(1895-1982). Carl Orff was born into an old Bavarian family of officers and scholars. His grandfathers, both major generals, were active in a number of different academic fields, Carl von Orff (1828-1905) being involved in geodesy, mathematics and astronomy, while Karl Köstler (1837-1924) was an historian. Music was played regularly in Orff´s own home. His father Heinrich (1869-1949), an officer, played both the piano and various stringed instruments, but it was mainly his mother Paula (1872-1960), a qualified pianist, who recognised and encouraged her son´s musical talent.

At the age of five, Orff had his first piano lessons and two years later began to learn the cello, his first attempts at playing the organ dating from 1909. There are records of concert and theatre visits from 1903 onwards. From 1905 to 1907, Orff attended the Ludwig Grammar School and between 1907 and 1912, the Wittelsbach Grammar School in Munich.

He left school early to study music at the Academy of Musical Arts in Munich. Since the end of 1910, Orff had been receiving private tuition in harmony and, prior to being accepted at the Academy in September 1912, had written numerous songs for voice and piano (op. 1-19), as well as Zarathustra (op. 14, 1911/12), an unfinished choral work. The collection of songs entitled Eliland (op. 12) was published at the beginning of 1912.

Orff felt that tuition at the Academy of Musical Arts (1912-1914), under A. Beer-Walbrunn for example, was too conservative. Turning to private study, he became deeply involved with Schönberg´s Harmonielehre and his works, as well as with Debussy´s music. It was above all Debussy´s tonal expression that prompted him to create his first work for the stage, Gisei, a musical drama op. 20 (1913), for which he wrote his own text based freely on the Japanese no drama Terakoya. Up until 1914, he contributed to the most important trends pursued by the musical avant-garde with compositions such as the "orchestral play" Tanzende Faune, or the "dream play" Treibhauslieder, which was based on poems by M. Maeterlinck, but destroyed except for a few drafts.

Immediately prior to the outbreak of the First World War, Orff recognised the course he was following to be the wrong one and completely turned his back on these early works. Everything was urging him towards the theatre. To improve his piano playing, he took private tuition from Hermann Zilcher from 1915 onwards, his teacher also arranging for him to take up the position of conductor at the Munich Kammerspiele theatre (1916/17), following a brief engagement with the Court Opera.

Inspired by Otto Falckenberg´s sensational productions, Orff conceived the first version of his musical accompaniment to Shakespeare´s A Midsummer Night´s Dream. Called up for military service in 1917, he was buried alive in a dugout on the Eastern front and, following a long process of recuperation, subsequently worked as a conductor at Mannheim National Theatre and at the 'Hoftheater' in Darmstadt during 1918 and 1919. The few compositions still preserved from this period show that his style was notably influenced by R. Strauss.

From 1919 onwards, Orff worked as a freelance composer in Munich, finding his own personal style in the years that followed up until 1931/32. Orff turned away from Strauss’ musical idiom to study the music of the 16th and 17th centuries. He also taught at the same time, K. Marx, W. Egk and H. Sutermeister being among his first pupils. For a short period during 1920, he himself continued to study under H. Kaminski.

Both his songs and the singular choral work Des Turmes Auferstehung were already indicative of the autonomous nature of his future composing activity. In 1921, Curt Sachs drew Orff´s attention to Monteverdi. His arrangements of some of Monteverdi´s most outstanding works, beginning with Orpheus in 1923/24, were regarded as pioneering achievements both in terms of their practical performance and the history of music, and proved to be landmarks in the evolution of Orff´s musical style.

In the wake of the rhythm and dance movement, Orff founded a training centre for gymnastics and dance in 1924 together with D. Günther, a gymnastics teacher, illustrator and writer. Based in Munich, this became known as the Günther School. The composer developed his own concept of elementary music for the centre, a synthesis of music, speech and movement. The aim was a "regeneration of music based on movement, on dance," (Carl Orff, Doc. III, 17). Having been introduced to non-European music, and more importantly to its instruments, by C. Sachs, Orff put together, with the help of the harpsichord-maker Karl Maendler, what was later to be come known as the collection of 'Orff instruments', the Orff-Instrumentarium, this being of fundamental importance both for his Schulwerk and his dramatic works. He therefore regarded the Günther School as an experimental workshop, not only for educational purposes, but also for composing activities. His experience gathered from practical work during its early years was integrated into the first series of the Orff-Schulwerk. Elementare Musikübung written in collaboration with Gunild Keetman and Hans Bergese and published between 1932 and 1935.

