Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Orff in the Gray Zone

Composer Carl Orff is best known for his cantata Carmina Burana.  (Here's a sample.)  Over time, this work, once the stuff of concert halls, has taken a turn from highbrow to low.  You can now hear its most famous song "O Fortuna" in the soundtracks of advertisements for Old Spice, Gatorade, Guinness, Molson, Reebock, Nike, Pringles, Nescafe and countless others.  In fact, it has been so over-used by advertisers that they now deploy it as self-parody (click here).   

A new documentary on the subject of Orff's connections to the Nazis has come out, and this subject deserves some attention.  While not a Nazi himself, Orff happily accepted commissions from them.   Perhaps most notoriously, he accepted a commission from Frankfurt's Nazi Mayor Friedrich Krebs to replace Mendelssohn's music for Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream.  Mendelssohn had been banned under Nazi censorship laws for being Jewish.  Krebs was a particularly staunch advocate of eliminating "Jewish cultural influence" in Germany and wanted to prove that these restrictions had actually improved German culture.  Orff's commission was part of that project.  His version was a commercial success in its October 1939 premiere in Frankfurt, and, although not entirely happy with it artisticially, Orff promoted its performance in other German cities in the hopes of reaping a profit from the need for "Aryan" alternatives to Jewish composers.  Krebs, in turn, used Orff's composition to make his case that the Nazis improved German culture by banning Jews, using it to lobby his mentor Alfred Rosenberg to choose Frankfurt for his Institut zur Erforschung der Judenfrage (Institute for the Investigation of the Jewish Question). (Rosenberg declared in his inaugural address there that the "Jewish question" would be considered solved "only after the last Jew has left the Greater German living space."  The main function of Rosenberg's Institute was as headquarters of his program to systimatically loot Jewish libraries, archives, and art galleries throughout Europe.  This they characterized as "research".)  (See Composers of the Nazi Era by Michael H. Kater, and Who's Who in Nazi Germany by Robert S. Wistrich for more on this.  Here's some background on Rosenberg from the transcript of his trial for crimes against humanity.)

Tony Palmer has a new documentary about Orff's Nazi connection.  Here's a review.

from Bloomberg.com:Arts and Culture: Nazi Lies, Hate Emerge in Film About ‘Carmina Burana’ Composer (review by Warwick Thompson)



Carl Orff’s 1937 cantata “Carmina Burana” celebrates the joys of food, fun and flesh in pulsing rhythms and orgiastic choruses. It also hides a dark and grubby secret, as a new documentary by Tony Palmer reveals.

In “O Fortuna” Palmer shines a compelling, dispassionate light on Orff’s tortured personal life, his dealings with the Nazis, and the complicated history of his most famous work.

After its premiere in front of the Nazi top brass, “Carmina Burana” catapulted Orff (1895-1982) into the ranks of the Third Reich’s most favored composers. While the composer privately considered the National Socialists philistines, he still accepted their adulation and money.

At the end of the war, a sympathetic de-Nazification officer from the U.S. told Orff that if he could prove he had actively helped to overthrow the Nazi regime and not just privately despised it, his name would be cleared as a Nazi sympathizer. He would then be allowed to collect royalties from his masterpiece.

Orff told the man he’d been a member of the White Rose underground resistance group, founded by his friend Kurt Huber. The core members of the group were executed in 1943. Orff’s de- Nazification status was changed from “gray unacceptable” to “gray acceptable,” and he was permitted to compose for public presentation.

Lies, Guilt

Orff’s claim was a lie, as was his later statement that the Nazis had tried to ban “Carmina Burana.” In the film, Tony Palmer interviews Huber’s widow, Clara Huber. Orff and Huber had been friends, she says, but the composer was not a member of the resistance and had never publicly spoken out against Hitler.

Orff came round to their apartment one Sunday, she recalls, only to learn that her husband had been arrested by the Gestapo the day before. “I’ll be ruined!” was the composer’s selfish response. When Clara tried to ask for his help, he ran away. She never saw him again, and Kurt Huber was executed.

“I still find it very difficult to speak of these things,” she says with painful calmness. “I won’t sleep well tonight.”

Orff too suffered terrible nightmares.

“He had dreams of the devil,” reveals his third wife, Luise Rinser.

It’s easy to condemn Orff, yet his failings were sins of omission rather than commission. They were selfish dealings for which he suffered terrible guilt, not capital crimes.

Cold Distance

There is yet another disturbing suggestion in the film, made by Rinser, that Orff found it impossible to love. He was cold, emotionally distant, and used people. “In fact, he despised people,” she says. His daughter Godela claims that he built an emotional brick wall against her.

Here it is harder to find sympathy for Orff’s behavior. It seems that some element of empathy and emotional imagination was missing in his make-up.

