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.

Reclaiming Antiquity for the Present: Carl Orff and the Trionfi

By Hans Jörg Jans, Orff-Zentrum, Munich

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

To my mind, music has two wellsprings: the movements of the dance and the spoken word.

The magic of language is already music, for it is musically perceivable…. It is in this sense, and in their universal validity, that the dead languages are the most vital of all.

Carl Orff

In the summer of 1930, while vacationing on Lake Garda, Carl Orff (1895-1982) accidentally stumbled upon a postcard during an excursion to the town of Sirmione. Printed on the card were the words of Catullus’s distich Odi et amo. A characteristic process was set in motion in the composer’s mind. On his return to Munich, he bought a bi-lingual edition of Catullus’s Carmina, and within a few weeks he had produced a cycle of madrigalesque a cappella choruses based on the original Latin. With these settings – a spontaneous response to poetry that had caught his imagination – Orff embarked on a journey with a completely unforeseen destination.

Jolted by the word …

Orff’s portentous encounter with Catullus’s Carmina (“songs”) grants us a glimpse into his creative process. Apparently his musical fantasy and auditory imagination lay dormant until jolted by the written word. To be sure, it is precarious to probe the inner workings of the act of creation; Igor Stravinsky specifically warned against it in chapter 3 of his Poetics of Music. But in Orff’s case, the beginning of this act seems as plain as day. It stands at the forefront not only of the genesis of his works, but of his autobiographical writings and his artistic credo. At the beginning of the act of creation was – the word.

Orff’s encounter with Catullus took him away from a larger project on which he had been at work for some time: a broadly conceived, multi-sectional Werkbuch of choral pieces. He had just completed the initial series of this “work book” by transforming a set of lieder, written in 1920 to early expressionist poems by Franz Werfel, into cantatas for mixed chorus, pianos, and percussion. Indeed, the Werfel cantatas had just received their première in Munich that very autumn, and further cantatas on other poets were in the offing. The next was to be a set of choruses to poems by Bertolt Brecht (published in 1932).

Even the early Werfel lieder, written when Orff was twenty-five years old, bear witness to the inspiration he drew from poetry. More than half of the poems he chose to set are found in Menschheitsdämmerung (“Twilight of Humanity”), an anthology likewise published in 1920 that was to become a landmark in literary history. In his introduction, the book’s editor, Kurt Pinthus, called it a “collection of eruptions and passions … a gathering of the yearnings, bliss, and torment of an era – our era.”

The discovery of the Carmina Burana (1934)

A similar encounter with poetry stood at the outset of Carmina Burana. “I urgently need ‘new writings’ since none of the old ones will do, for reasons I needn’t elaborate. Since I can’t find any by my ‘contemporaries,’ I shall return to the ancients.” Thus Orff in a letter of 4 April 1934 (Carl Orff and Michel Hoffmann: Briefe zur Entstehung der “Carmina Burana”, Tutzing, 1990). Shortly before then Orff, again accidentally, had lit upon an edition of Latin songs and poems in the catalogue of a rare book dealer. “The words and images overpowered me…. On the very same day, I sketched the opening chorus in short score: O Fortuna….” (Dokumentation: Carl Orff und sein Werk, iv, p. 38).

But what did Orff mean by “reasons I needn’t elaborate”? The writings of Werfel and Brecht had been among the first to be heaped onto the bonfires during the book burnings of 1933. Orff’s affinity with both writers was to last his entire life, but under the circumstances no settings of their poetry could be performed. Orff stopped work on the Werkbuch; later his publishers were made to withdraw the volumes that had already appeared.

En route to new forms of theater

Early in September 1941, Orff informed his publisher, Willy Strecker of Schott in Mainz, that he had successfully negotiated a contract with the Vienna State Opera: “Vienna was very gratifying. The new work – I still don’t know what title to give it – impressed the leading lights. They all thought it was a truly new form of theater. The première is scheduled for October [1942] at the Vienna State Opera. From then on, it will always be played with Carmina Burana, not as a prelude, but as a second piece, being more mature and incisive, even from a theatrical standpoint.”

One of those “leading lights” was Oskar Fritz Schuh (1904-1984). Schuh was head producer at the Vienna State Opera from the 1940-41 season and the commanding voice in all artistic matters. He visited Orff twice in Munich in July and August of 1941 in preparation for the Vienna première of Carmina Burana at the Opera in early 1942. It was Schuh who counseled Orff to sign a long-term contract with the State Opera, in turn securing for Vienna the rights to the premières of his future stage works. To support his creative work, Orff received 1,000 reichsmarks every month for three years, beginning on 1 April 1942.

