The following essay reflects upon the works of composers with problematic backgrounds, namely, Carl Orff, and how we engage with them. If you are interested in only the history, structure, and texts of Carmina Burana, I encourage you to skip to the section titled A Scenic Cantata in Three Acts.
In 2001, musicologist and critic Richard Taruskin writing for the New York Times ignited a debate when he described Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana as the “original ‘Springtime for Hitler,’” a reference to the satirical anti-semitic song from Mel Brook’s musical The Producers.
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 thirties by Nazi youth clubs, can't we take Hitler away now and just leave innocent springtime—or, at least, innocent music?” (1)
While musicians quietly murmured about the problematic history of Carmina Burana and the complicity of Carl Orff with Nazi cultural officials, few dared voice concerns. This silence is partially due to the beloved status the work holds in the canon of western classical music. It is heard not only in the concert hall, but in football stadiums (Brewers, New England Patriots, and, on occasion, at the University of Notre Dame), commercials for Gatorade, Old Spice, and numerous cars and beers; television shows such as Glee, the Twilight Zone, How I Met Your Mother, The Simpsons, American Dad, and South Park; video games Minecraft, World of Warcraft, and Final Fantasy; as well as in innumerable movies from the The Hunt for Red October to The Nutty Professor (Eddie Murphy) and Glory.
Leon Botstein, musicologist and conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, in his program notes for a performance of Catulli carmina (Orff’s sequel to Carmina Burana), suggests that fascism is audible in music.
To believe that music and art exist independently of ideology and politics is to make it inadvertently work against individuality and the will to dissent…we should also be aware that the same emotional response the [Carmina] trilogy [Carmina Burana, Catulli carmina, and Trionfo di Afrodite] triggers in us was part of the cultural fabric of an abhorrent regime. (2)
Is it appropriate to perform a work that causes in us an emotional response similar to that experienced by supporters of the Third Reich? Do we condone the ideology of the Nazis if we experience pleasure listening to Carmina Burana? Perhaps Botstein is mistaken and the work stands on its own and has a musical integrity independent of politics and we, therefore, may delight in the thunderous O Fortuna! guilt-free. If we are to eliminate Orff from the musical canon because of his proximity and indifference to anti-semitism, Taruskin suggests we also remove Wagner, Brahms, Beethoven, and J.S. Bach, not to mention Hugo Wolf and Russian composers Schostakovich and Prokofiev for their wavering ties to Joseph Stalin. If we expand beyond classical music into current popular culture, we find problematic art and artists in abundance. Are we tainted by the contagion of disgrace if we dance to the music of R. Kelly, Michael Jackson or Kanye West, are moved by Woody Allen’s Manhattan or Roman Palanski’s The Pianist, laugh and cry to reruns of the Cosby Show, celebrate performances by Mel Gibson, and Johnny Depp, or enjoy the films of Harvey Weinstein?
It is time to talk about how we negotiate music that moves and inspires us when the artist behind the work is detestable. We are in a climate of extremes and easily cleave into liberals and conservatives, pro- and anti-second amendment, pro-life and pro-choice, and Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It is tempting to simply not perform or listen to music by problematic composers, heralding that there is so much other music by virtuous composers and underrepresented composers that we do not need the music of problematic artists. It is also appealing to turn a blind eye to repulsiveness and declare that music stands independent of its creator and derives meaning from its present context alone. If these are the extremes, is there not a surplus of middle ground to be explored? Carl Orff and Carmina Burana, who straddle the line between malefactor and virtuousness, may help us hold opposing truths: love of the music and revile of the artist.
Orff and the Third Reich
A pianist by training, Orff’s early compositional studies were shaped by his mentor, Arnold Schoenberg, and early musical model, Claude Debussy. After his conscription into the German Army during World War I, Orff held administrative positions at opera houses during the Weimar Republic. His interests in folk music drew him to the early works of Stravinsky. Of particular import were the Slavic wedding cantata Les Noces, which Carmina Burana quotes in movement 18, and the primal Rite of Spring. As early as the 1920s, Orff described his compositions as elementare Musick, which reflected his interests in primitivism, ‘ethnic’ art, and works created with intuition and visceral emotion. Orff’s fascination with ‘naïve’ art stood in contrast to the Second Viennese School of composers (Arnold Schoengerg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg) who sought a new order to tonality and pushed western harmony into systematized free chromaticism and, eventually, serialism. Botstein suggests this division of musical style mirrored the divergent political ideologies of progressive and fascist artists during the Third Reich.
