Carl Orff

1895 1982

Carl Orff

Composer

Biography

Carl Orff was a German composer of the 20th Century, best known for his renowned Carmina Burana. He often based his compositional style on that of the Baroque era and his compositions are greatly inspired by other arts, including theatre and dance. He is also well known for his work as a music educator and hisSchulwerk is regarded as one of the most influential and important guides to musical education to date.

Orff was born in Munich on July 10 1895 to a family of army officials and enthusiasts of music, history and science. He began his musical education at the age of five, with piano, organ and cello.

Between 1905 and 1907, Orff attended Ludwigsgymnasium, Munich and between 1907 and 1912 he attended the Wittelsbacher Gymnasium. He entered the Akademie der Tonkunst in 1912, however was displeased with its teachings. He spent the following two years at the academy, and during his time there, he became interested in the music of Debussy and Schoenberg, who proved important as influencers of Orff’s later music.

By 1917, Orff was appointed Kapellmeister at the Munich Kammerspiele, an experience that greatly enhanced his musical development. During this time, he collaborated with the director, Otto Falckenberg, who also largely influenced Orff’s later compositions. His first version of the stage music toEin Sommernachtstraum was written during this time at the Kammerspiele, although it was never performed. Later that same year, Orff served in the German Army during World War I and he was wounded at the front. As a result of his injuries, he was declared unfit to serve any further and he spent the remainder of the war holding various musical positions at the Nationaltheater in Mannheim and the Hoftheater in Darmstadt before returning to Munich in 1919.

His return to Munich marked the beginning of Orff’s dedication to studying the music of the 16th and 17th Century. In 1924, he and Dorothee Günther founded the Güntherschule in Munich, a teaching centre for gymnastics, music and dance. He was head of department from 1925 until the end of his life and he spent his time educating musical beginners and particularly children. During his early years at the school, he began to develop his renownedelementare Musik concept – an idea which combines the arts symbolised by the Ancient Greek Muses and included poetry, image, gesture, music and dance. This concept would later influence his musical style and also lead to the creation of his renowned Schulwerk,a manual explaining his methods and style of teaching.

Between 1932 and 1933, Orff directed the concert society, Munich Bachverein for which he conducted many performances and productions. Among these included Schütz’sAuferstehungshistorie which was staged in 1933. However, it was not until several years later in 1937, that Orff enjoyed his first major success with the premier of his renownedCarmina Burana. Although the work attracted much positive public admiration and was an immediate success, Orff encountered several problems during the time of the Second World War. He was accused of promoting and circulating his own work under the dictatorship of Hitler, and despite the fact that he was never proven to be a member of the Nazi party, his work as a composer became quite controversial in Germany. Particularly controversial was the first performance of his third version ofEin Sommernachtstraum(‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’) after the Nazis made it known that they disapproved of the works ofMendelssohn. However, it is believed that Orff had in fact composed the music years before the war.

After the war however, Orff was accepted as anti-Nazi and he was free to enjoy the successes of his previous works and to continue his career as a German composer. Of Orff’s compositions, he is undoubtedly best known for his masterpiece,Carmina Burana, which was written in 1936. The cantata, written for large orchestra and choir, is the first part of his triptych titledTriofi, which also includes the worksCatulli Carmina, O Fortuna and Trionfo di Afrodite. Carmina Buranais based on twenty-four poems from the medieval collection of the same name. The music often emulates that ofStravinsky, a highly influential figure during Orff’s career. The rhythm of the work is quite complex and changes metre throughout. The work was first staged by the Frankfurt Opera on 8 June 1937 and was one of the most popular and successful compositions written during that time.

Following the popular reception that Carmina Burana received, Orff’s reputation as a composer flourished as he continued to produce many other successful works. Among these includeAntogonae (1949), Oedipus der Tyrann (1958) andPrometheus (1968). From 1950 to 1960, Orff held a chair of composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Munich. He was also awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Tübingen and the University of Munich during his later years. In 1972, he received the Grosses Verdienstkreuz der Bundesrepublik Deutschland and in 1974 he was awarded the Guardini Prize from the Katholische Akademie of Bavaria.

Several years later, Orff fell ill with cancer and he died in Munich in 1982, at the age of eighty-six.  He is buried at the Andechs Abbey Church, south of Munich. Best known for his work as a composer and educator, Carl Orff has earned his place among the great composers of the 1900s. His works were often inspired greatly by ancient Greek mythology and his compositional methods and techniques regularly emulated those employed during the Baroque era. Despite this, he was influenced by many composers closer to his own musical era includingStravinsky and Debussy, who made a huge impact on his work. Orff’s famousSchulwerk, a guide to his approach and opinion regarding musical education, has also captured the attention of many music scholars and educators to date. His work has earned him popularity and success and he is regarded as one of Germany’s most powerful musical figures of the 20th Century.