Carl Orff


Carl Orff (German: [ɔʁf]; 10 July 1895 – 29 March 1982[1]) was a German composer and music educator,[2] best known for his cantata Carmina Burana (1937).[3] The concepts of his Schulwerk were influential for children's music education.

Carl Orff
Carl Orff um 1970.jpg
Carl Orff, c. 1970
Born(1895-07-10)10 July 1895
Died29 March 1982(1982-03-29) (aged 86)
Munich, West Germany
List of compositions


Early lifeEdit

Carl Orff was born in Munich on 10 July 1895,[1] the son of Paula (Köstler) and Heinrich Orff. His family was Bavarian and was active in the Imperial German Army; his father was an army officer with strong musical interests.[4][5] His paternal grandmother was Catholic of Jewish descent.[a][6] At age five, Orff began to play piano, organ, and cello, and composed a few songs and music for puppet plays.[2]

In 1911, when he was 16, some of Orff's music was published.[7] Many of his youthful works were songs, often settings of German poetry. They fell into the style of Richard Strauss and other German composers of the day, but with hints of what would become Orff's distinctive musical language.

In 1911/12, Orff wrote Zarathustra, Op. 14, an unfinished large work for baritone voice, three male choruses and orchestra, based on a passage from Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical novel Also sprach Zarathustra.[8][9] The following year, he composed an opera, Gisei, das Opfer (Gisei, the Sacrifice). Influenced by the French Impressionist composer Claude Debussy, he began to use colorful, unusual combinations of instruments in his orchestration.[10]

World War IEdit

Moser's Musik-Lexikon states that Orff studied at the Munich Academy of Music from 1912 until 1914.[8][11] He then served in the German Army during World War I, when he was severely injured and nearly killed when a trench caved in. Afterwards, he held various positions at opera houses in Mannheim and Darmstadt, later returning to Munich to pursue his music studies.

The 1920sEdit

In the mid-1920s, Orff began to formulate a concept he called elementare Musik, or elemental music, which was based on the unity of the arts symbolized by the ancient Greek Muses, and involved tone, dance, poetry, image, design, and theatrical gesture. Like many other composers of the time, he was influenced by the Russian-French émigré Igor Stravinsky. But while others followed the cool, balanced neoclassic works of Stravinsky, it was works such as Les noces (The Wedding), an earthy, quasi-folkloric depiction of Russian peasant wedding rites, that appealed to Orff. He also began adapting musical works of earlier eras for contemporary theatrical presentation, including Claudio Monteverdi's opera L'Orfeo (1607). Orff's German version, Orpheus, was staged under his direction in 1925 in Mannheim, using some of the instruments that had been used in the original 1607 performance. The passionately declaimed opera of Monteverdi's era was almost unknown in the 1920s, however, and Orff's production met with reactions ranging from incomprehension to ridicule.[12]

In 1924 Dorothee Günther [de] and Orff founded the Günther School for gymnastics, music, and dance in Munich. Orff was there as the head of a department from 1925 until the end of his life, and he worked with musical beginners. There he developed his theories of music education, having constant contact with children. In 1930, Orff published a manual titled Schulwerk, in which he shares his method of conducting. Before writing Carmina Burana, he also edited 17th-century operas. However, these various activities brought him very little money.

Nazi eraEdit

Orff in 1940

Orff's relationship with German National Socialism and the Nazi Party has been a matter of considerable debate and analysis. His Carmina Burana was hugely popular in Nazi Germany after its premiere in Frankfurt in 1937. Given Orff's previous lack of commercial success, the monetary reward from Carmina Burana's acclaim was significant to him. But the composition, with its unfamiliar rhythms, was also denounced with racist taunts.[13] He was one of the few German composers under the Nazi regime who responded to the official call to write new incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream after the music of Felix Mendelssohn had been banned.[14] Defenders of Orff note that he had already composed music for the play as early as 1917 and 1927, long before doing it at the behest of the Nazi regime.

