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'Carmina Burana': Orff's Vibrant Cantata Intertwined with Nazi Debate
Audio: NYU Music Professor Michael Beckerman on 'Carmina Burana'
Monday, October 01, 2012 - 12:53 PM
It is one of classical music's hardiest creatures, repeatedly set loose across concert halls, recording studios and the landscape of popular entertainment.
Its footprints can be found in commercials for sports drinks, aftershave and Walmart. It has left its mark on hip-hop (forming the basis for the Nas song “Hate Me Now”), and hundreds of television commercials and movies (from Oliver Stone’s "The Doors" to "Jackass: The Movie"). It is the ultimate cliché for the apocalypse, used more for parody than for serious effect.
It is Carmina Burana, the cantata composed in 1935 by the German composer Carl Orff around 24 medieval poems about love, drinking and gambling. The piece lands at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night in the season-opening concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Muti and broadcast on WQXR.
It's easy to see why the score remains so popular: with its bawdy drinking songs and visceral choruses, it rewards lusty singing and pleases audiences. But its popularity only extends so far. Music critics have periodically criticized the work for being blunt and a knock-off of Stravinsky’s 1923 choral ballet Les Noces.
Worse yet for Orff’s reputation, it is an artifact of Nazi Germany. Before Carmina Burana triumphed in American culture, it was premiered in Frankfurt in 1937. Nazi propagandists trumpeted the fact that it glorifies a largely pagan civilization (the Nazis glorified pre-Christian myths) and it was full of rousing melodies that the masses could readily understand.
Although Orff has never been subject to the same scrutiny as Richard Wagner – another composer championed by the Nazis – the shadow of that era clings to Orff’s legacy. It is the main reason the cantata was not performed in the U.S. until 1954.
But is Carmina Burana Nazi art? Should we hear authoritarianism in its colossal climaxes? That would be a difficult to argue because the music itself lacks such an explicit message, says Michael Beckerman, the chair of New York University’s music department and an expert on Eastern European music.
“There are all kinds of different reasons why people can plug into Carmina Burana,” said Beckerman. “It’s elemental, it’s powerful, it’s physical, but that doesn’t make it Nazi. Just because the Nazis like the sunset and I like the sunset doesn’t make the sunset a Nazi aesthetic. There are different reasons why people plug into different pieces.”
A reading of Orff’s biography suggests that he didn't act particularly heroically during turbulent times. He obliged the Nazi Party by writing new incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream to replace the original music of Felix Mendelssohn, who had been banned as a Jewish composer. After World War II, Orff was interrogated by the denazification authorities. Eager to put himself on the right side of history, he erroneously claimed that he had been a co-founder of the White Rose resistance movement, even as his close friend, Swiss-born academic Kurt Huber – an actual member – was arrested and executed by the Nazis.
If Orff failed to oppose the Nazis actively, he also never joined the Party, nor did he appear to express anything resembling anti-Semitism, a point documented in Michael H. Kater's book, Composers of the Nazi Era. What’s more, Orff had several Jewish friends, including Kurt Weill and the poet Franz Werfel, collaborated with Bertolt Brecht in the early 1930s, and was generally considered a leftist early in his career.
Ultimately, many historians believe Orff was simply an apolitical opportunist. “Most of the people who took heroic stances during that period lasted about five minutes,” noted Beckerman. “I’m uncomfortable with applying standards of behavior to people in the past when very few of us know how we would have behaved. Orff wasn’t a camp guard. It’s not clear in any case about what people knew what was actually going on.
“Let’s put it this way: I like to be in a world where people can say they like Carmina Burana or not without fearing that if they say they like it, somebody’s going to say they’re a Nazi. Because music doesn’t have the kinds of things that allow us to say in words precisely what it means, people can impute meanings and there’s very little way that the music can defend itself.”
What do you think? Does the political pedigree of Carmina Burana matter today? Leave your comments below.