After Carmina Burana

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert After Carmina Burana: an Historical Perspective, performed on May 16, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Tonight we bring our year-long series examining the relationship between music and memory to an end with perhaps the most difficult and emotionally fraught example. We present two works that many in the audience may never have heard before, the Catulli carmina and the Trionfo di Afrodite of Carl Orff. Composed in 1943 and 1953, respectively, both are sequels to a work that perhaps everyone in the audience has heard before, Carmina burana (1937). Even if you have never heard a live performance or one of the innumerable recordings of Carmina burana, chances are that this choral work is familiar to you from the films and television commercials in which it has been used ad infinitum. It is hugely popular among amateur and college choral groups, and is arguably one of the best-known works of the twentieth century. This kind of success for a single work easily evokes two questions: why does Carmina burana continue to thrill modern listeners, and why are the other two parts of the trilogy almost entirely forgotten?

Both the extreme popularity of Carmina burana and the relative obscurity of the sequels have everything to with the historical context from which they came. Carl Orff does not deserve to be considered a one-work composer like Leoncavallo. At stake in Carmina burana and the sequels is the question of Orff’s explicit aesthetic choices about what musical language was appropriate for the twentieth century. As Hans Jörg Jans elegantly describes, Orff as a young composer turned to the distant past for inspiration after World War I. He was director of the Munich Bachverein, had a special interest in Monteverdi, and staged Heinrich Schütz’s Auferstehungshistoria in 1933. His attraction for the past was not limited to music; he was an avid reader of classical texts, especially of the poet Catullus. He turned away from works by contemporaries and near-contemporaries such as Franz Werfel, Bertolt Brecht, and the poet Richard Dehmel, whom we associate with Schoenberg. On the surface, such a move seems like an act of refuge when one thinks of the cultural conditions of the time. During the 1920s and 1930s, factionalism was intense, and one’s chosen allegiances, artistic and political, had definite consequences. The allure of a pre-modern world, an ancient past, seems like a nostalgic escape from the sharply divided ideas of the present. But as the case of Orff shows, this escape, even if intended, was impossible.

The engagement with antiquity among German artists, musicians, and poets was certainly nothing new. Since at least the eighteenth century, Germany shared with other imperialist nations (especially Britain) a desire to connect with idealized constructs of the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. This desire resulted in the nineteenth-century archaeological explorations which created the collections of the British Museum and the Pergamon, turning Britain and Germany into the self-appointed guardians of the ancient world. It produced the flourishing of classical studies as an academic discipline. More pertinently, it ignited a tradition of neoclassicism in art, in which an idealized Greek and Roman spiritual legacy was incorporated into nineteenth and twentieth-century national art. Many of the concert halls built after 1870 display Greco-Roman iconography.

This reach into the ancient past for historical continuity had special meaning for German-speaking Europe. Before the unification of Germany, the persistence with which German poets and philosophers sought to forge a vital connection between the ancients and a modern renaissance of German culture indicated a proud sense of cultural achievement in the absence of a unified political entity. In imperial and Wilhelmine Germany (into which Orff was born) the cultural link between Greece and Germany that had been so eloquently argued in the eighteenth century had already been transmuted into a political ideology. The great German historian of Rome, Theodor Mommsen, was only one of the prominent intellectuals who helped popularize the notion of the German Empire as the new Rome. In subsequent years, a comparable political parallel between Athens and Germany also became popular.

The Weimar Republic produced a wonderful avant-garde in art and music, but this short-lived democracy after World War I was largely viewed as a failure by Germans. It became a source of embarrassment and shame for those for whom imperial grandeur had been so important. From the moment of its defeat in World War I, a German sentiment to restore itself to glory and world greatness was palpable. That sentiment found its realization in the Third Reich.

An aesthetic employed during the 1920s and 1930s inspired by antiquity and explicitly theatrical and accessible could not have been viewed as bereft of political consequences. As is still apparent today, political battles are fought not only in polling booths, but in cultural institutions as well. When Nazi protesters forced their way into theaters and lined the backs of concert halls during the Weimar Republic, they were making their prescriptive statement about what a proper national culture should be. In a torrent of propaganda, the official organs of the Nazi party hammered home the need to fight a cosmopolitan degeneracy in art and culture inspired by modernists and Jews. Many of the Nazis’ arguments against new forms of composition in music continued an anti-modernist tradition of criticism within German conservatism that dated back to the turn of the century, and preceded the creation of the Nazi party. But the context of such conservative nationalist cultural criticism in 1931 and 1932 was far different than it had been earlier. The specter of a government based on a racist nationalist ideology was a central component of this cultural criticism. Into this seething cauldron, the artistic works of a new generation were thrown. Works that used medieval and ancient materials to celebrate the communal enthusiasms of a closely knit, pre-modern society could not have escaped a political interpretation of its motives. Before 1933 the consequences of aesthetic choices were limited to the world of criticism and reputation. After 1933 they became matters of life and death.

When the Nazis seized power, they immediately took action against musicians of three types: those of Jewish descent, those from the radical left, and those who were proponents of a modernist aesthetic, the primary attribute of which was the rejection of tonality. It was not enough to be a conservative composer and a Jew, or an Aryan and a modernist. There was a great difference, of course, between these two situations. The modernist Aryan might make an about face and seek to find accommodation with the new regime. This is what Paul Hindemith thought to do (without success) with help from the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Or the composer might follow the path of Karl Amadeus Hartmann, who withdrew entirely from public life during the Nazi era and continued to write in an expressionist and modernist musical language explicitly out of Nazi favor. He made an inner emigration, as it were, and had the good fortune to survive. But for Jews, Communists and Socialists, there was little opportunity for heroism. They could emigrate, suffer hardship, sink into obscurity, or perish.

