Childhood & Early Life
Carl Orff was born on 10 July 1895 in Munich, Germany, into a Bavarian family with long tradition of services in the military. Originally Jewish by faith, they became Roman Catholic, when his parental grandfather, Carl von Orff, converted to Christianity.
Carl’s father, Heinrich Maria Orff, was a dedicated officer in the Imperial German Army. He was a good pianist and played a variety of string instruments. His mother, Paula Koestler Orff, was also a trained pianist. Apart from Carl, the couple had one daughter Maria, three years his junior.
He remembered his mother as the life and soul of music-making in the house. She was also the first person to recognize his talent. Later he had said, “My mother possessed quintessentially artistic nature and was a fundamentally intelligent woman.”
Young Carl grew up in a musical environment. Apart from the music-making at home, he experienced it in other ways too. For example, there was a house opposite to their home, where the regimental band held their rehearsals and the sound flowing in pursued him even in his dreams.
Around 1900, as he turned five, his mother started giving him piano lessons. Two years later, he was introduced to the cello and then from 1903, he started visiting concerts and theatres. He also enjoyed holding puppet shows at home. Writing stories and collecting insects were also his favorite pastimes.
In 1905, Carl began his formal education at the Ludwigs gymnasium. Thereafter in 1907, he was shifted to Wittelsbach Gymnasium, where he was immediately selected to the church choir. His soprano voice soon gained him solos. This was also the year he started playing the organ.
However, he showed little interest in academics. Ancient Greek was the only subject which he found interesting. Instead, he devoted his entire energy to music, publishing his first composition in 1911.
Most of his works of this period show a strong influence of Richard Strauss. His first major work, ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), was based on a passage from a philosophical novel written by Friederich Nietzsche.
In 1912, he left school to join the Akademie der Tonkunst (Academy of Music) in Munich, graduating from there in 1914. Although he received individualistic training at the academy he found the teachings to be over-conservative.
Eventually he began to study Schoenberg’s harmonic theory as well as the works of the French impressionist composer, Claude Debussy. In 1913, inspired by the latter’s tonal language, he wrote ‘Gisei, das Opfer’ (Gisei, the Sacrifice), a musical drama based on his own text.
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Life After Akademie der Tonkunst
In 1915, soon after receiving his degree from Academy of Music, Carl Orff began to take piano lessons with Hermann Zilcher. In the same year, at Zilcher’s recommendation, he was employed as the assistant Kapellmeister at the famed Muenchener Kammerspiele.
Although he enjoyed working at the opera, he soon left his job. At this point, all he wanted to do was to study more. Many of his initial works of this period highlighted the on-going experimental musical trends.
Later, he changed his direction but before he could make much progress, he was drafted into the army. Thus he joined the World War I in 1917. But while fighting in the eastern front, he was trapped in a shelter and was seriously injured. He spent the rest of the war years recuperating.
In 1918, after being released from his war duties, Orff began to work freelance. He held the position of assistant Kapellmeister first at the Nationaltheater (National Theatre) in Mannheim and then at the Landestheater (State Theater) in Darmstadt.
In 1919, he returned to Munich to teach music. Concurrently, he began to study with German composer Heinrich Kaminski. Slowly he started developing an interest in Renaissance-era music and began to study the works of old masters.
Until now, his compositions were perceptibly influenced by the style of Richard Strauss. From now on, he began to develop a style of his own, a process that continued for over a decade.
In 1921, his interest was drawn to the works of Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi, a seventeenth century Italian composer. Several of the master’s arrangements had profound impact on his musical language. Later in 1925, he produced ‘Orpheus’, an adaption of Monteverdi's 1607 opera ‘L'Orfeo.’
Another person to draw his attention in the 1920s was Russian-French musician Igor Stravinsky. It was his works like ‘Les noces’ a pounding evocation of prehistoric wedding rites that appealed the most to Orff.
Gunther School & Elementare Musik
In 1924, Carl Orff entered a new phase in life. Along with Dorothee Günther, Orff founded the Günther School for gymnastics, music, and dance in Munich and remained its head until it was closed down in 1944.
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Concurrently, he continued with his work on old masters and produced a number of operas based on 17th century classics such as ‘Klage der Ariadne’ (Ariadne's Lament), ‘Tanz der Sproeden’ (Dance of the Merciless Beauties), etc. However, none of them were financially successful.
Working with children at the Günther School, he developed new theories on music education. Later known as 'elementare musik’, it included all aspects of the art; dance, music, language, theatrical gestures, etc.