Perhaps that is why none of Orff’s other works, which include two cool ritualistic operas about crime and guilt, “Antigonae” and “Oedipus der Tyrann,” have had the success of his 1937 cantata. “Carmina Burana” celebrates the physicality of life with joy and fizz. Emotional complexity was clearly another matter for Orff.



Michael H. Kater, a historian who has studied composers working under the Third Reich, has written extensively about Orff's relationship with the Nazi regime.  He paints a picture of Orff as an apolitical and amoral person focused mainly on his own interest.  Historian David B. Dennis wrote a brief but interesting review of an article Kater wrote about this subject, one which highlighted the ambiguous relationship between Orff and Rosenberg's circle.   (Read Dennis' review here.  Kater's article, "Carl Orff im Dritten Reich" [Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 43, 1; January 1995], was fleshed out to a chapter in his Composers of the Nazi Era ). Here's an excerpt from Dennis' review:



Over the last decade, a handful of musicologists, music historians, and historians of the non-musical sort have started to address the impact National Socialist "Musikpolitik" had on German music life.

However, as Michael Kater points out, any attempt to fill this gap with clear-cut, "Schwarz-Weiss Tönen" is inadequate. The notion that haunted Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved -- of a "gray zone" between resistance and compromise -- seems also to have been the domain inhabited by many musicians who remained in Germany through the Nazi era  . . .  In the present article, Kater -- who has already given us important work on jazz in the Third Reich -- fills some more of this void.  But in the case of Orff . . .  the historian confronts ambiguity.  After the war, categories established by occupation authorities for German artists included "black" for collaborators (Furtwängler was so ranked), "white" for victims and resistors, and "gray" for those in between.  Although subsequently cleared, Orff was initially categorized as "gray-unacceptable."  Nonetheless, biographies of the composer have ranged between interpretive extremes, depicting him either as an enthusiastic Nazi or as an active resistor.  After reviewing these black and white variations, Kater convincingly argues that given newly accessible documents at the Orff Center in Munich and testimony from Orff's contemporaries elicited for this article, we must recast this musician's portrait in more appropriate shades of gray.

Carl Orff is best known as the composer of Carmina Burana.  What most of today's listeners don't remember is that Carmina Burana was composed during the Hitler era and received a complicated response from Nazi cultural authorities.  Music Orff wrote during the Weimar period established him as a modernist, but not an atonalist.  Nevertheless, in 1933 the watchdogs in Rosenberg's Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur criticized Orff for lack of respect toward old masters.  Upon its first performance, then, some officials deemed Carmina Burana undesirable: one described it as "bayerische Niggermusik," others considered its sometimes randy subject matter pornographic.  However, despite opposition from some Nazis -- mainly members of the Rosenberg circle -- Carmina Burana was an artistic and public success.  Indeed, largely on account of its popularity Orff enjoyed benefits from the regime, including support from the Reichsmusikkammer, a stipend from the propaganda ministry, radio play of his music, immunity from wartime service, and a commission for a new opera from Baldur von Schirach, Gauleiter of Vienna.

According to Kater, Orff did not alter his compositional style in response to Nazi dictates; nor did he write music for evidently Nazi texts.  So why did he and his works thrive in the Third Reich?  Kater suggests that his music did contain elements that met Nazi aesthetic requirements: diatonic tonality; a primitive, Volkslied character; monorhythmic sequences; and a fairy-tale or escapist quality.  But perhaps more importantly, in Kater's words, "Orff regularly took the counterinitiative; he tried, as far as he could, to get along".  Two endeavors exemplify Orff's adaptive techniques. First, by enlisting the aid of committed Nazis to promote his Schulwerk, he endeavored to make this pedagogical program part of HJ, BDM, SA, and SS culture. Orff's system was too complex for Nazi use, and therefore ignored; it was not, however, banned, as he claimed after the war. More reprehensible, though, was his composition of music for A Midsummer Night's Dream to replace that by Mendelssohn. Orff later defended this work as an innocent application of his unique modes of composition to a worthy text. But according to Kater, he was perfectly aware that this commission had the goal of  "den nicht arischen Mendelssohn aus dem Geschäftsleben ausscheiden zu lassen,"  ["putting that non-Aryan Mendelssohn out of business"] as his publisher put it in a letter to Orff.

On the basis of remaining in Germany, rising to prominence, and composing music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, Orff had reason to fear blacklisting after the war. To clear himself, he had to prove that he had actively resisted the regime. As Kater exclaims, "the following is nothing less than sensational." In brief, Orff claimed to American authorities that he had helped Munich musicologist Kurt Huber form a resistance group; that Huber and other members (Sophie and Hans Scholl!) were arrested and ultimately executed; and that he had hidden in the mountains until the coast was clear. Occupation authorities accepted this story and cleared him.  According to interviews Kater conducted with both Huber's wife and Orff's own wife at the time, however, none of this was true: Orff knew Kurt Huber, but their friendship was based on common music interests, not politics; Orff was not a member of the White Rose.

