Stop Making That Orfful Noise


An article (reg. req.) in the Globe and Mail takes on a question that has been at the front of nobody's mind lately: Is it appropriate to get down with the driving sounds of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana? The most popular piece of classical music of the twentieth century was composed in Germany in 1937, at the height of the Nazi cultural program, and in recent years anti-Orffians have been arguing that that shrill chorus, those pre-metal power chords, and that galumphing rhythm are all…well, you get the idea:

Orff became an important symbol for the Nazis, as living proof that the Reich was not entirely opposed to modern music—or conversely, that modern music was not entirely "decadent." He was given a monthly salary by the music-loving Nazi governor of Vienna, offered projects by Goebbels's film bureau, and received a full exemption from military service—one of only 12 given to composers during the Third Reich…

Orff's supporters are inclined to say that the composer's only "mistake"…was to feel the artistic necessity of a kind of music that just happened to appeal to violent ideologues such as Goebbels. They point out that the Nazis also approved of Bach and Beethoven, both of whom wrote "pure" music that needs and accepts no external political program. Surely Orff should be heard likewise, as pure music.

Orff, however, didn't see it that way. He saw modernity as a played-out remnant of a red-blooded past, whose vitality could be retrieved only by creating music (or theatre or painting) that was filled with potent lessons about how life should be lived. "In everything I do, I am concerned with spiritual, not musical, debates," he said. His thoughts on the spiritual significance of accepting favours and awards from a regime that killed or exiled many of his colleagues were not recorded.

Recent critical discussion has tried to determine whether, in effect, the Nazis were right. Was Carmina Burana "the original Springtime for Hitler," as musicologist Richard Taruskin has suggested, and is it somehow dispensing a toxic mist of Nazi mythology over all who hear it?

The question is complicated by the way some critics become overwhelmed by their conviction that Orff was a populist second-rater who owed his success to his ability to rip off Stravinsky. Stung by the music's irritating popularity, they grasp for any reason to prove it guilty of something.

"Orff's rhythms are uniformly foursquare, his melodies catchy, his moods ingratiating," groused Taruskin in a New York Times article, not seeming to notice that these are also attributes of Vivaldi's Four Seasons and of most pop music. "[The music] reverberates in the head the way propaganda is supposed to."

Therefore, Taruskin concludes, Orff was a propagandist, not just for the Nazis, but for anybody, advertisers included, with an evil message to pound into your head. "His music can channel any diabolical message that text or context may suggest, and no music does it better. . . . It is just because we like it that we ought to resist it."

I don't want to defend Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, which I would like to hear never; and it's better that Orff bear the Nazi stigma than Wagner, who whatever his failings as a human being, was dead before Hitler was born. But there's something misguided about efforts to read unsavory signage into art that has an unsavory history. "Method" acting and the neo-realist school of drama and cinema it belonged to had solid Soviet Socialist credentials, but the only lesson most of us learned from Marlon Brando was that it's forbidden to interfere with human history.

If critics wanted to ask a more fruitful question, they'd consider why "fascist" aesthetic ideas (an ill-defined concept, even by the fascists themselves, but basically a collision of wooly-headed romanticism and fake neo-classical propriety) continue to be appealing to people. Let's face it: No Hitler, no Star Wars. Even the idea that you can sniff the politics in this work is bogus. If Orff had never written these songs, and some movie composer came up with them as a score for Titus or The Lord of the Rings, nobody would think anything of it.

The discussion of politics ignores a more obvious reason for the work's appeal. The G&M claims Orff's hit has been used in the soundtracks for "more than a dozen films," but the usage everybody knows and identifies the work with is in Excalibur. But when people refer to Carmina Burana, they're really only talking about one song, the "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi" that everybody's heard—and everybody's heard it because you can tap your foot to it. What left classical music high and dry in the twentieth century was the rediscovery of rhythm, and it's no coincidence that of the handful of classical works that caught on with the public in that time, most of them—The Rite of Spring, Bolero, the "Mars" section from Holst's Planets, etc.—are all works that use the orchestra as a percussion instrument. This disconnect has been heightened in the last few years, as classical radio stations try to stay alive by providing the "sonic atmosphere" that Muzak used to provide, which is pretty much anathema to driving rhythms. What the Nazis couldn't defeat, the free market has laid low!

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  1. I don’t want to defend Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, which I would like to hear never;


    Why not? Have you heard it in its entirety? It has some really beautiful movements in it.

    Even the idea that you can sniff the politics in this work is bogus.

    Right on, Tim. That piece is based on a collection of old Latin poems about nature and love and paganistic humanism and the role of Fortune/Fate in mundane human goings-on. There’s nothing to read into. There aren’t even any recorded statements from Orff concerning his interactions with the Nazis.

    Anecdotally, a year or so ago, I used to consider the Carmina Burana as “our song” with my then-boyfriend. We saw it performed together in two different renditions (one by Orff, another composed by someone else I can’t remember now). The poems/original Latin texts of the songs are really interesting to follow along with.

