Orff, Carl (1895–1982)

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ORFF, CARL (1895–1982)


Primitivist musician.

Carl Orff was born in Munich on 10 July 1895. He studied at the Munich Academy and, beginning in 1920, with Heinrich Kaminski. His compositions established a type of primitivism associated with ancient practices such as ostinato (the persistent repetition of a musical figure at the same pitch throughout a composition) and raw emotional expression to produce works that have a pagan, sensual excitement. Orff scholars frequently mention the influence of Igor Stravinsky (especially Stravinsky's The Wedding and Oedipus Rex). Like Stravinsky and Olivier Messiaen among others, Orff regarded rhythm as the form-building element in music. His rhythm drew its strength from the simple patterns of folk tunes and peasant dances. He tended to avoid harmonic complexity and the intellectual attitudes inherent in contrapuntal writing. Most works, especially his most performed work, Carmina burana (1937), were designed as pageants for the stage. Carmina is the first part of a trilogy, the others being Catulli carmina (1943) and Trionfo di Afrodite (1953). Between 1925 and 1973, Orff composed approximately seventeen such dramatic works.

During the Nazi regime, many composers fled to the West or composed privately, knowing that their music would not be performed publicly. Orff composed in a style that was simple enough to please the Nazi authorities but still individual enough to succeed musically. His characteristic style first emerged full-blown in the dramatic cantata Carmina burana, a setting of secular, even ribald, medieval Latin and German songs. Carmina set a precedent: the textual declamation assumes the dominant role and syllabic settings are projected through elemental chantlike melodic figures, repeated incessantly to the percussive and sometime dramatic accompaniment of static triadic harmonies. Like Stravinsky before him, Orff frequently used ostinato patterns. Carmina burana creates a ritualistic incantation using a variety of forces, including a large orchestra and chorus and an impressive role for a baritone. A soprano soloist appears in part 3 and a countertenor has one solo. After completing Carmina burana, Orff instructed his publisher to destroy his previous works. Despite his desire to continue in a primitive, dramatic style, the second work in the triptych—Catulli carmina—is quite different musically, having a more reserved choral, almost renaissance style, though certainly some of the texts are more erotic than any in Carmina burana. Orff composed two operas based upon Grimms' fairy tales: Der Mond (1937–1938, revised in 1941) and Die Kluge (1943). He also composed a trilogy of theater works based upon Greek subjects: Antigonae (1949), Oedipus der Tyrann (1959), and Prometheus (1966). The last work sets Aeschylus's original Greek. Carmina burana seems mild compared to the overpowering severity of the three "Greek" works. Orff's interest in limiting pitch content to an absolute minimum reached its extreme in the theater piece Die Bernauerin (1947), where spoken sections alternate with rhythmic settings of the text accompanied only by percussion instruments. Only twice are pitches employed at all, and even these are limited to a few notes, repeated over and over. Orff's style anticipates some of the techniques common to "minimalist" composers, for example, Steve Reich and John Adams. Orff is still of historical significance because he is the only German composer of his generation who remained in Germany during the Nazi regime and yet won widespread recognition abroad. His decision, like that of several other German composers of his time—Paul Hindemith, Ernst Pepping, and Kurt Weill—to ignore avant-garde musical techniques and compose music that would appeal to traditional audiences definitely proved successful for him.

Besides being a composer, Orff became a significant advocate for young children's musical education, even designing instruments for them to play. In 1924 he became familiar with the Émile Jaques-Dalcroze method of eurhythmics, a system that combined music and bodily movement. In 1942, with Dorothee Günther, he founded a school for gymnastics, music, and dance. He established what is now known as Orff-Schulwerk, a pedagogical system of music education devised to teach children with no prior formal music training to play and sing together and to improvise. In 1948 he began to adapt his ideas for children's radio programs. In the early twenty-first century, various centers worldwide certify music educators in the Orff-Schulwerk system, which is also noteworthy for its success with handicapped children. Orff's Music for Children (1950–1954) includes five collections of graded materials encompassing preliminary exercises, folk tunes, and dances. The Orff Center in Munich, under the auspices of the Bavarian State Ministry for Education, Culture, the Sciences and Arts, supervises the estate of Carl Orff and functions as a center for research on Orff.

See alsoMessiaen, Olivier; Opera; Stravinsky, Igor; Weill, Kurt.


Böhm, Suse. Spiele mit dem Orff-Schulwerk: Elementare Musik u. Bewegung f. Kinder. Stuttgart, Germany, 1975.

Bitcon, Carol Hampton. Alike and Different: The Clinical and Educational Use of Orff-Schulwerk. Santa Ana, Calif., 1976.

Frazee, Jane. Discovering Orff: A Curriculum for Music Teachers. Mainz and London, 1987.

Glasgow, Robert G., and Dale G. Hamreus. Study to Determine the Feasibility of Adapting the Carl Orff Approach to Elementary Schools in America. Washington, D.C., 1968.

Günther, Dorothee. "Der Tanz als Bewegungsphanomen." Rohwolts Deutsche Enzyklopädie. Number 1951/152. Hamburg, Germany, 1962.

Jans, Hans Jörg, and Verlay Hans Schneider, eds. Welttheater—Carl Orff und sein Bühnenwerk. Tutzing, 1996.

Keetman, Gunild. Elementaria: First Acquaintance with Orff-Schulwerk. Translated by Margaret Murray. London, 1974.

——. Reminiscences of the Güntherschule. American Orff-Schulwerk Association Supplement, no. 13 (spring 1978).

Keetman, Gunild, Hermann Regner, and Minna Ronnefeld, eds. A Life Given to Music and Movement. Edited by Hermann Regner and Minna Ronnefeld. Mainz, 2004. In German and English.

Landis, Beth, and Polly Carder. The Eclectic Curriculum in American Music Education: Contributions of Dalcroze, Kodaly, and Orff. Washington, D.C., 1972.

Liess, Andreas. Carl Orff: Idee und Werk. Edited by Hannelore Gassner. Zurich, 1977.

Orff, Carl. The Schulwerk. Translated by M. Murray. New York, 1978.

Orff, Carl, et al. Carl Orff und sein Werk: Dokumentation. 8 vols. Tutzing, Germany, 1975–1983.

The Orff Echo. Cleveland Heights, Ohio. The official bulletin of the American Orff Schulwerk Association. "Orff Zentrum" is available at http://www.orff-zentrum.de/forschung_biblio.asp. Contains more than 1,170 bibliographic entries.

Thomas, Werner. Carl Orff, De temporum fine comoedia: Das spiel vom Ende d. Zeiten, Vigilia; Eine Interpretation. Tutzing, Germany, 1973.

——. Das Rad der Fortuna: Ausgewählte Aufsätze zu Werk und Wirkung Carl Orffs. Mainz, Germany, 1990.———.Orffs Märchenstücke: Der Mond, Die Kluge. Mainz, Germany, 1994.

Walter, A. "Carl Orff's Music for Children." The Instrumentalist 13 S (January 1959), 38–39.

Wheeler, Lawrence, and Luis Raebeck. Orff and Kodaly Adapted for the Elementary School. Dubuque, Iowa, 1977.

Wolfgart, Hans. Orff-Schulwerk und Therapie: Therapeut. Komponenten in d. elementaren Musiku. Bewegungserziehung. Berlin, 1975.

Wuytack, Jos. Musica Viva: An Introduction to Active Musical Education. Paris, 1972.

Larry Peterson