Orff’s music, his musikē – I deliberately utilise the Greek expression – offers less for the ear than traditional opera music. In exchange, it involves all the senses; it is not just sound, but also dance; not just tone but also playing; not only singing but also scenes and theatre – it is music in the sense of an artistic muse uniting and fusing all the arts , as originally conceived by the Ancient Greeks. (Hans Maier)
Carl Orff was born on 10 July 1895 in Munich. He received his first piano tuition at the early age of five, and subsequently also cello and organ lessons. Evidence shows that he regularly attended the theatre and opera from 1903 onwards. In 1911, his first work was published: the lied “Eiland, ein Sang vom Chiemsee”, although Orff up to this point had not yet begun systematic courses in music theory. From 1912 to 1914, he studied composition with Anton Beer-Walbrunn at the Munich Akademie der Tonkunst and from 1915 piano with Hermann Zilcher. In 1915, Orff was able to gather initial practical experience in the theatre, worked as repetiteur and one year later was appointed as kapellmeister of the Munich Chamber Theatre. Following a brief period of military service, he was appointed as kapellmeister assisting Wilhelm Furtwängler at the National Theatre in Mannheim and the Landestheater Darmstadt. He received further training in composition from Heinrich Kaminski and undertook an extensive study of Bach, Buxtehude, Pachelbel and particularly Monteverdi. A co-founder of the “Günther School” for gymnastics, music and dance in Munich (1924), Orff became the director of the department for dance and musical education. This was for Orff an ideal experimental educational field for the development of the “Orff Schulwerk” (1930-1934/1950-1954) which was distributed with great success worldwide and continues today to be utilised within the areas of social and therapeutic education. In 1936, Orff received the commission to compose a part of the processional music for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. From 1950 to 1960, he held master classes for composition at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Munich. From 1955, he was resident in Dießen on Lake Ammer and died on 29 March 1982 in Munich.
Right from the beginning, Orff concentrated exclusively on textually related music. His aim was to combine theatre, music, dance and acting to form a single unified whole in which the rhythmical organisation of language frequently provided the compositional framework. Orff composed his first choral work (“Also sprach Zarathustra”, based on Nietzsche) and an early opera strongly influenced by Debussy entitled Gisei, das Opfer, which was completed in 1913. Orff found his way to his own individual style through the study of the counterpoint of the old masters. His fascination for mediaeval and classical texts was reflected in works such as his cycle Trionfi (Carmina Burana, 1936, Catulli Carmina, 1943 and Trionfo di Afrodite, 1951), Hölderlin’s adaptations of Greek dramas Antigonae (1949) and Oedipus der Tyrann (1959) and Aischylos’ Prometheus (1967). The works in the style of fairy tales such as Der Mond (1938/71) and Die Kluge (1942) belong to a further group of works. Orff was fascinated by the vocal richness of dialects and also wrote works utilising Old Bavarian: Die Bernauerin (1946). His final stage composition, the mystery play De temporum fine comoedia, was premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 1973.
Carmina Burana is Orff’s most famous composition. The staged cantata consisting of a collection of songs was based on texts from a mediaeval manuscript housed in the monastery Benediktbeuern. Orff created incredibly dynamic music combining archaic harmony and pulsating dance-like rhythms. The powerful chorus “Fortuna” which frames the vernal, drinking and love songs has made Carmina Burana one of the most frequently performed works of the 20th century.Carl Orff received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Tübingen (1959) and Munich (1972) and also the Great Order of Merit with Star and shoulder ribbon of the Federal Republic pf Germany (1972). In 1947, he was awarded the Music Prize of the City of Munich and in 1974 the Romano Guardini Prize by the Catholic Academy of Bavaria. Carl Orff was made honorary citizen of the City of Munich and became a member of the Order pour le Mérite for science and the arts. The Carl Orff Museum in Dießen on Lake Ammer, commemorates the life and work of the composer; numerous educational establishments, schools and institutions have been named after him.