In 1930, he published a manual titled ‘Schulwerk’ and in it he shared his methods. He also provided a curriculum of songs and activities for the teachers, most of which were based on German folk songs and poetry. To go with the programs, he also developed easy to learn percussion instruments.
Under the Nazi Rule
Also in 1930, Carl Orff was named conductor as well as the director of Munich's Bach Society. But when in 1934 the society came under the control of the Kampfbund, a government agency set up to weed out Jewish or modernist tendencies from arts, he resigned from his post.
In the same year, he came across the 1847 edition of the ‘Carmina Burana’ by Johann Andreas Schmeller and decided to rework it. First staged on 8 June 1937 by the Frankfurt am Main’s Opera in Frankfurt, the work was hugely popular with the Nazis and earned him financial bounty.
At that time, German musicians living in the country were expected to celebrate German traits in their works. ‘Carmina Burana’ met the directives, but because of its unfamiliar rhythms, it also faced racist taunts. Therefore, with financial success, it also earned him criticism.
Around this time he accepted the government’s offer to write new incidental music for ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream.’ With that he became closer to the Nazi regime. Many of his friends now took him to be a Nazi collaborator. However, later he claimed that he was always anti-Nazi but few took him seriously.
Later when the de-Nazification process began, his file was initially marked ‘Gray Unacceptable’ but eventually the American authorities shifted it to ‘Gray Acceptable.’ In other words, although he was allowed to receive royalties from his work, he was never above the suspicion.
After World War II
In 1943, Carl Orff’s friend Kurt Huber was arrested and condemned to death for organizing anti-Nazi resistance. Maybe because of Orff’s Jewish connections, he did not dare to intervene. Later in 1946, he wrote a letter to Huber, then deceased, imploring him for forgiveness. In 1947, it was published in a memorial collection for Huber.
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Meanwhile he continued his work on old topics or texts. Some of his major works of post WWII era were ‘Antigonae’ (1949), ‘Oedipus der Tyrann’ (Oedipus the Tyrant, 1958),’ Prometheus’ (1968), and ‘De temporum fine comoedia’ (Play on the End of Times, 1971).
Concurrently, he also continued working with the children. In 1948, he was requested by Annemarie Schambeck, the head of department for school broadcasts, to write music that could be played by the children themselves.
The first Schulwerk program was broadcast on 15 September 1948. It was sort of a pioneering work. The initial reaction was highly positive and it grew with subsequent broadcasts. Later the model began to be followed in other countries as well.
From 1950 to 1960, Carl Orff began to hold master classes for composition at the Munich Music College. Many of his pupils of that time later became well-known composers.
Also in 1949, he was appointed an instructor at the School for Music at the Mozarteum Academy for Music and Dramatic Art in Salzburg, Austria. Later he became its director, a post he held until his death in 1982.
Carl Orff is best remembered for his 1937 work ‘Carmina Burana’, a secular oratorio based on 24 poems from the medieval collection ‘Carmina Burana.’ First staged in Frankfurt, its popularity increased with each performance and by the 1960s it became an integral part of the international classic repertoire.
He is also remembered for his ‘Schulwerk’ (School Work). Originally composed and published for the small batch of students at the Güntherschule (Günther School), it was later followed by music teachers all over the world. Incidentally, the title was also used for his works based on the 1949 radio broadcasts.
Awards & Achievements
Carl Orff received several awards in the post WWII period; some of the more significant prizes being Munich Music Prize, 1947; New York Music Critics’ Prize, 1954; Bremen Music Prize, 1956 and Mozart Prize, 1969.
He had also been honored with Order pour le Merite for Science and Art in 1956, Cross of Merit in 1959 and Great Cross of Merit in 1972 by the Federal Republic of Germany.
In addition, he had received honorary doctorates from the University of Tuebingen in 1955 and University of Munich in 1972.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1920, Carl Orff married Alice Solscher. The couple had one daughter, Godela, born in 1921. The marriage did not last long and they obtained their divorce in 1925.
However, he kept in contact with their daughter, who later grew up to be an actress. He was known to have composed several pieces for her. Contrarily, his daughter had described their relationship as difficult. In an interview she had said, “He had his life and that was that."
After the breakup of his first marriage Orff married thrice more, none of which produced any offspring. Gertrud Willert, whom he married in 1939, was his second wife. The marriage ended in a divorce in 1953.
In 1954 he married Luise Rinser and divorced her five years later in 1959. Finally in 1960, he married Liselotte Schmitz and remained together until he died on 29 March 1982 from cancer. He was buried in the Baroque church of the Benedictine priory of Andechs, south of Munich.