trillirivos-trillirivos-trillirivos") in Orff's No. 20 ("Veni, veni, venias") echoes the acclamations to the patron saints halfway through the second tableau of Stravinsky's ballet. And these are only the most blatant cases.
In "Catulli Carmina," Orff aped the distinctive four-piano-plus-percussion scoring of "Les Noces," upping the percussion ante from 6 players on 16 instruments to 12 on 23. Surrounding a central episode in which the story of Catullus's doomed love for Lesbia is danced to an accompaniment of a cappella choruses, the piano-cum-percussion clangor accompanies torrid bust- and crotch-groping lyrics by the composer: real "pornoph ony," to recall the epithet The New York Sun lavished on Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth
of the Mtsensk District" in 1935. (In the noble tradition of Krafft-Ebing, at least half of Orff's Latin verses are left untranslated on record jackets I've seen.)
Finally, in "Trionfo di Afrodite" Orff copied the actual scenario of "Les Noces," a ritualized wedding ceremony, although the music now harks back to Stravinsky's more decorous mythological period with echoes of "Oedipus Rex" and "Perséphone," along with an unexpected fantasy in the middle on the Shrovetide music from "Petrouchka." Even the most seemingly original music in "Trionfo," Orff's imaginary equivalent of the lascivious Greek "chromatic genus" (to which he sets the bride and groom's lines), turns out to be a Stravinsky surrogate, derived from the scale of alternating half and whole steps that Stravinsky inherited from his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, who got it from Liszt.
Even if one agrees with Adorno's strictures about Stravinsky, though, one must also allow that the degree of barbarization represented by Orff's leering rewrite so far exceeds Stravinsky's as to amount to a difference in kind. When "Les Noces" is actually performed as a ballet, especially in Bronislava Nijinska's original choreography, the visible characters behave with what a contemporary folklorist called the "profound gravity" and "cool, inevitable intention" of ritual. They march off to the wedding bed in a kind of robots' lockstep, symbolizing the grip of remorseless, immemorial tradition that ensures the immortality of the race even as it diminishes individual freedom of choice.
By contrast, the penultimate scene in "Trionfo di Afrodite," to a text by Sappho, may be the most graphic musical description of the sex act ever put on paper. Every sigh, moan and squeal is precisely notated, so that despite the ostensibly recondite text in a dead language, even the dullest member of the audience will get the titillating point. (At least Orff was an equal-opportunity orgiast: his bride wails and whimpers as much as his groom, whereas in "Les Noces" the bride, silent at the end, is just the groom's "nocturnal amusement.")
STRAVINSKY'S repetitions are offset by rhythmic irregularities so that they elude easy memorization and remain surprising even after many hearings. As a result, the overall mood of "Les Noces" and "The Rite of Spring," his loudest pseudo-aboriginal scores, is grim, even terrifying. Orff's rhythms are uniformly foursquare, his melodies catchy, his moods ingratiating. His music provides what the Australian musicologist Margaret King recently called "an instant tape loop for the mind," something that, grasped fully and immediately, reverberates in the head the way propaganda is supposed to do. As Mr. Ross put it, even after half a century or more, Orff's music remains "as adept as ever at rousing primitive, unreflective enthusiasm."
Is that a reason to love it or to hate it? Everybody likes to indulge the herd instinct now and then, as Thomas Mann so chillingly reminded us in "Mario and the Magician." It is just because we like it that we ought to resist it. Could the Nazi Holocaust have been carried off without expertly rousing primitive, unreflective enthusiasm in millions? Was Orff's neo-paganism unrelated to the ideology that reigned in his homeland when he wrote his most famous scores?
In 1937, the year in which "Carmina Burana" enjoyed its smashing success, the National Socialists were engaged in a furious propaganda battle with the churches of Germany, countering the Christian message of compassion with neo-pagan worship of holy hatred. And what could better support the Nazi claim that the Germans, precisely in their Aryan neo-paganism, were the true heirs of Greco-Roman ("Western") culture than Orff's animalistic settings of Greek and Latin poets?
Did Orff intend precisely this? Was he a Nazi? These questions are ultimately immaterial. They allow the deflection of any criticism of his work into irrelevant questions of rights: Orff's right to compose his music, our right to perform and listen to it. Without questioning either, one may still regard his music as toxic, whether it does its animalizing work at Nazi rallies, in school auditoriums, at rock concerts, in films, in the soundtracks that accompany commercials or in Avery Fisher Hall.
Michael H. Kater, "Carl Orff im Dritten Reich," Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 43, 1 (January 1995): 1-35.Reviewed by David B. Dennis(originally published by H-German on 25 January 1996)