One must closely read Kater's careful description of these developments before passing judgment.  But in the end, Kater seems justified in basing his opinion of the composer on this episode.  To paraphrase: Orff's claim of involvement with the White Rose serves as a key to his character as well as his means of surviving in the Third Reich.  Neither conformity nor resistance applies to this case.  Never a National Socialist, Orff did whatever was required to work in peace, to keep away from politics, and to get through a dirty system as cleanly as possible.  After reading Kater's article, it is hard to disagree with this assessment, or to avoid thinking it apt for many of those "gray, ambiguous persons, ready to compromise" whom Primo Levi identified both inside and outside the Lager.


As Richard Taruskin noted in the New York Times (read here), Orff's exonoration more than likely had something to do with the fact his personal hearing officer, Capt. Newell Jenkins, was a musician who had been his student. Taruskin also noted that Orff's coverup was enabled by scholarly whitewashing:


Not every recent commentator has been as scrupulous as Mr. Kater. Alberto Fassone, the author of the Orff article in the second edition of The New Grove Dictionary (sure to become the standard source of information on the composer for inquiring English-speaking minds), colludes with the composer's exculpating equivocations. Orff told his screeners that ''his music was not appreciated by the Nazis and that he never got a favorable review by a Nazi music critic.'' Mr. Fassone elaborates: ''The fact that 'Carmina Burana' had been torn to shreds by Herbert Gerigk, the influential critic of the Völkischer Beobachter, who referred to the 'incomprehensibility of the language' colored by a 'jazzy atmosphere,' caused many of Germany's opera intendants to fear staging the work after its premiere.'' Case dismissed?

Not so fast. Gerigk's paper was the main Nazi Party organ, to be sure, and the critic was a protégé of Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi ideologist. But another reviewer, Horst Büttner, a protégé of Joseph Goebbels, waxed ecstatic after the 1937 premiere about ''the radiant, strength-filled life-joy'' Orff's settings of bawdy medieval ballads expressed through their ''folklike structure.'' And that opinion won out. By 1940, even the Völkischer Beobachter was on board, hailing ''Carmina Burana'' as ''the kind of clear, stormy and yet always disciplined music that our time requires.''

Phrases like ''strength-filled life-joy,'' and the emphasis on stormy discipline, do begin to smack of Nazi slogans. Through them we can leave the composer's person behind and go back to the music, which is all that matters now. To saddle the music with the composer's personal shortcomings would merely be to practice another kind of guilt by association; and in any case, Orff is dead. His works are what live and continue to affect our lives. Even if we admit that ''Carmina Burana'' was the original ''Springtime for Hitler,'' with its theme of vernal lust and its tunes redolent (according to a German acquaintance of mine) of the songs sung in the 30's by Nazi youth clubs, can't we take Hitler away now and just leave innocent springtime -- or, at least, innocent music?

Taruskin brilliantly notes

(T)hat Orff's music is ''obviously'' suited to accompany propaganda -- is corroborated by its ubiquitous employment for such purposes even today. Not all propaganda is political, after all; and most people who recognize Orff's music today do so because of its exploitation in commercials for chocolate, beer and juvenile action heroes (not to mention Michael Jackson's ''Dangerous'' tour). Alex Ross has argued in The New York Times that the co-optation of ''Carmina Burana'' for sales propaganda ''is proof that it contains no diabolical message, indeed that it contains no message whatsoever.'' But change the word ''contains'' to ''channels'' and Orff is back on the hook. His music can channel any diabolical message that text or context may suggest, and no music does it better.

How does it accomplish this sinister task? That's what Orff learned from Stravinsky, master of the pounding rhythm and the endless ostinato. Repeat anything often enough, Dr. Goebbels said, and it becomes the truth. Stravinsky himself has been accused of the dehumanizing effect we now attribute to mass propaganda, most notoriously by Theodor W. Adorno in his 1948 book, ''Philosophy of New Music.'' But Stravinsky's early music, though admittedly ''written with an ax'' (as the composer put it to his fellow Russian exile Vladimir Ussachevsky), is subtlety itself compared with the work of his German imitator.

And yes, ''imitator'' is definitely the word. ''Carmina Burana'' abounds in out-and-out plagiarisms from ''Les Noces.'' The choral yawp (''niet-niet-niet-niet-niet!'') at the end of ''Circa mea pectora'' (No. 18 of the 25 tiny numbers that make up Orff's 40-minute score) exactly reproduces the choral writing at the climax of Stravinsky's third tableau. Another little choral mantra (''trillirivos-trillirivos-trillirivos'') in Orff's No. 20 (''Veni, veni, venias'') echoes the acclamations to the patron saints halfway through the second tableau of Stravinsky's ballet. And these are only the most blatant cases.

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