Orff’s relationship with the cultural leaders of the National Socialist Party was complicated and, potentially, perilous. In accordance with the Nuremberg Law for the Defense of German Blood and Honor of 1935 and the accompanying Citizenship Amendment, he was a mischling of the second degree, a mixture of non-Aryan and Aryan ancestry due to his Jewish paternal grandmother. The Nuremberg racial laws were eugenics policies designed to breed out mixed races in order to concentrate the genes of the ‘Aryan’ race, erroneously believed to be a superior subrace of the Caucasian race and distinct from the Semitic race. Obligated to marry a spouse of Aryan descent, Orff hid his family history from the Nazis to protect himself and his only daughter, Gertrud. Despite his ancestry, Orff accepted commissions from the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Commerce, RKK), the cultural ministry whose mission was to advance the music of true (non-Jewish) German composers. The RKK commissioned authors to transform the librettos of Handel’s Samson into the Weiland Oratorio, Juddas Maccabaeus into Held und Friedenswerk [Hero and Labor of Peace], and Jepthta into Das Opfer [The Sacrifice], all works in praise of Adolph Hitler. Orff, likewise, accepted an engagement to replace the incidental music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by German-Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn.
The RKK advocated for Hitler’s personal artistic ideals, which derived from the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers whom he deemed to be free of Jewish influence. Traits of heroism, romanticism, and music that was easily comprehensible were pillars of the RKK. Artists performing and exhibiting their works under the Third Reich required the approval of the cultural ministry. Providing a perspective on Orff’s stature, music journalist Jessica Duchan writes:
By 1943, his name was on a special list of favoured artists; he was not to be conscripted, he received a 2,000-mark prize from the Cultural Chamber in 1942 and he was placed on an elite payroll that gave him 1,000 marks per month. Germany's two senior composers, Richard Strauss and Hans Pfitzner were aging and would soon die; it was clear that if Germany were to win the war, Orff would quickly become the Reich's leading composer. (3)
Despite these troubling affiliations, Orff never officially joined the National Socialist Party, yet, he lived and flourished under them. He viewed himself as apolitical while simultaneously accepting a salary from the RKK.
A Scenic Cantata in Three Acts
Composed in 1936, three years after Hitler assumed power, Orff viewed Carmina Burana as a compositional rebirth, writing to his publishers, “Everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately, printed, can be destroyed. With Carmina Burana, my collected works begin.” (4) He discovered the texts of the Codex Buranus while browsing a used bookstore and was drawn to its poems of lust and eroticism, drinking and gambling, decadent depictions of spring, irreverent descriptions of church leaders, as well as traditional medieval sacred mystery plays.
Rediscovered in a Benedictine monastery in Bavaria, the Codex Buranus is a collection of Goliard writings from the 11th–13th centuries. Goliards were young clerics during the Middle Ages, many living a monastic life, whose writings satirized the Church. Primogeniture was the customary and often legal right of the first born male to inherit his father’s estate and titles throughout Europe. Second and third-born sons of aristocratic classes were frequently sent into religious life to train as scholars and clergy to secure their financial future. These men, who often did not seek this lifestyle, comprised the Goliards who traditionally lived as un-vowed clerics in Catholic monasteries, using ribald poetry as an outlet for their disaffection. Some chose the itinerant lifestyle of the traveling minstrel who sought the pleasures of life while wandering across what is now England, Germany, Spain, France, and Italy.