The new work with the still unspecified title was Catulli Carmina. Ever since Karl Böhm’s path-breaking Dresden performance of Carmina Burana, on 4 October 1940, it was clear to Orff that this short stage piece needed a companion to fill out a theatrical evening. Enheartened by the prospect of a working arrangement with the Vienna Opera, he decided in August 1941 to turn out a stage version of his Catullus settings of 1930 and to offer the première to the Vienna Opera as his first new work.

Schuh was one of the great German stage directors of the century. An adherent of analytical stagings and the anti-illusionist reform movement, he was especially committed to contemporary music theater. At his side was Brecht’s set designer Caspar Neher (1897-1962). Neher, like Schuh and many others, had chosen to remain in Germany during the Third Reich and pursue his theatrical work without succumbing to National Socialist ideology. The two men had gained a new performance site for the State Opera from October 1941: the Redoutensaal at Vienna Court Palace, a “spatial stage” diametrically opposed in conception to the traditional proscenium arch. It was here that Catulli Carmina was meant to receive its first performance.

Adverse performance conditions

But the performance never came about. In the course of 1942, Schuh gradually lost his authority to advance the cause of contemporary opera. Karl Böhm was appointed director of the State Opera in late February. Although Böhm did not assume his position until 1 January 1943, Schuh quickly lost his commanding influence on the repertoire. He expressed his despondency to Orff in a letter of February 1943: “Our plans are destined to founder on Böhm’s historicism.” In the event, not one new work by Orff had been premièred at the Vienna Opera by the time Germany’s theaters were shut down in the fall of 1944.

In the end, the première took place at Leipzig City Theater on 6 November 1943. One month later, on 4 December 1943, the Leipzig house was destroyed in an air raid. All the performance materials and stage sets perished. “That the theaters are being tossed together and we say we’ve got no further use for them – these things are historically inter-related,” a depressed Schuh wrote to Orff in October 1943. “Such things never happen by accident. After that, we’ll get together and put on little plays for the first time the way they should be done. Everything else is a pack of lies.” There was no further staging of Catulli Carmina until after the war. The first concert revival took place in Munich in 1949 as part of Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Musica Viva series.

Catulli Carmina, ludi scaenici (1943)

Orff finished the fair copy of the score on 7 May 1943. “I think Catulli is better than the Burana,” he had confided to Neher at the end of March. “No more orchestra! Four grand pianos and a horde of percussion! These pieces have to be experienced at first hand; they can’t simply be listened to. That’s just the way I like it. But I need you for the performance.” These two men of the theater had met in spring 1941 and formed what was to become a lifelong working friendship.

For Catulli, Orff not only returned to his madrigals of 1930, he also proceeded from the orchestral conception he had devised for his Werfel and Brecht cantatas of 1930-32: voices, pianos, and percussion. His inspiration for this scoring may have come from a work he held in very high esteem: Les noces (1923) by Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky described this scoring in his Chroniques (Paris, 1935-6): “I realized that in this work the vocal element, which thrives on breath, is best supported by an ensemble consisting entirely of instruments whose sound is produced by being struck.” A German translation of Stravinsky’s book was still able to reach publication in 1937.

The key role of the percussion in Orff’s music has its origins in his novel approach to music education and his experiences with the Günther-Schule, a school of gymnastics, rhythm, dance, and music that he had co-founded in 1924. “At the beginning was the drum”: thus the words Orff claimed to have heard from the great German-Jewish scholar Curt Sachs (1881-1959). Orff was in lively contact with Sachs from the early 1920s – a contact that was to have a formative impact on his musical development. From the very beginning Orff attached signal importance to non-western percussion instruments. His expansion and enlargement of the percussion section is abundantly manifest in his later works: if Catulli called for ten percussionists, Orff’s final stage work, De temporum fine comoedia (“The Play of the End of Times,” 1973), required no fewer than twenty-four players and more than seventy instruments.

A double picture puzzle

The dramatic and scenic design of the new work led to what was, in many respects, a surprising and idiosyncratic solution. The challenge Orff faced was to make his madrigal cycle musically presentable and effective on stage, to transform a series of lyric poems into living theater. For his first cycle of 1930 he had selected, from the 116 carmina by the Roman poet Catullus (c. 87-86 – 58-7 BC), those dealing with the poet’s love for Lesbia. These poems speak of the joys and sorrows of love – and abound in inner drama. By adding five more poems and tightening the structure and sequence of the dialogue, among other things, Orff managed to make the stages of the love story perceivable without a plot line and to lend visibility to their locales in a loose sequence of scenes.

