December 19, 2008
The creator of Carmina Burana hid an ugly secret about his betrayal of a
friend under the Third Reich
The opening line of Carmina Burana - "O Fortuna!" - could hardly be
more apt. Few composers felt themselves more at the mercy of
capricious gods and twists of fate than its composer, Carl Orff. He
was never a diehard Nazi; indeed, he looked with disdain on their
oafish cultural values. Far from espousing the hounding of "inferior
races", he was fascinated by jazz and by what today we would call
world music. Yet he rose to become one of the Third Reich's top
According to one of his four wives, he "found it impossible to love"
and "despised people". Yet in Carmina Burana he created the world's
jolliest musical celebration of boozing, feasting and generally
enjoying the sins of other people's flesh.
He turned his back on his own teenage daughter, who adored him. "He
didn't want me in his married life," she recalls sadly. Yet he was
(and, in some quarters, still is) adulated in educational circles
for his Schulwerksystem of teaching music to young children through
rhythm and gesture--a system he originally intended to flog to the
Hitler Youth movement. It is still used around the world,
particularly (and paradoxically) to help children with cerebral
palsy, who would probably not be alive if Hitler's Germany had
A connoisseur of Greek drama, and a perceptive scholar who edited
and performed Monteverdi long before the rest of the world
rediscovered the Baroque genius, he talked eloquently about the need
for people to express themselves through art if they were to become
"complete" human beings. Yet one of his wives says that he himself
was full of "demonic forces" and would "wake up screaming at night".
He used people shamelessly. Yet, as another wife puts it, "all his
life he wanted forgiveness" for the guilt that consumed him. He was
obsessed by the myth of Orpheus, the musician who descended into the
Underworld. "Just like Orff himself," his biographer notes.
All this, and an act of treachery hidden until now, is revealed in
an exceptional film by Tony Palmer, fittingly called O Fortuna,
that's just out on DVD and will be broadcast on Sky Arts 2 in late
January. The timing is perfect. Next month, a spectacular touring
production of Carmina Burana rolls up at the O venue in the former
Millennium Dome. For the past four decades this bawdy oratorio has
been performed somewhere in the world every day of every year. But
this show is likely to eclipse all previous stagings. Besides a
chorus and orchestra of 250, it has fireworks, giant puppets, cannon
effects, and, according to its producer, Franz Abraham, "erotic
scenes with naked girls imitating an orgy".
For once it can be truthfully said that the composer would have
loved it. And the show, which has already played to a million people
on its 13-year global journey, is expected to attract huge audiences
- upwards of 10,000 on each of its two nights.
I doubt whether many of those 20,000 punters, innocently enjoying
this tub-thumping, thigh-slapping medley of pulsating choral numbers
(based, incongruously, on a collection of poems by 13th-century
monks, discovered in a monastery in Orff's beloved Bavaria) will be
aware that the piece had its premiere, in 1937, at a Nazi Party
gathering. Nor that its creator had a dark secret that Palmer's film
highlights for the first time.
Orff had a friend called Kurt Huber, an academic who had helped him
with librettos. Huber was also a brave man. During the war he
founded the Munich unit of Die Weisse Rose (The White Rose), the
German resistance movement. In February 1943 he and other Resistance
members were arrested by the Gestapo, tortured and publicly hanged.
Orff happened to call at Huber's house the day after his arrest.
Huber's wife (whom Palmer tracked down for his film) begged Orff to
use his influence to help her husband. But Orff's only thought was
for his own position. If his friendship with Huber came out, he told
her, he would be "ruined". Huber's wife never saw Orff again.
Two years later, after Germany's surrender, Orff himself was
interrogated--by an American intelligence officer who had to
establish whether Orff could be "denazi-fied". That would allow Orff
(among other things) to collect the massive royalties from Carmina
Burana. The American asked Orff if he could think of a single thing
he had done to stand up to Hitler, or to distance himself from the
policies of the Third Reich? Orff had done nothing of that kind. So
he made up a brazen lie. Knowing that anyone who might contradict
him was likely to be dead, he told Jenkins that he had co-founded
Die Weisse Rose with his friend, Kurt Huber. He was believed--or at
least, not sufficiently disbelieved to have his denazification
And then, as Palmer's film reveals, Orff did the most astonishing
thing. He sat down and wrote a fictitious letter to his dead friend,
in effect apologising for his behaviour. He craved Huber's
forgiveness--even, it seems, from beyond the grave.
In my mind Orff's tangled career raises two fundamental questions.
The first is, how would we have behaved in his circumstances? Before
the Nazis endorsed Carmina Burana, he had been penniless. He was
seduced by the rank and riches he suddenly acquired--far too
seduced to bite the thuggish hands that fed him. And unlike many
other German geniuses, he loved Bavaria too much to think of
emigrating (even though, with a Jewish grandparent, he was taking a
colossal risk of being exposed by staying).
So he acquiesced. He even wrote new incidental music to
Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, so that the famous score by
the Jewish composer Mendelssohn could be banished. Then, at the end
of the war, he panicked and told a dreadful lie to get himself off
the hook. From the comfortable perspective of 60 years' distance,
it's easy to damn his cowardice and self-preserving mendacity. But
millions behave with equal spinelessness in offices round the world
every day, when the only danger is losing a coveted promotion or
having to shoulder responsibility for some cockup.