  2. FYI, my then-boyfriend and I were both Latinists at one point or another, not Nazi sympathizers, for the record. That is why we saw it twice.

  3. All the answers to this deep philosophical conundrum can be found in the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode Trick or Treat.

  4. Is “Carmina Burana” really the 20th century’s most popular work of fine art (“classical”) music? I would have thought that would be “Adagio for Strings,” by Samuel Barber. “Carmina Burana” is certainly not the favorite piece of 20th century music by people who like fine art music – at least, based on my talk with such people. I suppose it may be the favorite of people who don’t normally listen to that sort of music. I own probably about a thousand or more recordings, more than half in CD format. A good two thirds of it is from the last century’s productio. Orff shows up only once in my collection, and that NOT the “Carmina Burana,” though I don’t dislike the piece. (It’s really pretty good.) But there’s so much better stuff. Some of it has a driving rhythm (Bartok’s 2nd piano concerto, Stravinsky’s Rite, any Hovhaness or Harrison “stampede”) and many others feature lilting melodies or meditative moods (Vaughan Williams’s “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” Stravinksy’s Apollo, Part’s Fratres). There’s a great deal of diversity in 20th century art music. I’m not sure what you mean by it being left “high and dry” by rhythm. Rhythm was one of the chief rediscoveries of the 20th century. Not just driving rhythms, but complex rhthyms, polyrhythms, measured rhythms, 5/4, 7/8, 11/8, etc etc. Surely the addition of dissonance and the frequent lack of care for well-developed melodies are the two big reasons why the fine art tradition became less dominant in the culture than in the previous century. That, and the competition by the pandering to simplicity in popular, capitalist culture. It turns out that when it comes to rhythm, most people are quite happy with Boom, CHICK, Boom, Chickachicka in 4/4. Incessantly. Forever. No reprieve. Can’t say that about the Carmina, or about fine art music in the last hundred year, thankfully.


  6. Waah, I always suffer a mild, bumpkinish blow to the self-esteem when I happen to really like a piece, and men of letters like Tim C. express how very far they’ve outgrown it.

    The worst that can be said of Carl Orff is that he was a pragmatist; show me somebody who didn’t want to eat well, be secure in his home and income, and escape concentration camps during that period. Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier were pragmatists, too; they literally tap-danced for the Nazis, even as their country was sacked by the little f*ckers. Is Orff different because he’s German?

    After watching “Miss Minidoka 1943” and other dramatizations of Japanese-American internment camp life in my youth, I passionately resolved that I’d always be the neighbor who helped out the oppressed and fought similar injustices. Well, things change, and like most Americans, I turn a deaf ear to most of them: Rwanda, Sudan, Srebenica, etc., and “turn over to the TV page,” as Crowded House put it. In other words, I can hardly condemn Carl Orff for being as self-preserving and insular as I am.

    My “Carmina Burana” CD liner notes actually say Orff “fled” the Nazi regime. Also, FWIW, my father and I are both ethnic Jews, and enjoy going to New Years’ Eve performances of “Carmina.”

    As for that Stravinsky dig, that’s just bullshit. “In Trutina” ranks with the best of Puccini and Verdi arias. Orff is 10x the melodist that Stravinsky was. My $0.02.

    Let’s face it: art is created by imperfect beings. Some of it happens to be damn good, even if you later find the artist’s personal philosophies or lifestyle choices repugnant (T.S. Eliot, for example; although for being an alleged raging anti-Semite, he does give his Jewish fixer in “Gatsby” a speech of enduring wisdom). Jack Nicholson is a philandering assh*le, but I’ll still go to his movies. The Nazis probably used Orff’s music as a symbol regardless of his approval, in much the way today’s backwater White Power trailer denizens in Idaho use Hitler and the Third Reich as wall decor, when they themselves wouldn’t make the cut for the Master Race, what with their poor grooming, beer guts, dubious ancestry, etc. The worshippers, and not the idol, deserve the scrutiny.


    We’ve had links about Dr. Seuss, “Carmina Burana,” and shagging. How much fun can you stand?

  8. I have to join smacky in asking whether Tim has ever heard the entire work. Most of “Carmina Burana” is nowhere near as bombastic as “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi”. As for Virkkala’s observation about Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”, while the “Adagio” may be better loved, I doubt it is anywhere near as well-recognized.

  9. I believe it is all but mandatory that the “O Fortuna” piece be heard on the movie trailer for any film involving swords.

  10. I second that motion, Stevo Darkly. I think of Conan the Barbarian when I hear O Fortuna. When I first read the liner notes containing a translation, I thought, “orgy? These songs are about an orgy? Hmmmph.”

  11. I have heard it in its entirety. Just not a fan, I guess. But hey, that’s why there’s 31 flavors!

    I like it a lot better than the Barber Adagio though, and as for there being any distance between the two works in terms of snob appeal or insidery refinement, I don’t really know that there’s a hell of a lot of difference: One is the soundtrack for Excalibur, the other is the soundtrack for Platoon.

    Stevo, as always, has both hit the nail on the balls and grabbed the bull by the head.

