Carl Orff remains something of an enigma in the musical history of Nazi Germany. As an artist, the odds seemed stacked against him when the Nazis came to power: it was expected that the composer would become yet another victim of the Third Reich’s oppressive cultural policies. Yet Orff managed to establish a place for himself and his music within Nazi Germany.
Carl Orff was born in 1895 into an upstanding Munich family of officers and scholars. His mother was an accomplished pianist who taught him when he was a child. While still a teenager he enlisted, but returned home in 1917 after a near-lethal case of shell shock. After several years of experimentation, sampling various musical career possibilities, Orff became a partner in the Munich Günther School, an educational institution that united music and movement. The composer maintained a life-long interest in music education.
By the late 1920s, Orff had established himself as a significant figure in the small but important modernist musical oasis in otherwise conservative Munich, the League for Contemporary Music. Founded in 1927, it presented works by Bartók, Hindemith, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, among others. The young musician also collaborated briefly with Bertolt Brecht, and participated in the innovative new Bach Society in Munich, all of which solidified his reputation for being outside the mainstream, even avant-garde. Nonetheless, his star was slowly rising by the early 1930s, when Hitler came to power and the reality of making music in Germany was to change dramatically.
Like many other artists of the time, Orff was considered a leftist. He had many Jewish friends, including Kurt Weill and the poet Franz Werfel, and collaborated extensively with well-known Marxists like Brecht. There are also reports that Orff was a quarter Jewish, a fact that could only have added to his insecurities. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Orff never either overtly or covertly resisted or opposed Nazi policies. He developed his theories on music pedagogy, trying to integrate his ideas into the music policies of the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth). Choosing to forget all associations with Jewish, leftist, or modernist artists, Orff emphasised his antipathy to jazz music and the atonality of Schoenberg and his disciples, and emphasised his own sincere and deep-seated appreciation of folk music.
For years Orff had been targeted by the Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (Fighting League for German Culture, KfdK) as a cultural bolshevist. This dangerous reputation was initially confirmed at the controversial premiere of what was to become his best-known work, Carmina Burana, in 1937. Despite Orff’s increasing contacts with Nazi officials, and his well-regarded work in music pedagogy, the premiere was met with a stinging critique by the influential Nazi musicologist Hans Gerigk. According to Gerigk, Carmina Burana suffered from a 'mistaken return to primitive elements of instrumentalism and a foreign emphasis on rhythmic formulae'. Later reviews were positive however, and the Nazi regime recognised the potential of the work.
The success of Carmina Burana led the mayor of Frankfurt to ask the composer to write alternative music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
After the war, most artists who had continued to be active under the Nazi regime, underwent a process of ‘denazification’.
“Orff was among those whom the Americans evaluated. He was rated “‘Grey C’, acceptable,” the category for individuals who had been beneficiaries of the Third Reich but did not personally have National Socialist attitudes. Orff ultimately was granted a license to compose and guest conduct.”
Orff died in Munich in 1982 as one of 20th century Germany’s most prominent composers.
Kohler, Andrew S: ‘Grey C, Acceptable’:Carl Orff’s Professional and Artistic Responses to the Third Reich, University of Michigan (2015) p. 203.