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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 13 Music and Totalitarian Society
Richard Taruskin

That charge was frequently leveled against the music of Carl Orff (1895–1982), the foremost German composer to achieve international eminence during the Nazi years, and the only one whose music has survived in the international repertory. The work that made him famous was Carmina burana (1936), a “scenic cantata” (sometimes staged as a ballet with singing, like Stravinsky’s Les noces) based on “Goliard” poems—Latin poems by German students of the late middle ages that lustily celebrated the vagabond life. The largest extant collection of Goliard poems is a manuscript now kept at the Bavarian State Museum in Munich, but which had belonged for centuries to the Catholic monastery at Benediktbeuren, a town nearby; Carmina burana means “Songs of Beuren.”) Orff, who lived all his life in Munich, made a selection of songs from the manuscript, which he knew from a nineteenth-century edition that contained only the texts, and grouped them into “scenes” on the basis of their subject matter: songs of fatalism under the heading Fortuna imperatrix mundi (“Dame Fortune, the ruler of the world”); nature songs (Primo vere, “In early spring”); carousing songs (In taberna, “In the tavern”); songs of love (Cour d’Amours, “At Venus’s court”). The music—scored for eight soloists, three choruses, and a huge orchestra including five percussionists, full of diatonic melodies in a vaguely antique (“modal” or at least “leading-toneless”) style, and driven by vigorous, unyielding ostinatos — was a streamlined “populist” (in German, Völkisch) adaptation of Stravinsky’s neoprimitivist manner that made its appeal to a much wider audience than did the modernist (“elitist”) original.

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fig. 13-4 Carl Orff, 1930.

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ex. 13-1a Carl Orff, Carmina burana, no. 1, “O fortuna,” mm. 5–28

The opening number (“O Fortuna,” Ex. 13-1a), which also serves as the finale, sets the tone. Although written out in full, it is a strophic song in three stanzas (the first a bit truncated, the last somewhat embellished) to a tune that until the final melisma uses only the first five degrees of a D-minor (or, arguably, a “Dorian”) scale. Although composed by Orff, it is meant to sound like an authentic medieval tune (of which the Benediktbeuren manuscript actually contains many). The climactic number (“Tempus est iocundum,” “It is the time of joy”; Ex. 59-1b) is of a similar design, this time in five slightly varied strophes, and followed by a melismatic soprano solo — “Dulcissime” (O Sweetie!; Ex. 13-1c) — that, without actually saying so, is as unmistakably a portrait of feminine sexual ecstasy as the preceding chorus, with its huffing and puffing (“oh, oh, oh…”) had been one of masculine potency.

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ex. 13-1b Carl Orff, Carmina burana, no. 22, “Tempus est iocundum”

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ex. 13-1c Carl Orff, Carmina burana, no. 23, “Dulcissime”

After its 1937 premiere, at which a certain amount of unofficial discomfort was expressed at the frank sexual innuendoes, Carmina burana’s instant popularity and international success won it official approval as a display piece celebrating Nazi “youth culture.” In 1943, at the height of the war, Orff followed up with a sequel, Catulli carmina (“Songs of Catullus”), a setting of erotic poems by the Roman poet named in the title. Subtitled “Ludi scaenici” (“scenic games”), it was another ballet with songs, consisting of twelve a cappella choruses framed by a huge choral-instrumental number that in its scoring for soloists, chorus, four pianos, and a huge battery requiring the services of a timpanist and a dozen assistant percussionists, announced even more plainly its derivation from Stravinsky’s Noces. (Stravinsky was by this time banned again in Nazi Germany, not for musical or ethnic reasons but simply because he was an “enemy national” living in the United States.) Somehow Orff managed to strip the already virtually denuded style of Carmina burana even further down in the new piece, producing an even franker, ruder, more athletic eroticism.

In the passage shown in Ex. 13-2, for example, the poet hymns at length the beauty of his beloved’s breasts. Just like medieval churchmen confronted with the Hebrew psalms or the Song of Songs, the puritanical critics of the official Nazi press managed to reconcile themselves to the content of Orff’s cantatas by giving them allegorical, “politically correct” interpretations. The critic of the Zeitschrift für Musik, since Schumann’s day the leading German musical paper, claimed that Carmina burana was “in terms of expression, a Song of Songs praising the strength of the unbroken life-instinct,” hence an antidote to “decadence,” and exulted that “German musical creativity in our day can produce such a work.”19 The Völkischer Beobachter (“People’s observer”), the Nazi Party’s official organ, pointed to Orff’s cantatas as “the kind of clear, stormy, and yet always disciplined music that our time requires.”20

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ex. 13-2 Carl Orff, Catulli carmina, “mammae molliculae”

Stravinsky, when he came to know these imitations of his own youthful style, dismissed them with a snicker as “Neo-Neanderthal.”21 (More recently it has been described as “pop Gothic”) There were many who saw Orff’ s celebrations of youthful vitality as debased (if not newly — and hypocritically — “decadent”), and saw their popularity as evidence of that fact. And there were just as many who dismissed such criticism as a remnant of high-modernist snobbery and greeted the simple music for its infectiousness, its ability to bond an audience in the spirit of Gemeinschaft, “community.” Such defenders of Orff could remind his critics that not only Nazis, and not only totalitarians, had called for art to fulfill a communitarian aim and carry a social message. (In Weimar Germany, we may recall from Chapter 9, Weill and Eisler, not to mention Brecht, had made a similar appeal from the political left, and might well have welcomed music like Orff’s had it been set to a different sort of text.)