  12. I take my Titus references wherever I can find them.

    I think “I’ll find a day to massacre them all” should be the textbook example for iambic pentameter.

  13. Seeing the term “sonic atmosphere” reminded me of Erik Satie’s “Furniture Music”.

    In the midst of an art opening at a Paris gallery in 1902, Ambient music was born. Erik Satie and his cronies, after begging everyone in the gallery to ignore them, broke out into what they called Furniture Music–that is, background music–music as wallpaper, music to be purposely not listened to. The patrons of the gallery, thrilled to see musicians performing in their midst, ceased talking and politely watched, despite Satie’s frantic efforts to get them to pay no attention.

    Satie was quite an interesting fellow, and I would put some of his music in the running for the 20th Century’s most recognizable.

    Gymnope’dies 1 for instance.

  14. Anyway, lots of “Carmina Burana” (not “O Fortuna”, of course) sounds like Aaron Copland to me, or visa-versa. It was composed the same time as “Billy the Kid” – 1936 – 1937.

  15. One more thing…

    Chances are, the music teacher trying to teach your kids to carry a tune (sans bucket) is using the Orff-method to do it.

  16. Carmina Burana appeals to audiences because it’s basically a pop song, catchy tunes that repeat several times. I’m a symphony musician, and I can say that most musicians I know aren’t snobby about it, they tend to think it’s enjoyable, fun music, but boring to play.

    As an amusing aside, I heard that at Baylor, when they performed Carmina Burana, but didn’t print an english translation in the program because it was considered too obscene for a Baptist school.

    That last paragraph just doesn’t make sense.

  17. O King Who Has Passed On:

    Mebbe they thought it would lead to dancing?

    I always thought an Orfful Noise would have been written by Sammy Timberg. Arf! Arf! Arf!


  18. Fucking eh Tim. You have GOT to start limiting your posts to five hundred words or less. Two fifty would is more than enough for a throw away topic like this one.

  19. I’m not a Christian, but I still enjoy certain hymns and Gregorian chants, and LOVE the architecture of Gothic cathedrals and their gorgeous stained-glass windows. Can’t art be enjoyed for its own sake?

  20. I also oppose the idea of using wars to force religion onto people, but “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a really fine drinking song. Try it out sometime.

  21. yeah. ever try pissing off a roof to flight of the valkyries?

    it’s very apropos.

  22. “What the Nazis couldn’t defeat, the free market has laid low!”

    Oh pleez! The death of harmony/symphony is greatly exagerated. It may be that the Alaska Philharmonic can’t sell its stuff but I bet there’s a robust market for Karajan’s recordings and so on. I’ll also predict the free market will work it magic & the great harmony rich compositions of yore will still be listened to when the Ramones and suchlike 3 chord cacophony is long forgotten. The duration of the free market is not just from 1990 to 2005

  23. For instance, there’s a growing market for classical music in Asia.
    Where gaius marius when you need spmeone to defend worthwhile traditions ?

  24. OK, now I really will go for snob appeal: Karajan does to everything he conducts what his fellow Party members did to Poland. Even Hitler thought he lacked finesse, and he was Karajan’s biggest fan. If that guy’s the measure of the classical music market, I’ll take vanilla.

  25. I believe it is all but mandatory that the “O Fortuna” piece be heard on the movie trailer for any film involving swords.

    Similarly, any movie trailer featuring a large explosion, and a narrow escape from same, will feature either “Mars, Bringer of War,” or its film-music analogue, the climactic music from Jerry Goldsmith’s “Aliens” score.

    Amazingly, even the new trailer for The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (which will prove to be, I fear, not even as good as a 25-year-old BBC production on two zillion times the budget) features the latter.

  26. T.S. Eliot and Gatsby? ya sure ’bout that?

    (T.S. Eliot is almost “toilets” spelled backward. If only he’d been named Stearns Thomas.)

  27. Hello, I am looking for future, present or past law school students to help create a blog to provide resources for law students. If anyone out there that would like to help, send me some mail or check out the beta:

  28. I think there’s no better performance of the Carmina Burana than the one directed by Seiji Ozawa. It’s by turns obnoxious and sweet, brash and demure, a loud drunken feast in a Roman mansion and a quiet breath of thought in a Roman temple. It sounds like all the performers met by chance, found out they all knew the same piece, and started to perform spontaneously and without any rehearsals. Weirdly, this works just fine.

    Nazi stuff, I didn’t know about, and neither did the medieval troubadours responsible for the lyrics to all the different songs.

  29. “OK, now I really will go for snob appeal:”

    Oh, you were aiming for snob appeal all along ! In that case, I agree 100 % with everything you said, even stuff I don’t understand. Let’s go powder my nose, Smithers …

  30. I’ve sung C.B. twice, (chorus only, though I did get to do the “Si puer cum puellula…” sextet once*), and I can assure you that, though orchestral musicians may find it dull to perform, singers sure don’t. And as a listener, that first bar of “Dulcissima” still raises hairs in places I had forgotten I had them!

    *Is it a sextet – it was forty years ago?

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