The second question is, should any of this affect our appreciation
of Carmina Burana, with its proto-minimalist rhythmic energy and its
alluring exhortation for us to eat, drink, fornicate and be merry,
because tomorrow we die?
After all, if we disqualified from our approval all art commissioned
by montrous regimes or nasty patrons, or created by appalling
people, there would be very few Old Masters in our galleries, and no
Wagner in our opera houses.
"The fact that the Nazis liked Orff's music is not in itelf proof
that Orff was a Nazi, or approved of their methods," Abraham says.
"He simply lived in that generation of Germans when, unfortunately,
everybody had a connection of some sort with the Nazis. Even the
so-called good guys. Look at Günter Grass. Two years ago he shocked
everyone by revealing that he was in the SS." At least one gets the
feeling that Orff, waking up screaming in the night, knew exactly
how badly he had behaved.
The final irony in his twisted and compromised life? When he died in
1982 this most unsaintly of men ended up, as he wished, buried in a
monastery--just like the scurrilous medieval poems that brought him
> All this, and an act of treachery hidden until now, is revealed in
> an exceptional film by Tony Palmer
ARGGGH! Isn't there ANYBODY other than Tony Palmer (and Ken Russell) who is
willing to make films about classical music composers? (OK, Milos Forman,
but who else?)
Matthew B. Tepper: WWW, science fiction, classical music, ducks!
My personal home page -- http://home.earthlink.net/~oy/index.html
My main music page --- http://home.earthlink.net/~oy/berlioz.html
To write to me, do for my address what Androcles did for the lion
Opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of my employers
Yawn! All that has long been known. It is not entirely clear though if
he really lied about his involvement with the "Weisse Rose" as there
is apparently no mention of that in his de-nazification file. At least
that's what I read somewhere, but it may not be true. Maybe someone
has more solid information about that. He certainly never was an
active member of the "Weisse Rose". If he had been, he would not have
survived. And whatever "influence" he may have had or not (more
likely, next to none) would not have helped Huber at all. He couldn't
have done anything for him except for getting himself killed, too. I
am not surprised that that tortured him. That must be a horrible
situation to be in even if you are only on the periphery. Since he was
a known acquaintance of Huber, he was definitely on the Gestapo's
radar. I think we should all be glad that we ourselves will (most
likely) never get into such a situation.
On the other hand, you yourself may be on the smiley radar of one or
more groups headquartered in the Idaho panhandle, because of your
persecution of this ng's begging-for-persecution Jew. If you can produce
a certificate affirming type A blood, your acceptance is likely.
I am not accusing you of anything, Michael, just pointing out that the
'walks like one, talks like one' principle attracts attention.
Of course you are accusing me of something, asshole, and not just in a
subtle way. My contempt for that idiot has nothing to do with
"racism". Pretty much everyone here thinks he is an idiot who doesn't
know the first thing about audio and music but thinks his
"remasterings" of historical recordings are the greatest thing that
has happened since the dawn of recorded music (which he, finally,
"liberates from the audio").
I think you and your pal Harper are idiots, too, and that has nothing
to do with your "race" or "religion". Actually, the latter a little
bit."Ansermetniac" isn't even a religious hypocrite. As far as I can
tell, he doesn't see himself as a religious person. He is just stuck
in the racial corner based on what he perceives as racial separation
between him and non-"semitic" people. But since I don't see the
concept of "race" as relevant, that has no meaning for me.
But it does seem to have for you, which is very telling. Where do I
"walk like one, talk like one" when I just point out he is an idiot
who doesn't know the first thing about audio engineering? Many other
people here do. Is that an anti-semitic conspiracy or could it just be
that he really doesn't understand audio?
OTOH, when it comes to "walking like one, talking like one", you and
your friend Harper do remind me a lot of many old Nazis I knew in
Germany. You have the same self-centered and xenophobic outlook they
did. And you did actually grow up in a time and place where racism was
still legal - and you yourself didn't do anything about it.
But what does all that have to do with the subject and the Gestapo?
Pretty much nothing, except that you abuse that subject to try to take
yet another cheap shot at me.
But then you don't even begin to understand what a serious subject
that is. After all, your family wasn't affected by that. Mine was, and
several members of it did not survive the encounter with the Gestapo.
Those who did and who are still alive still suffer immensely from
that, more than 6 decades later. And then a little piece of crap like
you comes along and makes these stupid remarks.
Wow, Bob, who woulda thunk Michael would Godwinize this thread so early
on. And I have to say that my power over him seems to be increasing; I
hadn't said anything and he still couldn't resist foaming at the mouth
in my general direction.
Your power is great. I am honored to be associated with you, even if
it's only in Michael's imagination. It's that tortured imagination that
created 'the club' of course.
Merry Christmas to you, Bob, and to Michael as well, though the red fog
may not lift from his mind long enough for him to appreciate the sentiment.