When performed in the theater, the scenes involving Catullus and Lesbia are to be mounted on a “stage within a stage.” The apron (ante scaenam) is occupied by young men and women (juvenes and juvenculae) who observe the performance of Catullus’s carmina along with a group of old men (senes) on a raised podium at the rear. All the action and movement on stage are given to dancer-pantomimes; the solo vocalists and chorus remain in the orchestra pit.

A Prelude (Praelusio) poses a conflict between youth and old age in words written by the composer himself and translated into a Latin reminiscent both of the Roman comic playwright Plautus (250-180 BC) and of medieval Vulgate. To depict what he called the “omnipotence of Eros,” Orff underscored the orgiastic tinge of Catullus’s original. (Only since the 1980s has the Prelude appeared unexpurgated in the published libretto.) The score of the opening number has an elemental force standing in tense contrast with the old and new choral numbers.

The young people express their trust in the everlasting and eternal life (eis aiona) that is the promised birthright of Eros. The old men, in contrast, point cynically to the transience and inconstancy of all earthly things. Catullus sees his love as unique: “No woman can say of herself that she has been loved as I love Lesbia” (Carmen 87). The Prelude wrenches this love into the broad stream of life. It is in this “double picture puzzle” between Catullus and Lesbia, Eros and Sexus, youth and old age, that Orff has situated the core of his theatrical parable. It is followed by a brief excerpt from the Prelude as a final song, or Exodium, to bring the work to a conclusion. The conflict between Eros and Sexus is left unresolved; the play between the sexes – the ludus – goes on.

Trionfo di Afrodite, concerto scenico (1953)

Orff’s working relations with Caspar Neher deepened in the early post-war years. The Munich première of his opera Die Bernauerin on 7 July 1947 gave the two men an opportunity to discuss his further plans. Neher had long been encouraging Orff to expand Carmina Burana and Catulli Carmina into a triptych, and Orff himself had been toying with the idea of setting an ancient wedding ceremony since February 1947. In August, he drafted a three-part scenario entitled Trionfo. Neher was enthusiastic. But Orff did not finish the libretto until autumn 1949 and only began work on the score in March or April 1950.

The reason for the delay was Orff’s need to complete a work that had kept him occupied since 1941, with constant interruptions caused by other compositional projects. This work was Antigonae, a setting of Sophocles’ tragedy in the German translation by Friedrich Hölderlin. “When I finished the score on 12 March 1949,” Orff wrote in later life, “I knew that I had drawn a final line not only beneath a work of music but beneath an entire epoch. From now on my artistic career was divided into a pre-Antigonae and a post-Antigonae period” (Dok. vii, p. 21). The première took place at the 1949 Salzburg Festival in the Felsenreitschule, a special stage that Neher and Schuh had set up one year earlier for productions of music theater.

From orgiastic to ecstatic diction

Orff’s self-professed goal in Antigonae was to “reclaim the tragedy of ancient Greece for the present from the music of language” (Dok., vii, p. 22). Once again, the creative impetus came from the written word, albeit not from the original Greek, but from the inherently musical language of Hölderlin. Orff had been moved by Sophocles’ drama while still a young man (a note in his wartime diary of 1917 reads “Antigone, magnificent”), but he was not overwhelmed by it until 1918, when he encountered a new edition of Hölderlin’s translation. “The declamatory style I developed for Antigonae,” he wrote at the end of his life, “is rooted in Hölderlin’s ecstatic handling of language” (Dok., vii, p. 22).

When Orff turned to Catulli in 1942-3, Antigonae existed only in a skeletal outline. It is therefore safe to assume that the experiences he gained with Catulli entered the Antigonae score, especially its orchestration. Trionfo di Afrodite, in contrast, reflects the new declamatory and singing style Orff had evolved for Antigonae: the role of the octave in the melodic writing, for example, or the wealth of those melismas that Curt Sachs referred to as “pathogenic” ornaments (The Rise of Music in the Ancient World, New York, 1943). For the instrumental setting Orff, for the last time, drew on the traditional orchestra, enriching it with a variegated twelve-player percussion group exceeding even that of Catulli.

