Carnegie Hall Live: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Performs 'Carmina Burana'

by Brian Wise
October 3, 2012

Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

  • Riccardo Muti, music director and conductor
  • Rosa Feola, soprano
  • Antonio Giovannini, countertenor
  • Audun Iversen, baritone
  • Chicago Symphony Chorus (Duain Wolfe, chorus director)
  • Chicago Children's Choir (Josephine Lee, artistic director)

It is one of classical music's most resilient creatures, repeatedly set loose across concert halls, recording studios and the landscape of popular entertainment.

Its footprints can be found in commercials for sports drinks, aftershave and Walmart. It has left its mark on hip-hop (forming the basis for the Nas song "Hate Me Now"), and hundreds of television commercials and movies (from Oliver Stone's The Doors to Jackass: The Movie). It is the ultimate cliché for the apocalypse, used these days more for parody than for serious effect.

It is Carmina Burana, a scenic cantata by the German composer Carl Orff and centered on 24 medieval poems about love, drinking and gambling. The piece lands at Carnegie Hall this Wednesday night at the venue's season-opening concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Muti.

It's easy to see how a score that premiered 75 years ago remains so popular: With its thigh-slapping drinking songs and visceral choruses set to blaring trumpets and thundering percussion, Carmina Burana (Songs of Beuren) pleases audiences. But its popularity only extends so far. Music critics have occasionally disparaged the work for being blunt and a knock-off of Stravinsky's 1923 choral ballet Les Noces.

Worse yet for Orff's reputation, it is an artifact of Nazi Germany. Before Carmina Burana triumphed in American culture, it became hugely popular in 1930s Germany. With their love of pre-Christian mythology, Nazi propagandists trumpeted the fact that the piece glorifies a largely pagan civilization — and is full of rousing melodies the masses can readily understand.

Although Orff has seldom been subjected to the same scrutiny as Richard Wagner — another composer championed by the Nazis — the shadow of that era clings to Orff's legacy. It is the main reason the cantata was not performed in the U.S. until 1954.

Should we hear authoritarianism in Carmina Burana's primitive rhythms and colossal climaxes? That would be a difficult to argue because the music itself never presents such an explicit message, says Michael Beckerman, the chair of New York University's music department.

"There are all kinds of different reasons why people can plug into Carmina Burana," said Beckerman. "It's elemental, it's powerful, it's physical, but that doesn't make it Nazi. Just because the Nazis like the sunset and I like the sunset doesn't make the sunset a Nazi aesthetic. There are different reasons why people plug into different pieces."

A reading of Orff's biography suggests that he may not have acted particularly heroically during turbulent times. He was close to the Nazi Party and obliged it by writing new incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream to replace the score by Felix Mendelssohn, who had been banned as a Jewish composer (Richard Strauss had turned down the commission). After World War II, Orff was interrogated by the denazification authorities. Eager to put himself on the right side of history, he claimed that he had been a co-founder of the White Rose resistance movement, even as his close friend, Swiss-born academic Kurt Huber — an actual member — was arrested and executed by the Nazis.

If Orff failed to oppose the Nazis actively, he also never joined the Party, nor did he express anything resembling anti-Semitism, a point documented in detail in Michael H. Kater's book Composers of the Nazi Era. What's more, Orff had many Jewish friends, including Kurt Weill and poet Franz Werfel, author of The Song of Bernadette.

Ultimately, many historians believe Orff was simply an apolitical opportunist, playing his cards for maximum gain. "Most of the people who took heroic stances during that period lasted about five minutes," notes Beckerman. "I'm uncomfortable with applying standards of behavior to people in the past when very few of us know how we would have behaved. Orff wasn't a camp guard. It's not clear in any case about what people knew what was actually going on.

"Let's put it this way," he continues. "I like to be in a world where people can say they like Carmina Burana or not without fearing that if they say they like it, somebody's going to say they're a Nazi. Because music doesn't have the kinds of things that allow us to say in words precisely what it means, people can impute meanings and there's very little way that the music can defend itself."

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