Composed as a dramatic scenic cantata for chorus, children’s choir, soloists, and orchestra, Carmina Burana unfolds in three acts. (5) The identical opening and closing movements bemoan the miseries dealt by the Rota Fortuna. The Wheel of Fate belonged to the goddess Fortuna who arbitrarily spun it to create immoderate suffering or blissful ecstasy for her subjects. It is only fitting that Orff titles this opening prelude Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi (Empress of the World). The mercurial Wheel grinds mercilessly at the conclusion of O Fortuna and movements throughout the cantata, characterized by driving and repetitive orchestral melodic motives.
The movements within the first scene, Primo Vere (In Spring), portray the decadence of spring. Invoking the Roman gods of Springtide, Primo Vere begins with intimate chant-like melodies in Vera leta facies (The joyous face of Spring) and baritone solo Omnia sol temperat (All Things are warmed by the Sun) only to erupt in ecstatic rejoicing upon the arrival of April’s blossoms in Ecce gratum (Behold the pleasant spring). Orchestral folk dances portray young men and women chasing each other in carnal love (Tanz and Reie). The final movement of Primo Vere, Were diu werlt alle min (If all the world were mine) is a bawdy mockery of English royalty, “If all the world were mine from the sea to the Rhine, I would do without it if the Queen of England would lie in my arms. Hey!” Orff only delves deeper into the crude humor and debaucherous poetry of the Goliards and Codex Buranus in the second scene of Carmina Burana.
The drama of In Taberna, scene two, unfolds within a rowdy tavern full of drunken men carousing. The Rota Fortuna apportions agony in Estuans interius as the baritone sings of his anger, burning, and wretchedness. He invites other aggrieved compatriots to join him in vice, “I am eager for the pleasures of the flesh more than for salvation, my soul is dead, so I shall look after the flesh.” A drunken tenor in the tavern compares his suffering to a swan roasted alive on a rotating spit in Olim lacus colueram (Once I lived on lakes) only to have his brethren cajolers ridicule his misery, “Miser, miser! modo niger et ustus fortiter!” (Misery, misery, now black and roasting fiercely). A third reveler declares himself the Abbot of Cockaigne in Ego sum abbas Cucaniensis and pronounces that anyone who seeks him will be stripped naked and turned away.
The final movement, In taberna quando sumus (When we are in the tavern), begins as a militaristic recounting of the immoral acts of the inebriated crowd: gambling, fornication, and crapulence with no fear of death. The march transforms into a comedic ‘kickline’ where the intemperate merrymakers list those who join their mischief. Included are mistress, master, priest, pauper, men, women, white, black, the pope, old ladies, mothers, children, merchants, Christians, the smart, and the lazy. It is this movement that likely led Taruskin to compare Orff’s cantata with the satirical Mel Brooks musical The Producers.
The final scene of Carmina Burana, titled Cour d’amours (The Court of Love) invokes the gods of love and sensuality, Cupid and Venus, to depict divine and licentious passion. Amor volat undique (Cupid Flies Everywhere), sung by a soprano soloist, laments that women without a lover miss the pleasures of life, while Dies, nox et omnia (Day Night and Everything is Against Me) recounts the misfortune of a man with unrequited love. The promiscuous and concupiscent thoughts of men pining to deflower virgins and the women who delight in the chase are depicted in Circa mea pectora (In My Heart).
The gentle, ethereal solo soprano lullabye of In trutina (In the wavering balance), perhaps Carmina Burana’s most tender moment, belies a women wavering between lascivus amor et pudicitia (lascivious love and modesty). The opening melody oscillates between two notes in an ambiguous meter as she weighs her options. Ultimately, she chooses the flesh and willingly accepts her fate in the hereafter.
After the joyous and thinly veiled descriptions of carnal pleasure of Tempus est iocundum where listeners cannot help but be seduced by roisterous music for double chorus, the soprano’s voice soars out of the libertinism into the heavens in a climax crying “Dulcissime” (Sweetest one!). In an intense act of oblation, she surrenders completely unto her lover.
