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).