Plans drawn up by Leo Kestenberg at the Prussian Ministry of Culture to introduce the Schulwerk into Berlin´s schools at the beginning of the thirties failed when the new political forces came to power. In addition to his educational work, the Contemporary Music Association formed by F. Büchtger and others in 1927 also offered a platform for various attempts to perform Orff´s own works (such as Kleine Konzert and Entrata, both in 1928). Furthermore, the music festivals organised between 1929 and 1931 provided an opportunity to become acquainted with the latest music and to make personal contact with composers such as Hindemith, Bartók and Stravinsky.

As conductor of the Munich Bach Society during 1932 and 1933, Orff also experimented with concert performances, and more importantly with scenic stage performances of early music, notably the St. Luke Passion (1932), which was incorrectly attributed to Bach, and the Resurrection Story by Schütz (1933). These experiments demonstrated his marked leaning towards musical theatre, while also pointing in the direction of his own dramatic style. Werkbuch I, with its cantatas based on poems by Franz Werfel, and Werkbuch II, with choral movements based on passages taken from Bert Brecht (1930/31), as well as the choral works Catulli Carmina I and II (1931/32) were composed at this time. Orff took his leave of the Bach Society in the spring of 1933.

Previously known to a wider public only as a music teacher and specialist in early music, Orff achieved his first breakthrough as a composer in 1937 following the premiere of Carmina Burana in Frankfurt am Main. This revealed the full extent of the distinctive 'Orff style', both from the musical point of view and in terms of dramatic and scenic technique. As a result, the composer distanced himself from his early works vis-à-vis his publisher. Carmina Burana by no means met with the undivided approval of the ruling powers at that time. Exception was taken to the "incomprehensibility" of the Latin tongue and the suspected touches of a "jazz mood" (H. Gerigk in the Völkischer Beobachter of 16 June 1937). A second stage performance did not take place until 1940 in Dresden. Orff´s music was not banned, but remained controversial and was critically monitored.

In 1939, Der Mond, a fairy-tale composition based on the Brothers Grimm, had its premiere performance in Munich, as did his third adaptation of the music to A Midsummer Night´s Dream in Frankfurt am Main. Die Kluge, another fairy-tale work, but not without passages critical of the regime, was performed for the first time in Frankfurt am Main in 1943, while in the same year Catulli Carmina had its premiere in Leipzig, after being adapted as a ludi scaenici with the addition of a dramatic structure. In 1944, the Günther School was closed by the local Munich commander, an incendiary bomb destroying the building in January 1945.

Some time ago, Orff´s attitude during the Third Reich was the subject of a critical review. Based on the most recent research (2004), it may be stated that Orff was not a Nazi. He was never a member of the party, in no way sympathised with its ideology, took on no public offices at the German Chamber of Music or similar institutions and was at no time regarded as an official composer for the regime. During the war, he remained in Germany, needing contact with German-speaking theatres. Financially dependent on the performance of his own compositions, he worked with theatrical people who remained as distant from National Socialism as he himself, people such as Caspar Neher, Oscar Fritz Schuh and Heinz Hilpert. He used his involvement in the 1936 Olympic Games to "present [the Schulwerk] to an international forum" (Carl Orff, Doc. III, 205). Strauss and Egk composed the official music for the event, the music for the entry of the children, Einzug und Reigen der Kinder und Mädchen, actually originating from Gunild Keetman. A sponsoring agreement with the Vienna State Opera, concluded subject to granting it a right to the first performance of all works "written or at least begun from 1942 onwards," was not complied with and there were no world premieres or first performances in Vienna during this period. Orff did however overestimate the "potential scope for musical autonomy in an ideological state" (Hans Maier 1995, 9) when, in spite of the racial discrimination of Mendelssohn´s works, he wrote new music to Shakespeare´s A Midsummer Night´s Dream, based however on a draft that had already existed for many years. Although completed for aesthetic and not political motives, the composer later described this as a mistake. Regardless of this, it can hardly be seriously contended that he was opportunistic or that he ingratiated himself with the ruling powers. In fact, compared with many other individuals in the arts world who remained in Germany, Orff conducted himself in an extremely non-committal way. Finally, the allegation that after the war, the composer claimed to have been a founding member of the White Rose has definitively been refuted (O.Rathkolb).