The decisive feature that sets Trionfo di Afrodite apart from Catulli Carmina is, however, its style. Orff deliberately set out to surpass the two preceding works of the triptych. His accounts of Trionfo frequently contain the word “ecstatic,” a guiding principle that he also realized on the theatrical level with the dea ex machina appearance of the goddess herself. If the plot of Catulli Carmina can be understood as a reflection of the baroque theatrum emblematicum, Aphrodite, in the final scene of Trionfo, makes her appearance out of the spirit of Greek tragedy. Indeed, the words accompanying her appearance are taken from a chorus excerpted from Euripides’ Hippolytos, a hymn to the goddess that celebrates her power over all sentient beings: “Eros strikes mad all of those he assails in his flight with their hearts aflutter.” An Attic wedding

Trionfo unites Latin with Attic Greek. To be sure, while working out the conception of his new work, Orff originally considered drawing on Old Norse material, such as the Eddas. But the idea of a wedding ceremony soon drew him back to Catullus, whose surviving writings include not only intimate love poems, but multi-stanzaic nuptial songs that far transcend brilliant occasional verse.

Catullus in turn directed Orff’s path to Sappho, the Archaic Greek poetess who flourished around 600 BC. He combined fragments of her lyric poetry for the scenes of the Bride and Bridegroom (III and VI). The frame story is made up of Catullus’s nuptial poetry: The Antiphons in Expectation of the Wedding Couple (Scene I), The Invocation and Paean to Hymen (IV), and Wedding Games and Songs Before the Bridal Chamber (V). Catullus’s verse continued to exert its productive magnetism on Orff, but it was now the fragments of Sappho that formed the poetic climax of the new work: “As always, the word gave rise within me to a musical diction which thereafter became an ineradicable part of my music” (Dok. iv, p. 147).

A living remembrance

Orff could not have foreseen the consequences his encounter with Attic Greek would have on his own music. When he turned to the Prometheus myth in 1960 and decided to set Aeschylus’s tragedy, he came to believe, after initial hesitation, that “only the original language of the poetry … is tenable for a musical depiction of Prometheus …Greek being the language that unites music and gesture as no other” (Dok. viii, p. 10).

It is impressive to observe how unwaveringly Orff placed his own music at the service of the word. This is perhaps less surprising when we recall that the composer spent two decades, from 1920 to 1940, studying and analyzing the works of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1663). His arrangements of Orfeo (1924) were instrumental in reintroducing Monteverdi to the German stage. It was on Monteverdi that Orff formed his musical idiom and his notions of musical theater. His personal aesthetic remained inherently beholden to Monteverdi’s principle of “Oratio harmoniae domina absolutissima.” The radicality with which Orff adopted this tenet is central to his unique position in the history of twentieth-century music theater.

It is not only the poetry underlying his stage works that connects Orff with the past. His musical language too has historical depth. Yet he did not want his music to remain at the level of reminiscence. His artistic goal was to recollect the past to reclaim it for the present.

Translated by J. Bradford Robinson

Documentation: Carl Orff und sein Werk, 8 vols. (Tutzing, 1975-83).

Was ist die Antike wert? Griechen und Römer auf der Bühne von Caspar Neher, ed. by Vera Greisenegger-Georgila and Hans Jörg Jans (Vienna, 1995).

Memories of the Night

By Fred Kirshnit

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

Symphony No. 7 came to Mahler, uncharacteristically, in two lightning flashes of inspiration. He wrote the two serenades in 1904 and the other three movements in one amazing spurt of creative energy the following year. As a result, the music is not Wordsworthian recollection in tranquility but rather Proustian immediate recall. Rather than laboring through many revisions, Mahler put the work away for three years and then rushed it into premiere in Prague in 1908, after tantalizingly thinking of christening it in America, making changes in the orchestration right up to the evening of the performance with the help of several colleagues including Alban Berg. Memories overtake us immediately as the first movement’s main theme is granted to a military band instrument, the tenor horn, a tuba-shaped member of the horn family invented by Adolphe Sax of saxophone fame. Mahler loved to reminisce about the band music of his childhood village of Iglau and recalls the contemporary popularity of Sousa in this multi-layered essay wherein the theme reappears so often in various guises that it seems to be like a familiar recollection by the end of the movement.

