Carl Orff was born into a military family in Munich in 1895. While he followed his paternal heritage by serving in the Kaiser’s forces during World War I, his real love was music– piano, organ, and cello, and some composing, even as a youth. A Bavarian to the core, he spent most of his long life in his birth city, teaching, conducting and composing. In 1924, he co-founded the Güntherschule, which aimed to immerse its students in gymnastics, music, and dance. This “total theatre” teaching approach thereafter became a trademark of almost all of Orff’s output. In some sense, it remains his major legacy, particularly as regards the teaching of rhythm to elementary school children; Orff’s emphasis on simple, attractive rhythms, and use of simple rhythm instruments, has been adopted through much of the world, including the US, often in combination with the methods pioneered by his contemporary, Zoltán Kodály of Hungary.
When Carmina Burana premiered in Frankfurt in 1937, it thrust Orff and his ideas upon the musical world with great force. A popular hit from the first performance, this cantata is based upon manuscripts of secular poems from the 12th or early 13th centuries, which were found in the libraries of the Benedictine Abbey near Koche, a Bavarian village about 30 km south of Munich. [The name, Carmina Burana, is Latin for “Songs of the Beuren”, the name applied to these foothills of the Allgau Alps, where the Abbey– founded under Charlemagne in 746 AD–is located.] Contrary to popular images of secretive monks indulging in erotic fantasies, the poems probably were not written at the Abbey; they may have come from Seckau, Austria, 160 km southeast as the crow flies. Moreover, they may have been student works. And they are not erotic by today’s standards, as you may see from the summarized translations elsewhere in this program. What is certain is that the monks of the Abbey, who were respected archivists and librarians, had sought to preserve the manuscripts; and well they should have, since the poems are the best examples of the styles of the goliards, troubadors who flourished for perhaps 200 years through the 12th century.
There are archaic musical notations with some of the poems, but Orff did not use them; his music evokes the sounds of his native Bavaria, but emphasizes simplicity and rhythm, in line with his educational philosophy. This approach put him at odds with the serious musical establishment. In an article written before Orff’s death, the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980) huffs, “Comparison with [Stravinsky]…shows just how much Orff has coarsened and vulgarized his model…Orff’s success has been in proving the potency of barbarism, and its limitations…His intention seems to be to create a spectacle.” Orff himself may have agreed with the last comment; one wonders if other dramatic composers– Bizet and Verdi come to mind– would have suffered similar treatment. Ultimately, Grove is forced to grumble that “…it is undeniable that Orff’s technique produces…direct physical excitement– the popularity of [Carmina Burana] as a choral cantata would bear that out.” Our sentiments exactly. This is the third time in its 23 year-history that the Naperville Chorus has participated in this work, and it remains fun to sing. For Carl Orff, that would have been a high compliment.
J. R. Fancher