Cantata composed by Carl Orff
Performed by the Berlin Philharmonic
I came to Carmina Burana late, at least to know it by name. Attending a production of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, Orff’s music, O Fortuna in particular, punctuated the finale of insane slapstick. While the show was marvelous (tinged by the sadness of knowing that no more Orton’s plays would be forthcoming) I latched onto the music and tracked down a recording in the remainder bin at the Harvard Coop back when remainder bins contained something worth finding (everything was better when we were young).
The Orton connection turned out to be apropos as this most famous of modern classical compositions has that unique history involving questionable language. In case you are unwilling to dig into Wikipedia, let me brief you: the text for the piece comes from a cache of long-buried medieval papers containing the prurient Latin scribblings of youthful monks. Orff saw the text as illuminating the mystical via the sexual, at least if I have my shorthand anywhere near correct.
Ultimately, being just a little bit in the know about the history of Carmina Burana adds a certain humor to seeing an orchestra all dressed to their best with that charming conductor out front. You can feel the rock and roll descendants in the work of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.
Mind you, this is the same Carl Orff who laid the groundwork for an approach to scholastic music education that is popular around the world. Then, we add in his confused history with the Nazi regime, which is beyond me to decipher his full culpability. Let’s just clarify that he definitely remained in Germany under Hitler, composed, and came out of it allowed to carry on with his life as adjudged by the DeNazification panels set up by the Allies after the war.
Hitler adored Wagner, another German composer renown for powerful pieces that get the heart pumping. It is difficult to be in a room with an orchestra in full charge with Flight of the Valkyries or O Fortuna and not feel the mad rush of blood. They are not quite the Scots led into battle with bagpipes blaring, but they come mighty close. Orff has long ago been reinstated by the world’s symphonies and his work is played widely. He falls into a convenient place on the bill reserved for melodic and modern with the biggest drawback being the need to add a chorus to the standard orchestration.
Where to go with dead artists who did great work in trying times while making ethical choices that appear difficult to defend (or worse)? Nothing in Orff’s oeuvre exhibits truly offensive ideas. Recent discussions about the great American poet Wallace Stevens have mentioned that he appears to have been a racist curmudgeon for much of his life, while his artistic output reflects none of those prejudices. Do we disdain the art for the man’s failings? To paraphrase another great American poet, we all contain multitudes. Though, when do the failings progress beyond redemption?
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 269 more to go.
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