Known for their witticism and drollery, the Goliads, and Orff, leave us with one final facetious prank at the expense of the church. Ave Formosissima (Hail, most beautiful one) initially resembles a devotional anthem to the virgin Mary, but turns out to be an ode to the Roman god Venus (Blanzifor et Helena). The text is reminiscent of Marian hymns from the Middle Ages including Tota Pulcra Es; Ave Maria, Virgo Serena; Ave mundi spes Maria; and Virgo gemma virginum. Lest we forget we are in the province of Fate, Orff recapitulates the opening movement, O Fortuna, now construed as a sacred hymn to the goddess Fortuna and as a musical and philosophical encapsulation of his audacious cantata.
Musicologist and composer Kurt Hubert was a professor of music at Ludwig Maxilliam University in Bavaria who studied Germanic folk music traditions. Orff credits Huber as introducing him to the music of his ‘homeland.’ Together they would publish several volumes of German folk music as Musik der Landschaft: Volksmusik in neuen Sätzen (Music of the countryside: folk music in new movements). The two grew close and even moved to the same street where they called upon each other daily. Orff shared his compositions, including Carmina Burana, with Huber for constructive criticism. In a letter penned to Huber after his death, Orff writes, “Since my early firstling Carmina Burana, you witnessed the genesis of all of my works; I can remember no “original version,” nor any of the many changes I often made, which we had not discussed together.” (6)
Huber, early on, joined the White Rose resistance movement and in January of 1943 he authored the organization’s sixth leaflet that led the call for an end to National Socialism. His writings got the attention of the Nazi Party and in February of 1943 he was arrested. Huber’s wife, Claire, contacted Orff and asked him to intercede through his contacts in the Nazi Party. Music Historian, Michael Kater, suggests that Orff approached Baldur von Schirach, leader of the Hitler Youth, though to no avail. Huber was executed in July after a sham trial before the Volksgerichtshof.
Allied forces liberated Germany in 1945 and initiated the denazification process, which determined whether those who benefited under the Third Reich were allowed to participate in post-war German society. Musicologist Andrew Kohler suggests that it is thanks to Orff’s former American pupil, Newell Jenksin, now an army officer, that he was classified as “Grey C: Acceptable.”
Jenkins, who had a career as an orchestral conductor after the War, claimed that during the denazification process that Orff testified he was part of the White Rose resistance movement. While corroborating evidence remains scant as this detail is not found in Orff’s denazification report, historians continue to debate the importance of Jenkin’s late-in-life statement. Perhaps more damning, Kohler recounts, is an interview between musicologist Martin Konz and Orff in 1975 where the composer does not completely disavow National Socialism:
When the 80-year-old Orff said in an interview in 1975 that his use of Latin in Carmina Burana “was a mystery to the Nazis and also very suspect,” interviewer Martin Konz asked: “Could one understand the Carmina as a musical act of resistance?” Orff replied: “I would not like to see quite so great an interpretation.” He immediately changed the subject to the relationship between music and speech. (7)
What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men
In addition to the compositional legacy, Orff, in collaboration with educator, Gunild Keetman, developed the Orff-Schulwerk approach to music pedagogy. This methodology professes that, like language, children learn music literacy through a gradual, informal, and experiential process. The Orff Approach is used throughout music classrooms in the United States and Canada as it is highly successful in engaging young children in artistic expression. Even without Carmina Burana, Orff’s educational legacy continues to impact millions of children annually across the world.
What are we to do with the complicated history of Orff and Carmina Burana? It is all too easy to retreat to one-sided-isms where we either divorce the music from the composer or we tacitly ban performances by shaming those who dare to mount a performance. Richard Taruskin offers us one model, that of self-control, which rests on the individual artist to contextually determine what is appropriate for a given time and audience. Commending the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s decision to cancel a performance of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer due to its controversial portrayal of Jewish and Palestinian characters, immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Taruskin suggests that this type of self policing is necessary:
What is called for is self-control. That is what the Boston Symphony laudably exercised; and I hope that musicians who play to Israeli audiences will resume exercising it. There is no need to shove Wagner in the faces of Holocaust survivors in Israel and no need to torment people stunned by previously unimaginable horrors with offensive “challenges” like The Death of Klinghoffer. Censorship is always deplorable, but the exercise of forbearance can be noble. Not to be able to distinguish the noble from the deplorable is morally obtuse. (8)
Taruskin goes on to contrast dissipated artist self control in relief against centralized governmental oversight such as the Taliban’s cultural police who destroyed musical instruments, cassette tapes, CDs, and records in an effort to not only police music, but to curtail the influences of non-ideologically aligned ideas spread through music. One can easily replace the Taliban with the Reichskulturkammer in Tariskin’s argument to recognize the follies of a hegemonic administration acting as regulator.
