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. Like that of Paul Hindemith and Ernst Krenek, Orff’s music was often categorised as ‘degenerate’. But the artist’s attempts to ingratiate himself with the regime paid dividends. By the early 1940s, his music was celebrated by many Nazi elites, and his Carmina Burana was one of the most popular pieces in Nazi Germany. Yet, later on, by means of a misleading representation of his own ‘resistance activities’ during the Nazi years, and by judiciously emphasising negative Nazi opinions of his music, he managed to secure a clean slate to perform and work in post-war Germany, untainted by his accommodationism throughout the Hitler years.
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 Club 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. Recognising the precariousness of his status in the new Nazi Germany, throughout the 1930s he tried to establish his loyalty to the regime. Awarded a job composing music for schools, he developed his theories on music pedagogy, trying to integrate his ideas into the music policies of the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth), sometimes tailoring them specifically to Nazi demands. Choosing to forget all associations with Jewish, leftist, or modernist artists, Orff emphasised his hatred of 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, the 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'. For most, such a damning review would have signalled the end of the piece, if not of the career of the composer. However, his positive contacts with high-ranking figures, and the sheer popularity of the piece with the public, gradually transformed it into a hit. Despite its exotic sounds and sexual themes, the piece came to be perceived as 'a celebration of the power of an uninterrupted life instinct' and its elemental melodies and rhythms were said to bear witness to 'the indestructible and always re-emerging power of the ways of the common people'.
The success of Carmina Burana led the mayor of Frankfurt to ask the composer to write alternative music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
his Carmina Burana exhibits exquisite beauty, and if we could get him to do something about his lyrics, his music would certainly be very promising.
After the war, along with most artists who had continued to be active under the Nazis, Orff was placed on a blacklist, as someone in potential need of denazification. However, he managed to clear his name with the help of an American friend. Suddenly afraid of being ‘too Nazi’, rather than not Nazi enough, Orff fabricated an elaborate account of his involvement in the Munich resistance group, the White Roses, organised by his friend Kurt Huber. (In fact, he had never had any involvement with the group). In addition, despite Carmina Burana’s success under Hitler, he repeatedly represented the piece as covertly anti-Nazi. Orff died in Munich in 1982 as one of 20th century Germany’s most prominent composers.
Kater, M.H., 2000. Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Levi, E., 1994. Music in the Third Reich, London: Macmillan.
Meyer, M., 1993. The Politics of Music in the Third Reich, New York: Peter Lang.
Prieberg, F.K., 1982. Musik im NS-Staat, Frankfurt/M.: Fischer.