Back at them comes the argument that in Nazi Germany the spirit of Gemeinschaft had been hopelessly tainted by Volksgemeinschaft, “ethnic communalism,” a tribalism that was as much an exclusionary as a communitarian sentiment. In its insistent simplicities and its hypnotic rhythmic monotony, Orff’s music, which so effectively roused primitive, unreflective enthusiasm in millions, was inviting (or compelling) its listeners, to put it as Hitler did, to “think with their blood” instead of their brains, and was thus humanly as well as artistically debasing. Historically, the best (or most specifically) grounded approach to the question of Orff’s place within the culture of Nazism would situate the reception of his orgiastic and “paganistic” cantatas within the context of the propaganda war the Nazi Party was waging against the Christian churches of Germany, both Catholic and Protestant, which resisted the Nazi doctrine of hatred as long as possible.

The controversy, which reached a head in 1936–37 (the period of Carmina burana’s genesis and premiere), ended with a ban on all political activities by clergymen outside their houses of worship. In the decree silencing the churches, promulgated on 12 September 1938, Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess (1894–1987) emphasized the need to combat Christianity (“a doctrine from the Near East and Jewish through and through”) not by direct polemics but by counterexample:

The more we National Socialists avoid religious controversies, abstain from Church ceremonies, but on the other hand win the confidence of the people by our dutifulness, justice, and loyalty, the more men will feel that they belong to National Socialism. The more National Socialism is seen as a blessing as a result of our work and the conviction spreads that Providence is with us and with our work, the more people will recognize that National Socialism is a God-ordained order and institution. Thus they will gradually become increasingly alienated by the Churches and their dogmas in the degree to which the latter stand in our way.22

After the outbreak of the war in 1939, the Nazi government actually tried to set up a competing anti-Christian and explicitly neo-Pagan religious denomination, that of the Gottgläubige (“Believers in God”). Beginning in 1940, Orff’s cantata was performed at Party and government functions, and received the status of a quasi-official anthem.

The continuing popularity of Orff’s cantatas since the war, both in and outside of Germany, has worked to counteract the taint of association. Debate has proceeded on a new footing, the main question now being whether the origin or original context of an artwork has a decisive bearing on its interpretation or its effect, or whether works like Carmina burana and Catulli carmina can now be taken at face value and enjoyed as innocently mindless fun and games. Orff’s continued popularity has also quickened postwar debate as to whether hermetic, difficult modernist art, insofar as it is so much less easily exploited for possibly unsavory or even criminal political purposes, might after all be morally superior to “accessible” art. (Whatever Schoenberg may have been, to put it bluntly, at least he was no rabble-rouser.) One of the things that make these questions hard is the fact that they cannot be answered simply on the basis of the composer’s intention. Nothing that has been said about Orff’s work is evidence of his own political or social beliefs. After the war, like most Germans, he claimed to have been opposed to the Hitler regime. The present discussion has not accused him of Nazism, just as the discussion of Respighi made no claims about his personal commitment to Mussolini’s policies. (We have far stronger evidence of Stravinsky’s commitments in that regard than we do of Respighi’s or Orff’s.) Were it established that Orff was anti-Nazi and Respighi anti-Fascist, the information would be relevant to their biographies, but not of decisive import in interpreting their works, which left their hands the moment they were performed and have in any case outlived their authors. The question of political meaning is as much or more a question about reception as it is a question about intention.

But neither intention nor reception alone can be decisive. If an author’s intention were the sole criterion for evaluating his work, Wagner’s Ring would surely draw picket lines today (as it does in the state of Israel); and if reception were the sole criterion, then Beethoven and Bruckner would draw picket lines, since the Nazis claimed them, along with Wagner, as spiritual forerunners. In any case, musical life in Nazi Germany continued to function at a high professional level. The performance traditions that had previously been established for the German classics reached new heights of achievement, as recordings that continue to circulate, and to be enjoyed everywhere, attest.

This, too, has made for aesthetic quandaries: since the Second World War it has been much more difficult to claim that exposure to the greatest masterpieces of art is inherently ennobling. The Germans continued to be sincere and discriminating lovers of their finest music (and thanks to Furtwängler, experienced the finest performances of it) all through the period of Nazi atrocity. It did not inhibit the prevailing barbarism of the period in any way. (And in this sad observation may unexpectedly lie Orff’s best defense; for if Bach and Beethoven could not prevent Nazi barbarity is it hard to claim that Orff could have inspired it.)


(19) Horst Büttner, “Hochkultur und Volkskunst: 68. Tonkünstlerversammlung des Allgemeinen Deutschen Musikvereins vom 8. bis 13. Juni in Darmstadt und Frankfurt a. M.,” Zeitschrift für Musik CIV, no. 8 (August 1937), 873; trans. Steven Moore Whiting.

(20) Völkischer Beobachter 7 October 1940; trans. S. M. Whiting.

(21) Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Memories and Commentaries (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), p. 123.

(22) Rudolf Hess, address to the Gauleiters of Nuremberg, 12 September 1938; Peter Matheson, The Third Reich and the Christian Churches: A Documentary Account of Christian Resistance and Complicity during the Nazi Era (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1981), p. 75.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Music and Totalitarian Society." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 1 Apr. 2015. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 13 Music and Totalitarian Society. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 1 Apr. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Music and Totalitarian Society." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 1 Apr. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013005.xml