Orff was a friend of Kurt Huber, one of the founders of the resistance movement Weiße Rose (the White Rose), who was condemned to death by the Volksgerichtshof and executed by the Nazis in 1943. By happenstance, Orff called at Huber's house on the day after his arrest. Huber's distraught wife, Clara, begged Orff to use his influence to help her husband, but he declined. If his friendship with Huber was ever discovered, he told her, he would be "ruined". On 19 January 1946, Orff wrote a letter to the deceased Huber. Later that month, he met with Clara Huber, who asked him to contribute to a memorial volume for her husband. Orff's letter was published in that collection the following year.[15] In it, Orff implored Huber to forgive him.[16]

He had a long friendship with German-Jewish musicologist, composer and refugee Erich Katz,[17] who fled Nazi Germany in 1939.


According to Canadian historian Michael H. Kater, during Orff's denazification process in Bad Homburg, Orff claimed that he had helped establish the White Rose resistance movement in Germany. There was no evidence for this other than his own word, and other sources dispute his claim. Kater also made a particularly strong case that Orff collaborated with Nazi German authorities.[18]

However, in Orff's denazification file, discovered by Viennese historian Oliver Rathkolb in 1999, no remark on the White Rose is recorded;[19] and in Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits (2000) Kater recanted his earlier accusations to some extent.[20]

In any case, Orff's assertion that he had been anti-Nazi during the war was accepted by the American denazification authorities, who changed his previous category of "gray unacceptable" to "gray acceptable", enabling him to continue to compose for public presentation, and to enjoy the royalties that the popularity of Carmina Burana had earned for him.[21]

After World War IIEdit

Most of Orff's later works – Antigonae (1949), Oedipus der Tyrann (Oedipus the Tyrant, 1958), Prometheus (1968), and De temporum fine comoedia (Play on the End of Times, 1971) – were based on texts or topics from antiquity. They extend the language of Carmina Burana in interesting ways, but they are expensive to stage and (on Orff's own admission) are not operas in the conventional sense. Live performances of them have been few, even in Germany.

Personal lifeEdit

Orff was a Roman Catholic.[1][22] He was married four times: to Alice Solscher (m. 1920, div. 1925), Gertrud Willert (m. 1939, div. 1953), Luise Rinser (m. 1954, div. 1959) and Liselotte Schmitz (m. 1960). His only child Godela (1921–2013) was from his first marriage.[23] She has described her relationship with his father as having been difficult at times. "He had his life and that was that," she tells Dale Palmer in the documentary O Fortuna.[24]


Orff's grave at the Andechs Abbey church

Orff died of cancer in Munich in 1982, aged 86.[3] Orff was buried in the Baroque church of the beer-brewing Benedictine priory of Andechs, southwest of Munich. His tombstone bears the Latin inscription Summus Finis (the Ultimate End), taken from the end of his last work, De temporum fine comoedia.


Musical worksEdit

Orff is best known for Carmina Burana (1936), a "scenic cantata". It is the first part of a trilogy that also includes Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite. Carmina Burana reflected his interest in medieval German poetry. The trilogy as a whole is called Trionfi, or "Triumphs". The work was based on thirteenth-century poetry found in a manuscript dubbed the Codex latinus monacensis found in the Benedictine monastery of Benediktbeuern in 1803 and written by the Goliards; this collection is also known as Carmina Burana. While "modern" in some of his compositional techniques, Orff was able to capture the spirit of the medieval period in this trilogy. The medieval poems, written in Latin and an early form of German, are a lament about the cruel indifference of fate. "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi", commonly known as "O Fortuna", from Carmina Burana, is often used to denote primal forces, for example in the Oliver Stone film The Doors.[25] The work's association with fascism also led Pier Paolo Pasolini to use the movement "Veris leta facies" to accompany the concluding scenes of torture and murder in his final film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.[26]

Later, however, many of these earlier works were released (some even with Orff's approval). Carmina Burana was so popular that Orff received a commission in Frankfurt to compose incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, which was supposed to replace the banned music by Mendelssohn. After several performances of this music, he claimed not to be satisfied with it, and reworked it into the final version that was first performed in 1964.

Orff's last work, De temporum fine comoedia (Play on the End of Times), had its premiere at the Salzburg Festival on 20 August 1973, and was performed by Herbert von Karajan and the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne and Chorus. In this highly personal work, Orff presented a mystery play, sung in Greek, German, and Latin, in which he summarized his view of the end of time.

Gassenhauer, Hexeneinmaleins, and Passion, which Orff composed with Gunild Keetman, were used as theme music for Terrence Malick's film Badlands (1973).

