Carl Orff | Biography

Biography

‘Everything I’ve written to date, and which you’ve unfortunately printed, can be destroyed. With Carmina Burana my collected works begin.’ So Carl Orff told his publisher after the first performance of that work in the mid−1930s. His pride in this dynamic setting for soloists, chorus and orchestra of bawdy poems written by medieval Benedictine monks is understandable. The pulsating rhythms and primitive melodic patterns of its opening number ‘O fortuna’ have become instantly recognisable.  Born into a family of army officers, Orff studied composition at the Munich Akademie der Tonkunst before World War One. Later exposure to music by Debussy and Schoenberg proved more stimulating. So too did the chance to conduct in the theatre. During the 1920s he conducted the Munich Bach-Verein and spent much time discovering and arranging music by Monteverdi and Schütz. In 1924 he co-founded a school for gymnastics, which enabled him to pioneer new ideas for educating children through the use of music and dance. His approach, known as the Orff-Schulwerk, was based on an elemental approach to music-making. Using simple instruments like recorders and small percussion instruments to encourage improvisation and experimentation, it is today one of the world’s most widely used methods of music education. The advent of Nazi power in 1933 prompted Orff to resign from his post with the Bach-Verein. Nevertheless, and despite never joining the Nazi party, his career began to flourish under the Third Reich. This can be attributed in part to the choice of subject matter for his music-theatre works. Orff’s insatiable interest in fairy tales and themes of classical antiquity accorded well with the cultural climate. So too did the simplicity and directness of his musical language. After 1945 Orff’s style became more austere as he stripped his musical language to its barest essentials. Many have criticised Orff for his reliance upon simple, even banal, musical formulae, believing them to be at odds with the generally sophisticated musical language of the 20th century. Yet it remains debatable as to whether his brand of primitivism is really as isolated from more recent developments in music theatre as his detractors would suggest.