It was not until after 1945 that Orff´s creative work could be freely propagated. From 1950 to 1960, Orff headed a degree class in composition at the State Academy of Music in Munich. As teaching work was meeting with new interest, Orff was encouraged to restructure and expand his methods. The first Schulwerk broadcasts began on Bavarian radio in 1948. Between 1950 and 1954, Orff published, together with G. Keetman, a new five-volume edition of the Schulwerk entitled Musik für Kinder (as well as numerous supplements during the following years). Following the foundation of a training institute and an administrative centre for the Orff-Schulwerk at the Mozarteum Academy in Salzburg in 1961, the Orff Institute was also opened in its own Salzburg premises in 1963. Between 1962 and 1966, Orff travelled to Canada, Japan, Portugal, Egypt and Senegal to promote the growing international acceptance of his Schulwerk. The Musica Poetica series of recordings started in 1963, which included examples from the Schulwerk, was finally completed in 1975.

At the same time, the composer worked intently on new works for the stage, Die Bernauerin being premiered in Stuttgart in 1947. A number of other premieres followed, including Trionfo di Afrodite, along with the entire Trionfi, in Milan in 1953, Astutuli in Munich, also in 1953, Comoedia de Christi Resurrectione in 1956 in Munich (first broadcast by Bavarian television; stage premiere in Stuttgart in 1957), Ludus de nato Infante mirificus in Stuttgart in 1960, as well as the meanwhile sixth and last adaptation of A Midsummer Night´s Dream, also in Stuttgart in 1964. Orff considered the musical settings for the three Greek tragedies, Antigonae (Salzburg 1949), Oedipus der Tyrann (Stuttgart 1959) and Prometheus (Stuttgart 1968), to be his main achievements. In order to realise these, his musical style underwent another fundamental and profound change following Carmina Burana. Like Antigonae before it, the premiere of his final stage composition, De temporum fine comoedia, representing in many respects the culmination of his entire creative work, took place during the Salzburg Festival in 1973. During his last years and continuing until shortly before his death, Orff worked on the eight-volume documentation, Carl Orff und sein Werk (Tutzing 1975-1983).

Orff received numerous awards. From 1956 onwards, he was a member of the 'Pour le mérite' order. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Tübingen in 1959 and by the University of Munich in 1972. Also in 1972, he received the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany with Star and Sash, while in 1974, he was awarded the Guardini Prize by the Catholic Academy of Bavaria, as well as the Austrian Medal for Science and Art. He was also a member of academies in Munich, Rome, Stockholm and Brussels.

Orff was married four times, from 1920 to 1927 with Alice Solscher (1891-1970), singer; from 1939 to 1953 with Gertrud Willert (1914 -2000), the founder of Orff music therapy; from 1954 to 1959 with Luise Rinser (1911-2002), writer, and from 1960 with Liselotte Schmitz (* 1930), who as Director of the Carl Orff Foundation set up in accordance with the composer´s last will and testament, was also responsible for initiating the formation of the Orff-Zentrum München, State Institute for Research and Documentation. Orff´s daughter by his first marriage, Godela (* 1921), is an actress and an elocution teacher.

- from

by Thomas Rösch - Originally published in: Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, ed. by Ludwig Finscher, Personenteil, Band 12, Kassel u.a.: Bärenreiter 2004, Sp. 1397-1401.
This biography was most recently edited by...
holdik12 - 24 Jun 2020
holdik12 - 24 Dec 2019
steven - 8 Jul 2010