Pedagogic worksEdit

Bust of Carl Orff in the Munich Hall of Fame (2009)

In pedagogical circles he is probably best remembered for his Schulwerk ("School Work"). Originally a set of pieces composed and published for the Güntherschule (which had students ranging from 12 to 22),[27] this title was also used for his books based on radio broadcasts in Bavaria in 1949. These pieces are collectively called Musik für Kinder (Music for Children), and also use the term Schulwerk, and were written in collaboration with his former pupil, composer and educator Gunild Keetman, who actually wrote most of the settings and arrangements in the "Musik für Kinder" ("Music for Children") volumes.

Orff's ideas were developed, together with Gunild Keetman, into a very innovative approach to music education for children, known as the Orff Schulwerk. The music is elemental and combines movement, singing, playing, and improvisation.

List of compositionsEdit


  1. ^ Fanny von Kraft (1833–1919).[1] Her parents were baptized Catholic.


  1. ^ a b c d Dangel-Hofmann 1999.
  2. ^ a b Randel, Don. Harvard Dictionary of Music.
  3. ^ a b Rothstein, Edward (31 March 1982). "Carl Orff, teacher and composer Of Carmina Burana, dead at 86". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 February 2019. Carl Orff, the German composer and music educator best known for his 1937 work Carmina Burana, died of cancer Monday night in a Munich, West Germany, clinic. He was 86 years old.
  4. ^ "Music and History: Carl Orff". Archived from the original on 5 September 2019. Retrieved 5 March 2019.
  5. ^ "Personentreffer: Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften". Retrieved 14 January 2019.
  6. ^ Kater 1995, p. 30.
  7. ^ e.g. Early Songs published by Schott Music and Songs and Chants recorded by WERGO
  8. ^ a b "Chronology". Carl Orff Center. Munich. 2018. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  9. ^ Fassone, Alberto (2001). "Orff, Carl". Grove Music Online (8th ed.). Oxford University Press.
  10. ^ Buening, Eleonore (7 July 1995). "Die Musik ist schuld". Die Zeit (in German). Hamburg. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  11. ^ Moser, Hans Joachim (1943). "Orff, Carl". Musiklexikon (2nd ed.). Berlin: Max Hesses Verlag. pp. 650–651.
  12. ^ Brown, Peter; Ograjenšek, Suzana (2010). "Re-staging the Welttheater: A Critical View of Carl Orff's Antigonae and Oedipus der Tyrann". Oxford Scholarship. doi:10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199558551.003.0018. ISBN 978-0-19-955855-1 – via Oxford. (It connoted) 'extraordinary simplicity, even childishness’ for which he is sometimes championed and just as often ridiculed.'
  13. ^ "Carl Orff: Carmina Burana" Ev. Emmaus-Ölberg-Kirchengemeinde Berlin Kreuzberg. Retrieved 26 June 2011 (in German)
  14. ^ Rockwell, John (5 December 2003). "Reverberations; Going Beyond 'Carmina Burana,' and Beyond Orff's Stigma". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  15. ^ Kater 1995, pp. 28–29, Orff's letter is printed in Kurt Huber zum Gedächtnis. Bildnis eines Menschen, Denkers und Forschers, dargestellt von seinen Freunden, edited by Clara Huber (Regensburg: Josef Habbel, 1947): 166–68.
  16. ^ Duchen, Jessica (4 December 2008). "Dark heart of a masterpiece: Carmina Burana's famous chorus hides a murky Nazi past". The Independent. UK. Archived from the original on 18 January 2009. Retrieved 27 March 2010.
  17. ^ List of items in Erich Katz Collection Archive (PDF) Regis University. p. 6. Retrieved 1 November 2011
  18. ^ Review of "Carl Orff im Dritten Reich" Archive, by David B. Dennis, Loyola University Chicago (25 January 1996)
  19. ^ Schleusener, Jan (11 February 1999). "Komponist sein in einer bösen Zeit". Die Welt (in German). Berlin. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  20. ^ Kater 2000.
  21. ^ Kater 1995.
  22. ^ "Carl Orff",
  23. ^ "Godela Orff (1921–2013)",
  24. ^ Kettle, Martin (2 January 2009). "Secret of the White Rose". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  25. ^ IMDb entry for soundtrack of Oliver Stone's film The Doors (scroll to bottom)
  26. ^ "Pasolini's Salo" Archived 18 December 2010 at the Wayback Machine, review
  27. ^ Carl Orff Documentation trans. Margaret Murray, published by Schott Music, 1978


  • Dangel-Hofmann, Frohmut (1999), "Orff, Carl", Neue Deutsche Biographie (in German), vol. 19, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, pp. 588–591; (full text online)
  • Kater, Michael H. (1995). "Carl Orff im Dritten Reich" [Carl Orff in the Third Reich] (PDF, 1.6 MB). Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte (in German). 43 (1): 1–35. ISSN 0042-5702.
  • Kater, Michael H. (2000). Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-515286-9.