The three inner sections are in many ways a complete work in themselves that plays circularly with the image of memory. The second movement opens with two horns, the first calling out forte and the second (actually the third in positioning within the section) echoing piano with mute in place. We have entered the world of memory immediately. A ghostly march, sometimes said to have been inspired by Rembrandt’s Night Watch, follows. A ländler mixes with the march in the signature Mahlerian way. The horn echoes break the mood as they reassert themselves as an arhythmic recitative soon accompanied by the composer’s uniquely familiar symbol of lost civilization, the Herdenglocke (cowbells). This remarkable passage has not only elements of suspended motion but also the absence of tone (only cowbells will do here; glockenspiel or xylophone would be in pitch and would ruin the moment). The chiaroscuro watchmen march by again accompanied by military fanfare and vanish into the realm of yesterday.

Mahler’s most inventive movement follows. Schattenhaft (“like a shadow”) is a collection of fits and starts contrasted with a rolling melody in three-quarter time. It is as if Viennese life is constantly trying to reassert itself and calls to mind the tentative self-image of this creatively febrile society between the shattering events of Mayerling and the outbreak of World War I. This was the era of neurasthenia (Freud himself treated both Mahler for depression and Bruno Walter for hysterical paralysis during this time) and the constantly appearing and disappearing musical figures of this nervous study underscore the plight of the Viennese intellectual of the day. In this highly charged universe, the elongated melodic line seems like the nostalgic memory while the disjointed and dotted figures seem to be the new surrealistic state of the world (compare the perceptions of Berg’s hallucinatory Wozzeck twenty years later). The movement ends with a startling two beat figure played by timpani and viola that leaves the listener off balance.

This figure instantly becomes a memory when it is immediately recalled by the solo violin as it opens the fourth movement with both ends of an octave leap, starting this charming Andante amoroso off on a slightly tipsy note. Continuing the nocturnal theme, Mahler recreates an Italian style serenade, complete with parts for mandolin and guitar, that transforms the music of the night from the frightening to the comforting and prepares the change of mood for the enchantingly positive finale of the piece, the most optimistic movement in this angst-ridden man’s entire output (I’m sure Dr. Freud was fascinated with his patient’s creation of such dark music as the Tragic symphony and the Kindertotenlieder during his happiest time as a husband and father and his subsequent publication of such joyous music after the actual death of his daughter Putsi). The accompaniment of strings and Mediterranean street instruments evokes the memory of the gentle breezes of a summer vacation (as the harried music director and principal conductor of the Vienna Opera this was the only time that Mahler ever actually composed). The last nine measures of the serenade are pure bliss as the clarinet starts a pianissimo trill, the flutes and oboes whisper a final farewell and the guitar softly plays the ending three notes, marked morendo (“dying away”). Walter describes these three inner movements as one large intermezzo, a recollection journeying from anxiety to tranquility.

The gloriously upbeat Finale recalls the last movement of Schubert’s “Great C Major”, an echo from fin-de-siècle Vienna of its most brilliant musical past. This conclusion, summoning again and again the character of the original tenor horn theme, is the most controversial of all of Mahler’s movements, as if happiness were beneath the dignity of a great artist. But, as any veteran concert-goer or discophile can tell you, the ending of this miraculous work can elicit paroxysms of cheers and applause like no other piece in the entire repertoire. Mahler, acknowledged by many of his contemporaries as the greatest of all interpreters of Wagner’s Ring, has taken his own Siegfried on a journey from darkness into light. Perhaps after the grousing of the critics (including the composer’s own wife) has subsided, the best view of Mahler’s “Song of the Night” is that of filmmaker Ken Russell, who ends his biographical exploration with the unexpectedly joyous protagonist exclaiming

…we are going to live forever!”

Remembrance of Things Past

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.

Over the past forty years, Gustav Mahler has become one of the most discussed and performed composers in American concert life. He was the author of nine complete symphonies and a fragmentary tenth symphony, as well as a host of song cycles. Since we are devoting our entire season to the larger theme of music and memory, it is appropriate that we recall a time when Mahler’s music was not nearly so prominent.

By the time he died in 1911, Mahler had achieved considerable fame as a conductor and composer. Although there were many consistent advocates of his music among conductors –particularly Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, and Dimitri Mitropoulos–it was only after 1960 (the centenary of his birth) that Mahler’s music achieved the wild popularity it still has today. Much credit for his renaissance is properly given to Leonard Bernstein, for whom Mahler and his music became vehicles for profound personal attachment and identification. By the mid-1970s, Mahler was the focus of a continuing obsession and nearly cult-like reverence. Today Mahler’s presence perhaps rivals Beethoven’s in the standard orchestral repertoire. One somewhat ironic explanation for this phenomenon is that Mahler’s sonic-psychic journey benefited from the medium of high-quality recordings, which could be experienced in the solitary environment of one’s own room. Listeners find in Mahler a musical map of inner feeling, crisis, and ecstasy, a means through which each listener senses his or her own profundity and intensity of emotion. In Mahler the most intimate, the most painful, and the most grandiose seem immediately available, all shrouded in a complexity that makes the music seem like life itself.

