The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Jan 06, 2011

For Popularity, Orff's Proto-Rock Opera Reigns

Posted by Gregory Stepanich

When it comes to sheer popularity in classical music, it’s hard to beat the Carmina Burana of Carl Orff.

Everyone knows the opening section of this work – O Fortunawith its relentless, thumping D minor melody that barely rises above the first part of a scale, and its steady increase in volume and power that suggests the steady approach of a monumental army. It’s not surprising that this music has been appropriated for any number of films and other video applications in which something ominous is about to happen.

This weekend, the Seraphic Fire concert choir gives two performances of Orff’s 1936 cantata in Fort Lauderdale (Friday) and at Miami’s Arsht Center (Saturday), with the two-piano and percussion accompaniment often heard in choral presentations of this piece. The whole work, which is based on a collection of Goliard poetry from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, never fails to make a strong impression whenever It’s heard in its entirety, with perhaps the Tempus et iocundum movement (with its Oh, oh, oh/Totus floreo) almost as memorable as the O Fortuna.

What’s really interesting about this piece is how stripped-down it is harmonically; this is a work that depends a lot on pedal points and simple, repeated chords underneath memorable melodies, presented aggressively. For me, it’s basically the world’s first rock opera, whether anyone ever looked at it that way or not, and for most people who borrow its most famous moments I’m sure it sounds as though it were written yesterday using Pro Tools.

It bears remembering that Orff has also been well-known in pedagogical circles for his music education approach, which as I remember from my own grade school days was focused on xylophones and other such “Orff instruments,” as they were called, and we sang and moved as a class. He believed that most people had some basic musicality, and that kids could benefit from learning to play and sing with others, and surely he was right about that.

One scholar (John Horton, writing in the 1980 Grove) points out that Orff’s simple melodic and harmonic language made it ideal for transfer to music education, and here, too, that sounds like rock and roll to me. I’m reminded in that context of a video of a New York elementary school class that sings popular commercial songs such as Coldplay’s "When I Ruled the World," even adding simple harmonies as they go along.

My point here is that Orff was onto something important here when it came to the communicative power of plain, repetitive music. He understood that there was something primal, something direct, about writing this kind of music, and every time I see Carmina Burana in concert, I always check out the audience to see how many heads, young and old, are bobbing along, and it’s plenty. You half-expect people to break out the lighters and hold them up in the air.

Despite its proto-rock quality, Carmina Burana is no cinch to sing. The solo parts in particular can be quite taxing, and presenters need strong vocalists to carry it off. But even a less able performance makes up for things in the strength of its near-unison choruses, and audiences always respond favorably.

Orff lived until 1982, well into the rock era. I don’t know whether he had anything to say about it, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t. He stayed in Germany during the Nazi years, which interrupted his music education plans but not Carmina Burana, which that regime appropriated after its popular premiere in Frankfurt in 1937. Orff had to undergo denazification after the war, and the extent of his collaboration with the Nazis is still being debated, though it appears that like Richard Strauss, he was more interested in being left alone to write music than he was in taking part in politics, odious or otherwise.

Whatever the truth ultimately turns out to be, it’s indisputable that he contributed one of the most popular pieces of classical music to be written in the past 100 years, and despite its very considerable difficulties, its overlap with the mighty folk stream that also feeds rock music must be part of the reason for its success with today’s audiences.

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