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!