Carl Orff remained in Germany, as did most non-Jewish musicians. The question of his political allegiance during the Third Reich, however, has never been satisfactorily resolved. He is still regarded by some as complicit careerist and a collaborator, even though he never joined the Nazi Party. Others have linked him to the small but courageous German resistance movement. These questions may never be answered, which is precisely why we must turn as in this performance away from biography to consider his music directly. When biography is unclear, we are left with only the music and its context and reception.

The Trionfo trilogy is a case study of how music is affected by history and memory, and how art does not live in a world separate from the politics and social realities that dominate our everyday lives. We would like to believe that artistic works are derived from some higher form of inspiration and exist above the messy and ugly conditions that usually surround us. We also turn to music to create a distance between the mundane and the spiritual. But as this music—some of the most effective ever composed—demonstrates, sometimes the art that claims to be above politics becomes the most political of all.

Although after its premiere in 1937, a prominent Nazi critic derided Carmina burana as somewhat degenerate, particularly for its “jazzy atmosphere” and poor comprehensibility, the work nevertheless enjoyed extreme success and became arguably the most popular piece of new music to be produced under the Nazis. In a famous letter, Orff expressed anxiety before the premiere regarding the government’s reaction to the work, which suggests how sensitive he was to their power. Orff consciously sought a way to reconcile his notion of his own obligation to art with his desire to maintain a successful career as a composer in a public arena circumscribed by terror and inhumanity. The Nazis did not agree among themselves about what was precisely culturally acceptable and there was considerable conflict and competition concerning aesthetic policy both on the local and national level. George Steiner has argued that Carmina burana’s mixture of medievalism and modernity appealed aesthetically to Nazi supporters because it complies with a fascist vision of culture. The music is rousing and sweeps its audience up in an affirmation of community, solidarity, and ecstasy. It has a theatrical, visceral impact, and promotes a grand euphoria that was as effective for the Nazis then as it is for selling products on television today. At its premiere and all its many performances under the Third Reich, the German audiences that rose to their feet believed they were no longer infiltrated by Jews, blacks, homosexuals, Gypsies, Socialists or Communists. Whatever Orff’s intentions may have been, even if he was just trying as an artist to sustain some aspect of decency, the success of his work played into different hands.

As Hans Jörg Jans points out, the work was so successful that Orff was commissioned to produce sequels for the Vienna State Opera in 1941. Vienna had become a cultural jewel of the new Reich under the leadership of its art-loving Gauleiter. Orff also accepted a commission to write new incidental music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to replace the banned music of Mendelssohn. Riding on the success of Carmina burana, Orff composed the Catulli carmina in the darkening years of the war in 1943. Then again, in 1953, he composed the final part, the Trionfo di Afrodite. By this time, however, the war was over and the Cold War had already settled in. The Western allies were turning western Germany a bulwark against the Soviets, and deNazification had ceased to be a priority. The 1950s encouraged the suppression of memory and the avoidance of confrontation with the atrocities of the war within the general population. Why, in this context, did Orff choose to produce another work in the spirit of Carmina burana? Was he nostalgically reviving the appropriated aesthetic, or was he trying to suggest that his aesthetic could remain immune to political manipulation?

The young generation of French and German composers after 1945 had their own artistic response to the burden of recent history. They steadfastly embraced radical modernism in a conscious effort to break any connection with the aesthetics favored by the Nazis. Catulli carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite sank into obscurity in the wave of modernism that has only recently loosened its grip on contemporary music. It is only in our post-modernist and post-post-modernist environment in which a return of tonality, surface accessibility, and romanticism can occur without the political overtones from before 1945. That it took nearly fifty years for the connection between modernism and anti-fascism to give way even a bit gives some indication of the strength of that connection.

Now that World War II and its horrors have receded into history, what becomes of the music appropriated by the Nazis? Is it fair to censor any work of music because, whether or not its composer intended it, the music gave voice to sensibilities compatible with a hated regime? Do Catulli carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite deserve to remain so obscured by Carmina burana, and should we not reflect on why Carmina burana remains so popular?

Contemporary audiences continue to enjoy Wagner, for whose personality and music political distaste can easily be mustered. The argument can be made that our present culture, in which nothing remains in memory for longer than the length of a music video, and in which historical consciousness has been eroded by the increasing pace of information and communication, actually holds the virtue of being able to cleanse the questionable political overtones of art. But to give into cultural amnesia is to ignore so much of the complexity of the music, to falsify its history, and reduce music—particularly in the case of a work as brilliant as Carmina burana—to so many soundtracks characterized by the clichés of mass culture, of passivity, and uniformity. That reduction is reminiscent of the way the Nazis hoped to use music: to manipulate the listener into a thoughtless response that does not encourage reflection, resistance, and questioning. To believe that music and art exist independently of ideology and politics is to make it inadvertently work against individuality and the will to dissent. We can surely rejoice in the opportunity we now have to reconsider works like Catulli carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite, now that the present aesthetic climate encourages it. But we should also be aware that the same emotional response the trilogy triggers in us was part of the cultural fabric of an abhorrent regime. It is uncomfortable indeed to acknowledge such manipulation, but such acknowledgement points us on one hand to the skill of the composer, and on the other to our vulnerability, something we should remember the next time such music is used to entice us to buy beer and automobiles.