Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: When You Dance with the Devil

We mark the birth on July 10, 1895 – 128 years ago today – of the German composer and educator Carl Heinrich Maria Orff.  Born in Munich, he died in that city on March 29, 1982, at the age of 86.

Carl Heinrich Maria Orff (1895-1982) circa 1955
Carl Heinrich Maria Orff (1895-1982) circa 1955 Bild: Brille, ernst

The Good News

Orff lived a long and productive life.  He was a composer of considerable talent whose works draw on influences as diverse as ancient Greek tragedy and medieval chant, Baroque theater, and Bavarian peasant life.  His so-called “scenic cantata”, Carmina Burana (of 1936), remains an audience favorite today.  Along with the German educator Gunild Keetman, Orff developed a musical education method in the 1920s called the Orff Schulwerk, or the “Orff Approach,” a methodology that integrates music, movement, speech, and drama in a manner based on what children do instinctively, and that is play.  Today, the Orff Approach is employed around the world and is one of the four major developmental music educational methodologies. The other three are the Kodály Method (created by the Hungarian composer and educator Zoltán Kodály, 1882-1967); the Suzuki Method (created by the Japanese violinist and educator Shinichi Suzuki, 1898-1998), and Dalcroze Eurhythmics (created by the Swiss composer and educator Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, 1865-1950).  

Orff’s success as a composer and educator garnered him great honors in his native Germany.  From 1950 to 1960 he was the Chair of Music Composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Munich, one of the most prestigious conservatories in the world.  In 1956 he was given membership in the order Pour le Mérite, an honor awarded by the German government in recognition of extraordinary personal achievement.  (During World War One, the military version of the Pour le Mérite was referred to as the Blauer Max, the “Blue Max.”)  In 1959, Orff received an honorary doctorate from the University of Tübingen; in 1972 he received another from the University of Munich.  That same year he was awarded the Grosses Verdienstkreuz der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (“Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany”), and in 1974 he received the Guardini Prize from the Catholic Academy of Bavaria.

It all sounds lovely: a composer and educator honored in his lifetime and esteemed after his death.

Except.  Except for …

The Bad News

Orff in 1940
Orff in 1940

From 1933 to 1945, Orff lived, worked, and – for all of his postwar statements to the contrary – thrived in Nazi Germany.  For reasons we will observe, the exact nature Orff’s life in Hitler’s Third Reich remains a mystery and will almost certainly never be known for sure.  One thing we do know, however, is that by remaining in Germany after Hitler came to power in 1933, Carl Orff’s life and career became a Cautionary Tale for any artist who would dance with the devil.

There are three schools of thought regarding Orff’s relationship with the Nazis.  The first claims that he was, at best, tolerated.  The second maintains that Orff not only collaborated but was, himself, a tried-and-true National Socialist who composed music in the service of Nazi ideology.  The third school of thought is complicated, and lies somewhere between the first and second. 

I let you guess which school we are about to attend. Yes: the middle ground, somewhere between collaboration and not.…

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