Our study of Carl Orff’s life and music began with some surprises.

First was our search. Unlike Wagner, who has more biographies published about him than Napoleon or Jesus, Orff has but a handful and those are mostly in German. Only two or three English translations are available, and they are conspicuous for their focus on his work to the almost total exclusion of his personal and political history. (The latter is important because of questions raised about his behavior and role during the Third Reich, but more of that later.) Orff himself wished biographers to exclude personal details about his life. We do know he was married four times to women whose careers dovetailed with his own. His first wife was a singer who gave up her profession for domestic life — this marriage produced his only child, a daughter. His second wife made a lifetime career in music therapy based on schulwerk (Orff’s method of music education for children; for more on schulwerk, see sidebar). His third marriage, to an artist, ended in divorce in 1959; his last wife actively helped in the administration of his career, using her knowledge of various languages in the promulgation of his schulwerk and compositions worldwide.

Our second realization was that Orff was not just an obscure composer who hit the big time with Carmina Burana. No, we encountered a child prodigy who was amazingly versatile as a theater director, linguist, composer, and educator — and amazingly creative throughout his long life (1895–1982). While it is true that Carmina has made Orff one of the most performed contemporary composers in the world, his influence and creative breakthroughs in opera, drama, ballet, multimedia, language, and musical pedagogy are noteworthy. Orff was probably being more honest than boastful when he said, about an exhibition honoring his stage works in 1970, “This is only the firewood; it is the flame that is important. To light a spiritual flame is all.

Carl Orff was born in Munich to a well-known, upper-class family. Both grandfathers were elevated to the nobility for their accomplishments. His paternal grandfather, also a major general in the army, was a scholar of geodesy, astronomy, and mathematics. Carl used to accompany him to the royal Residenz to visit the Prince Regent and to the observatory in Bogenhausen. However, it was his maternal grandfather who most fueled his theatrical imagination. He, a military general as well, was involved with the history and topography of Bavaria and published several volumes of his detailed studies. He stimulated his grandson’s fertile mind with numerous stories, tales, and sagas during their evening walks through the historic parts of Munich. He was also an enthusiastic music lover and observed young Carl’s precocious musical talent with great interest.

Orff’s father, also an army officer, had a passion for music. However, it was his mother, a skilled concert pianist from the age of 12, who most influenced his musical development. There was always classical music in his home, and the house was often lightly bombarded by military music from the adjoining barracks and folk tunes from the taverns in the gardens encircling it. Perhaps because of a surfeit of the traditional and popular music to which he was exposed, early on Carl preferred improvisation and invention to conventional musical modes, and he set out on his own self-taught path, his “wild-growth,” as he called it. It was in the theater that his musical activities first centered. He became librettist, composer, stage designer, actor-singer, director, and stage engineer of his own early productions. His love for music, theater, history, and language was enriched by his receptivity to the natural environment. Excursions into the Bavarian Alps led him to write a “romantic botany” inspired by the flowers and herbs he found (in his later years he was a devoted gardener who sprinkled hot water on his lawn to melt the snow and end winter). Spring was his favorite season, and it often appears in his compositions, such as “Primo vere” in Carmina Burana.

Despite abundant privilege, talent, and resources, Orff still had to find his own voice as a creative artist. This was not an easy task in the midst of the tumultuous musical transition from the overripe German Romanticism to the newer, more abstract “absolute” music championed by Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Wagner, an early inspiration of Orff’s, was soon dethroned by Debussy, who, according to Orff, was “a breach in a dyke, changing my entire spiritual and intellectual landscape.” When he was in his twenties, Orff’s compositions combining orchestra, opera, and ballet were unsuccessful, probably because they were overly ambitious and too experimental for the performers, let alone the audiences. He then adopted Richard Strauss as his musical inspiration, until the start of the First World War put a temporary halt to his career. Orff’s military service left him with serious health problems.