Critics rebuff Taruskin’s argument and suggest that voluntary cessation of an artist’s performance is tantamount to censorship. While Taruskin is to be applauded for wresting artistic suppression out of governmental bodies and into the hands of performers and presenters, a more nuanced approach is suggested by W. Kamau Bell in his documentary, We Need to Talk About Bill Cosby. New York Times Chief Television Critic James Poniewozik summarizes Bell’s model incisively:
It [the documentary] doesn’t tell anyone what they “should” do about Cosby or “The Cosby Show.” But it asks the viewer to do something hard: to accept that what you once thought about the work still holds true — it actually made you feel what it did — but that the things you know about the artist are also true, and the two may be inseparable, in ways that might make it painful ever to look at the work again. (9)
Education surrounding a work and its artist is seminal to Bell’s model; we can no longer avoid the difficult conversations surrounding problematic composers whether it be Wagner, Richard Strauss, Michael Jackson, or R. Kelly. Scabrous music necessitates that audiences are offered the tools and knowledge needed to sit with conflicting truths, that one can love a composition while also having contempt for the artist, their ideologies, and their behaviors. In Bell’s construct the composer, performer, and listener are in constant dialogue and any one of them has the power to remove themselves from harm when presented with the knowledge to do so.
In her 2017 essay “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men” for The Paris Review, Claire Dederer suggests that the work of problematic artists disquiets us because it reveals the ‘monster’ in us:
Something in us—in me—chimes to that awfulness, recognizes it in myself, is horrified by that recognition, and then thrills to the drama of loudly denouncing the monster in question…The psychic theater of the public condemnation of monsters can be seen as a kind of elaborate misdirection: nothing to see here. I’m no monster. Meanwhile, hey, you might want to take a closer look at that guy over there. (10)
Dederer, who is particularly troubled by the pedofilial allegations surrounding Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, is not defending problematic artists, rather, she suggests that viewing their artwork can invoke an important inward interrogation of our own beliefs and comportment. The ability to hold opposing arguments in tension in the psyche humanizes once vaulted genius composers. Instead of their music portraying an idealized version of human nature, it embodies the living contradictions we all carry.
And yet, as Taruskin acknowledges, “art can inflict harm.” Carmina Burana raises the question of whether members of the Jewish community could be harmed by Orff’s music. Similarly, is the satirical and heterodox poetry of the Goliads offensive to the devout? Does it matter if the composer is deceased and receives no financial benefit from the performance? If this is true, how long do we wait after an artist’s death; until copyright has elapsed? Finally, if it is possible to denazify Carmina Burana, should we?
There is no singular model that absolves us from the guilt of performing and listening to the works of problematic artists. If I may add anything to the conversation, it is that the distress we feel may be the point. To assume either extreme of the argument is to place our consciences at ease. We choose to look away or we fight to protect the composition from historiography. Perhaps our morals should be afflicted. Perhaps Carmina Burana and Orff’s legacy are allegories we need to understand and apply to our present culture. Lessons about power, influence, fear, and moral ambiguity are as relevant today as they were in 1936. I encourage you, while amongst others of common motivation, to challenge old assumptions about how we consider problematic artists and their oeuvre and notice any discomfort or delight Carmina Burana may bring, especially when they occur simultaneously.
Mark Doerries, D.M.
Associate Professor of the Practice
Head of the Graduate Conducting Program
Artistic Director of the Notre Dame Children's Choir
University of Notre Dame, 2023