Of course, whether this late twentieth-century obsession with Mahler has anything to do with the historical Mahler or his ambitions as a composer is quite unclear, and there is little doubt that there has been no small measure of cloying sentimentality in much of this Mahler craze. But perhaps most bewildering have been the attempts to make Mahler into a bowdlerized Freud. As with Freud, the awe-inspiring brilliance, innovation, and complexity of the work remain perpetual sources of fascination, despite the persistent presence of a reductive, commercialized caricature. If there is indeed any validity in the linking of Mahler and Freud (who were contemporaries) it is in the paradox generated by their posthumous reputations, which has created enduring clichés. Mahler’s music is ultimately only about the meaning it inspires in its listeners: its power to disturb, to force the listener to reflect and think on life, its joys and sorrows, its potentials and its limitations.

In his remarkable 1960 book on Gustav Mahler, the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno observed that “music becomes a blotting paper, an everyday thing that becomes saturated with significance.” For Adorno, Mahler is the musical equivalent of Proust, for in Mahler’s music as in Proust’s narrative the ordinary and familiar are the substance of a massive structure, through which the listener can experience the magnitude, complexity, and depth that life over time contains.

Mahler’s Seventh Symphony is perhaps the most controversial of all the composer’s symphonies. Both Schoenberg and his pupil Anton von Webern had a special affection for it. Yet few works have received such scathing criticism from Mahler enthusiasts. The last movement of this symphony has long been the object of intense dispute. Some have regarded it as an ironic reminiscence of an older tradition of grand finales and hear in it an undercutting of the heroic gesture of symphonic music. Other Mahlerians view it as an embarrassing failure, a grand mistake that was designed to express affirmation of the universe and its harmonies in a Beethovenian or Brucknerian manner. Yet all observers seem to agree that the Seventh Symphony has a sweep and range unequaled in other Mahler symphonies. It is a virtual panorama of emotions and musical strategies, with moments which justify the comparisons between Mahler and Charles Ives. Direct evocations of bands, tunes, and events in ordinary life are contained in the texture of the music itself. Here music acts as a direct trigger of memory. Mahler’s inspiration for the symphony’s opening came when he was rowing home across a lake and was struck by the sound of the oars. He wrote the work quickly, but then lingered over its revision and publication. He once described his compositional process as starting from the middle and working outwards.

The sheer variety of sounds in the symphony are best exemplified by the two “night music” episodes. These episodes invoke an earlier German Romantic tradition in which night becomes a metaphor for thought, solitude and recollection. Night also served as an emblem of peace and tranquility in the hectic pace of modern life and therefore a symbol of the repose and pensive tranquility of “nature.” The dangers traditionally associated with darkness became in this context internalized as regretful nostalgia and painful memories. Recently, one scholar has suggested a program for the second night music episode in which Mahler reminisces about a walk through a town at night. The listener can hear Mahler’s own impression of the music and sounds heard on his walk. But while the presence of both mandolin and guitar as well as cow bells in the symphony may record Mahler’s impressions, their more important function is to evoke in the listener images from their own memories of the rural landscape and the street–that is, their own night thoughts.

Listeners have always commented on the brilliance and range of orchestral effects Mahler achieves in this symphony. One needs to remember the obvious, that Mahler was writing large-scale orchestral music before the dominance of moving pictures and certainly moving pictures with sound dialogue. Listening to music was in part a journey of rumination and fantasy, much of it visual. The orchestration in this symphony has the effect of creating a complex sense of space and distance. The sound is sometimes close and sometimes far away. There are echoes, clashes, overlaps, confrontations. There is, in short, a sound world that is a condensed version of the conflicting and contradictory strands of daily experience. Mahler transfigures the everyday by endowing it with the meaning which each listener brings from his or her own memory. The brilliance of Mahler is that no matter how personal his compositions may be, he transcends his own experience without losing detail or specificity. He reaches beyond himself and makes the deepest personal and also most general metaphysical speculations possible for the listener. In this symphony the familiar becomes as Adorno suggested the musical screen upon which each individual can project his or her entire life, to an extent well beyond the limits of the composer’s intentions.