'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.


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Comments [10]

Eddy from United States

I have played recordings of this and attended concerts with this piece for at least 50 years; and when I first discovered it, I rated fairly highly. But at that time I also rated any noisy piece as a great work so it joined the 1812 overture and Finlandia on that shelf. As I have heard more and more great music, noise has abated as a criteria. Orff grabbed a bunch of drinking songs that have little relevance to today and imposed a driving beat some what like Benny Goodman's Sing Sing Sing. On the whole I prefer Goodman.

Apr. 26 2015 02:59 PM
Tommy U. from New York

I strongly doubt that, under similar circumstances, the great majority of those wagging a finger at Carl Orff would risk the loss of their profession, brutal imprisonment, or execution. It's so easy to spout bloated heroic morality from a distant position of safety. Orff found himself in the midst of a hell that was not of his making and just wanted to survive.

As for his most famous composition, the pseudo-sophisticates who sneer at its popularity to show the world how aware and superior they are only reveal themselves to be dolts and phonies.

Jun. 09 2014 07:38 PM
Marilyn MacDonald Backlund

I don't care how many times Orff is heralded as "just a musician trying to survive in a world gone mad", he made a choice to let his friend, Kurt Huber be imprisoned without so much as lifting a finger to help him. I see this act and his willingness to rewrite Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream as clear indicators of his allegiance to the Nazi party. Although he did not join the Nazi party he committed the crime of branding himself as a sympathizer with the horrors that surrounded him everywhere.
This "gray" position that he attained by creating a misleading representaion of of his own "resistance activities" during the Nazi years should speak volumes as to his unspoken politics. I believe this makes him worse in many ways than those who were truthful about their allegiance to the Nazi party. Throwing up your hands and saying "I was caught in a society of change and all I wanted to do was write my music" is clearly an attempt of a pathetic individual to promote himself dispite all the world going mad around him. His music should not be allowed to be performed in a world that claims to be horrified by the Holocaust.

May. 13 2013 05:59 PM
bruno manuel albano from Portugal

Carl Orff has done one thing,like many in those times: trying to survive. Sure that he could exile himself, all right, but then? Where? It's easy to point that finger to a person, but we must think: if i was living in the third reich, what i should have done, where to go? Karl Amadeus Hartman was the opposite, oh yes, he refused, but he could have done that, and he did, he was wealthy. But Shostakovitch could not do that, he saw too much, if he did that, it was sure that all his family, friends and relatives would have payed the price. Like Richard Strauss, part of his family was Jewish, his grandsons were spat in the Kristalnacht, and he tried to save his daughter-in-law grandmother, with no success.
Orff can only be guilty, if he had the influence and he has done nothing to use it, the opposite of Strauss.
Orff had his faults, like a normal human being,therefore i agree with this article. Well done.

Oct. 10 2012 10:00 AM
Vladimir P. Fekula from New York City

I have never understood the relationship between composer and whether or not he is a Nazi, Communist,Jewish or whatever. It is silly. I have always disliked Orff's Carmina Burana purely because it is corny pop music and banal.How Muti can champion this amateurish composition is a puzzlement to me.

Oct. 05 2012 03:09 PM

It is a work of art and art is apolitical. If it was heralded by a particular regime, that's their interpretation and does not speak for everyone.

Oct. 03 2012 08:31 PM
stickles from Chicago

Carmina Burana is work of escapsim. Even though one may be confused about what the work is actually about in the beginning, there should be no question that then ending conveys the most profound sadness. The O Fortuna section just crashes into the climax of Ave formosissima (Hail to the most lovely), plunging right into the depth of despair. Orff is a survivor, and although he did not take a political stand against Nazi Germany, one wonders why he would create this pessimistic work. In these performances Muti opts to use a countertenor instead of a regular tenor for the swan song, exchanging buffoonery for lyricism. Perhaps he wants to foreshadow the pain of the swan as the suffering of men?

Oct. 03 2012 06:00 PM

Intelligently written, Mr. Wise.

Oct. 03 2012 07:51 AM
Jae from San Diego, CA

More important than the question, Did Orff vote for or support the Nazi regime? (for many Germans, including many Jews, initially did), but were the Nazis "Orffian", "Wagnerian", "Nietzschean" etc? - In other words, to what extent and in what ways were such works add fuel to the fire? How did the fire grow as a result of such inflammables? By looking at it this way, one can still legitimately enjoy and esteem great works of art - all the more so for the sheer power such creativity may lend either to a creative & value-oriented culture (e.g. America's) or to such destructive, death-worshiping cultures as "thrived" in Europe, Japan, and much of the world throughout much of the 20th century (and in much of the Islamic World today).

For example, it is not Islam per se, rather it is the injection of anti-reason, anti-reality philosophies (e.g., Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, et al) into Islamic Culture (by such recently popular scholars as Mohammed Iqbal) that is responsible for the negative contemporary Islamic understanding of such traditional concepts as Jihad & Sharia.

Whether destructive ideas result in an unreasoning worship of the church, state or corporation, all great art may be harnessed to the destructive cause. Which isn't to say there are not some works of art that can more readily lend themselves to a destructive political end (e.g., art that blatantly defies comprehension, wallows in depravity as an end-in-itself, or that descends to the level of mere propaganda). But it is still the dominant ideas that determine whether and how spectators will be able to respond to such art that makes all the difference in the world.

In other words, carefully attend to the message, only don't shoot the messenger.

Oct. 02 2012 05:41 PM
Canio from Italy

Me too,I like to be in a World,where People can say they like Carmina Burana(and I like it very much)or not,without fearing that if they say like it,sombody's going to say they are a Nazy

Oct. 02 2012 08:10 AM

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