Further readingEdit

  • Dangel-Hofmann, Frohmut (1990). Carl Orff – Michel Hofmann. Briefe zur Entstehung der Carmina burana. Tutzing: Hans Schneider. ISBN 3-7952-0639-1.
  • Edelmann, Bernd (2011). "Carl Orff". In Weigand, Katharina (ed.). Große Gestalten der bayerischen Geschichte. Munich: Herbert Utz Verlag. ISBN 978-3-8316-0949-9.
  • Fassone, Alberto (2009). Carl Orff (2nd revised and enlarged ed.). Lucca: Libreria Musicale Italiana. ISBN 978-88-7096-580-3.
  • Gersdorf, Lilo (2002). Carl Orff. Reinbek: Rowohlt. ISBN 3-499-50293-3.
  • Kaufmann, Harald (1993). "Carl Orff als Schauspieler". In Grünzweig, Werner; Krieger, Gottfried (eds.). Von innen und außen. Schriften über Musik, Musikleben und Ästhetik. Hofheim: Wolke. pp. 35–40.
  • Kugler, Michael, ed. (2002). Elementarer Tanz – Elementare Musik: Die Günther-Schule München 1924 bis 1944. Mainz: Schott. ISBN 3-7957-0449-9.
  • Liess, Andreas (1980). Carl Orff. Idee und Werk (revised ed.). Munich: Goldmann. ISBN 3-442-33038-6.
  • Massa, Pietro (2006). Carl Orffs Antikendramen und die Hölderlin-Rezeption im Deutschland der Nachkriegszeit. Bern/Frankfurt/New York: Peter Lang. ISBN 3-631-55143-6.
  • Orff, Godela (1995). Mein Vater und ich. Munich: Piper. ISBN 3-492-18332-8.
  • Carl Orff und sein Werk. Dokumentation. 8 vols. Schneider, Tutzing 1975–1983, ISBN 3-7952-0154-3, 3-7952-0162-4, 3-7952-0202-7, 3-7952-0257-4, 3-7952-0294-9, 3-7952-0308-2, 3-7952-0308-2, 3-7952-0373-2.
  • Rösch, Thomas (2003). Die Musik in den griechischen Tragödien von Carl Orff. Tutzing: Hans Schneider. ISBN 3-7952-0976-5.
  • Rösch, Thomas (2009). Carl Orff – Musik zu Skakespeares "Ein Sommernachtstraum". Entstehung und Deutung. Munich: Orff-Zentrum.
  • Rösch, Thomas, ed. (2015). Text, Musik, Szene – Das Musiktheater von Carl Orff. Symposium Orff-Zentrum München 2007. Mainz: Schott. ISBN 978-3-7957-0672-2.
  • Thomas, Werner (1990). Das Rad der Fortuna – Ausgewählte Aufsätze zu Werk und Wirkung Carl Orffs. Mainz: Schott. ISBN 978-3-7957-0209-0.
  • Thomas, Werner (1994). Orffs Märchenstücke. Der Mond – Die Kluge. Mainz: Schott. ISBN 978-3-7957-0266-3.
  • Thomas, Werner (1997). Dem unbekannten Gott. Ein nicht ausgeführtes Chorwerk von Carl Orff. Mainz: Schott. ISBN 978-3-7957-0323-3.

External linksEdit

  • Carl Orff Foundation
  • Orff Center, Munich
  • Carl Orff Discography
  • Orff Schulwerk Discography
  • Profile, works, discography, Archive Schott Music
  • Carl Orff at Schott Music
  • Carl Orff at IMDb
  • Interview with conductor Ferdinand Leitner by Bruce Duffie. Leitner was a close friend of Orff and conducted many of his works, including several premieres.