Carl Orff - Biographical sketch

Orff's music, his musikē - I use the Greek term on purpose - offers less for the ear than traditional opera music. But it involves all the senses; for it is not only sound, but also dance, not only sound, but also play, not only song, but also scene, theatre - it is music in the sense of an art of music that unites and unites all the arts, as the Greeks first conceived it.
(Hans Maier)

Carl Orff was born in Munich on 10 July 1895. He began piano lessons at the age of five and later studied the cello and organ. From 1903, there is evidence of regular visits to the theatre and opera. His first printed work, the song "Eiland, ein Sang vom Chiemsee", appeared in 1911, even before Orff had attended systematic courses in music theory. From 1912 to 1914, he studied composition with Anton Beer-Walbrunn at the Munich Academy of Music, and from 1914 onwards he studied piano with Hermann Zilcher. In 1915, Orff gained his first practical experience in the theatre, working as a répétiteur and becoming Kapellmeister at the Munich Kammerspiele a year later. After a short period of military service, he joined Wilhelm Furtwängler as Kapellmeister at the Mannheim National Theatre and the Landestheater Darmstadt in 1918. Orff took composition lessons again with Heinrich Kaminski and worked intensively with Bach, Buxtehude, Pachelbel and especially Monteverdi. As a co-founder of the "Günther School" for gymnastics, music and dance in Munich (1924), he took over the management of the department for dance music education. Here, Orff found an ideal field for pedagogical experimentation in order to develop the "Orff-Schulwerk" (1930-1934/1950-1954), which spread worldwide with great success and is still used today in social and curative education. In 1936, Orff was commissioned to compose part of the entrance music for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. From 1950 to 1960, he taught a masterclass in composition at the State Academy of Music in Munich. From 1955 he lived in Dießen am Ammersee; he died in Munich on 29 March 1982.

From the very beginning, Orff focussed exclusively on text-based music. His aim was to combine theatre, music, dance and drama into a unity, with the rhythmic organisation of language often forming the compositional framework. In 1912, Orff composed his first choral work ("Also sprach Zarathustra", after Nietzsche) and an early opera, Gisei, das Opfer, which was still strongly influenced by Debussy and was completed in 1913. By studying the counterpoint of old masters, Orff finally found his own style. His fascination with the writings of the Middle Ages and antiquity was reflected in works such as the cycle Trionfi (Carmina Burana, 1936, Catulli Carmina, 1943 and Trionfo di Afrodite, 1951), Hölderlin's adaptations of Greek dramas Antigonae (1949) and Oedipus the Tyrant (1959) as well as Aeschylus' Prometheus (1967). The fairytale-like works Der Mond (1938/71) and Die Kluge (1942) belong to a second group. Impressed by the vocal richness of the dialect, Orff also wrote works in the old Bavarian dialect: Die Bernauerin (1946). His last stage work, the mystery De temporum fine comoedia, was premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 1973.

The Carmina Burana is Carl Orff's best-known composition. The songs, composed as a scenic cantata, were based on texts from a medieval manuscript from the Benediktbeuern monastery. In a mixture of archaic harmonies and dance-like, pulsating rhythms, Orff created music of enormous dynamism. Not least the powerful "Fortuna" chorus that frames the spring, drinking and love songs has made Carmina Burana one of the most frequently performed works of 20th century music.

Carl Orff received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Tübingen (1959) and Munich (1972) as well as the Grand Cross of Merit with Star and Shoulder Ribbon of the Federal Republic of Germany (1972). In 1947 he was awarded the Music Prize of the City of Munich and in 1974 the Romano Guardini Prize of the Catholic Academy in Bavaria. Carl Orff was an honorary citizen of the city of Munich and a member of the Order pour le mérite for Sciences and Arts. The Carl Orff Museum in Dießen am Ammersee commemorates the life and work of the composer; several educational establishments, schools and institutions have been named after him.