Between 1919 and 1935, Orff worked in a variety of dramatic and musical settings, searching for his own personal style. He was now less the receptive learner and more the actively creative composer. He first gained success with his experimental arrangements and performances of traditional classical music, for example by transforming William Byrd’s harpsichord works using vast loud-speakers and five different orchestral groups along with an organ. He was always particularly intrigued by the musical language embodied in speech and movement; his investigations attempted to find the structure underlying vocal forms such as monodic song-style (e.g. Gregorian chant), lied, hymn, and even declarative speech. Thus choruses do not really “sing” Carmina Burana in the way they sing the Brahms or Verdi Requiems; rather, they make percussive rhythms with their words and phrases (and, in fully staged performances, with their bodies). The word rhythms of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Britten’s Festival of Carols are indebted to Orff’s experiments with language and sound.

Carmina Burana , written in 1937 when he was 41, brought Orff worldwide recognition and immediate artistic success. It was the breakthrough after his long apprenticeship to all the Muses. Originally a stage work, Carmina is now mainly heard in concert form. As performers and audiences know well, the rhythmic language and visual expressions and gestures of the piece are so charged that it does not require a stage production to make its tremendous impact.

Orff used the next 45 years (he died at the age of 86) to explore what had first crystallized in Carmina Burana — the integration of separate art forms (speech, music, movement, and dance) into an encompassing scenic frame, a new kind of musical theater-drama. Much of his later work, however, is unknown to American audiences. Carmina Burana is, in fact, the first in a trilogy of love pieces that included Catulli Carmina (1943) and Trionfo di Afrodite (1953), in which Orff’s attention moves progressively to earlier centuries: from medieval Latin to ancient Greek poetry and music. His Die Kluge (1943), described as achieving a perfect synthesis of folk theater and comedy, has been translated into 13 languages and performed all over the world. Orff’s unique musical language and methodology naturally lent itself to settings of the mythic and archetypal. A catalogue of his works, such as Oedipus der Tyrann, Antigonae,Astutuli (a fairy tale about the emperor’s new clothes), and Comoedia de Christe Resurrectione shows that he touched upon myths and stories from many ages and beliefs. Like Carl Jung and others whose creative lives spanned the early and mid-20 th century in Germany, Orff was enamored by the underlying structures of the arts, world history, and religion, and he used drama in its very largest sense as his all-inclusive playground.

Of course, any great artist is influenced by the political atmosphere in which he works. It has been said that CarminaBurana’s rhythms and language tap into the same passions and emotions that Hitler unleashed in Nuremberg, reminiscent of the “stamping columns of the Third Reich,” as one critic put it. Like Nazi rallies, complete with Hitler’s frenetic speech-music, the piece easily adapted to highly emotional, open-air performances with huge choruses, orchestras, and audiences. It is certainly no surprise that Orff’s works were popular during the Nazi period and were frequently performed. Most knowledgeable critics, however, assert that Orff was not a Nazi, that in fact he was neutral to the whole phenomenon except as it might impinge upon the performance of his compositions or compromise the “spiritual flame,” his musical mission. But Orff certainly went along with the regime and took opportunities as they came to him. In retrospect, some of his decisions might seem questionable, but it is difficult to criticize anyone caught in such terrifying and dangerous times. What seems clear to us is that Orff’s artistic contributions grew out of revolutionary circumstances in which old political and musical paradigms were crashing and new ones needed to be created.

Orff was a tall, slender man who radiated kindness and warmth. He had an outgoing, vigorous personality, and like Leonard Bernstein, another multitalented creative genius born into the same tumultuous period but fortunately living on a different continent with a very different political temper, Orff was the center of attention, a man of many masks, a storyteller, a comedian, and a wily actor. These abilities enabled him to create his special integration of artistic elements and mythic-musical worlds to produce unique works like Carmina Burana. That he created them in an era of violence and horror is his fate (“O Fortuna”), but not his fault.

— Arthur Colman and Pilar Montero

  • Carl Orff, by W. Thomas, London, Schott, 1985.
  • Orff Centennial Speech , by H. Maier, Mainz, Schott, 1995.