You apparently don't know what Godwin's Law actually is. The OT is
already about a subject related to Nazi Germany. However, I am not the
one who called another member names. Your buddy Lombard did. Are you
really that stupid that you can't see that?
And a very merry Dies Natalis Solis Invicti to you, pagans.
Show me where that occurred, Michael?
You know exactly where that "occurred", you sanctimonious asshole. You
can call people names without mentioning the actual "name". Which you
do all the time because you know from former discussions that I come
from a family which was very badly affected by the NS regime, and it
pleases your little perverted character to trample around on that.
What a nasty piece of human crap you are.
And Merry Christmas to you and to all. And all the best for 2009.
I am sorry members of his family suffered at the hands of the Gestapo,
but it does seem that blaming us is stretching the point a bit. And
obsessing about it now is surely unhealthy.
There's that red fog, again, afflicting your rational faculties. You win
though, Michael; I give up on you. I will killfile you, and ignore your
posts whenever they slide by the filter. 2009 has a better chance of
being a good year if you don't enter my thoughts.
> Michael, this thread was reminded me why a couple of Bobs are in my
Ah yes. I think I may have contradicted Allen once.
If you would just stand by things you said - and which are there for
everyone to see and read, you may have overlooked that -, then you
wouldn;t be such a bad character. But making insinuations like you did
and then pretending to be wrongfully misunderstood - does it get any
more cowardly and hypocritic?
> Well, I suppose Michael has a (half)point. It could be argued that you
> hinted, but it's still the case that he used the N-word first.
> I am sorry members of his family suffered at the hands of the Gestapo,
> but it does seem that blaming us is stretching the point a bit. And
> obsessing about it now is surely unhealthy.
> Bob Harper
Suggesting that his actions could give 'hope' to those folks in Idaho
does not say that I believe Michael to be one of them. In fact I do not,
and have not, believed that. But I am not a strong enough Humanist to
continue any dialog with him. That's my deficiency, and I'm plenty old
enough to accept it. If you intend to persist, you are a very dedicated
converted Catholic. Most Catholics of that background (not counting
those who 'converted' so that their respective spouses could continue to
accept Communion) resemble Jesuits much more than Franciscans.
> Allen wrote:
>> Michael, this thread was reminded me why a couple of Bobs are in my
> Ah yes. I think I may have contradicted Allen once.
No you didn't.
Interesting. In my opinion and intention I have insulted nobody, and
that includes Michael. I am somewhat surprised that pointing out
potential impressions and the effects of misguided emotions constitutes
insult, but apparently that is the case. In any event, those missives
will cease. God love you all.
It likely has no modern relevance, but the Dominicans (as I understand
it) administered the Inquisition. It's hard for this Humanist to stomach
that, though God can.
So, you're saying Harper is an Inquisitionist, eh? How insulting!
- Phil Caron
Well, it *was* a few centuries ago. I do, however, plead guilty to being
inquisi*tive*, but not to being an inquisi*tor*.
Actually, if you read my first post in this thread, there is some
residual value in that and some points which could lead to a mildly
interesting discussion. And it ended with the observation that we
should all be glad that we we are not in the kind of situation Orff
and his contemporaries found themselves in. There was no reason for
Lombard to twist and turn what I said into a vicious and hardly hidden
personal attack against me. Except that he is a vicious and twisted
character. So if you find this turn of events unpleasant, you can lay
that at his doorstep. My post merely contained a few observations
about Orff's situation and no personal attacks, veiled or not, against
There was never any "dialog" with you here. You call your completely
uncalled for attacks "dialog", you asshole? And you aren't a
"humanist" at all, weak or strong. Who do you think you are kidding -
except perhaps yourself?
The Domini canes -- 'hounds of God'.
Steering back toward a topic, the Franciscan provice in St. Louis kept
cutting the music budget of St. Peter's in the Loop (Chicago), whose
choir, under the direction of a musician-musicologist, did superb work
in many varieties of chant, including many styles appertaining to
Eastern churches -- they released many CDs under the aegis of the
educational-religious complex at St. John's, Minnesota. Said director
is now at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in Pittsburgh. He was
responsible for the music for Pope JP2's last visit to NYC (and had
been a finalist for the position at St. Patrick's Cathedral that went
to Johannes Somary, who a few years later no longer held that post)..
You must not be widely read -- their slanging match, though rather
distasteful, is quite mild compared to some that can be found in
internet forums ... including these very ones.
Can't trust those Franciscans, can you? :) OTOH, I am about to head to
Midnight Mass at Holy Rosary (the Dominican parish I mentioned earlier)
where the pre-Mass carols and the Mass itself will be sung by Cantores
in Ecclesia under the direction of Dean Applegate (he of the Byrd
Festival--http://www.byrdfestival.org/). Victoria tonight, I think, as
well as Gregorian Chant. They're *very* good.
Well, it was the St. Louis Jesuits that dragged the guitars into
church. Maybe there's just something about St. Louis. Or St. Louis
Catholics -- after all, Slatkin did a superb job there for years.
Please, please, don't remind me.
I refuse to give consideration to the politics of the composer. My
world of music is free of such things. If you want to play that game,
fine, go ahead.