Carl Orff

(10 July 1895, Munich - 29 March 1982, Munich)


Carl Orff was a German composer best known for his operas and dramatic works and for his innovations in children music education. At the age of 5 he started to study the piano, and also took organ and cello lessons. Soon after, he found that his interest in composing was far greater than in studying to be a performer. His first compositions were for staged puppet shows that he regularly gave for his family, the music that was meant to accompany these shows was composed for piano, violin, zither, and glockenspiel.

Although he never studied harmony or composition, by the time he was a teenager Orff was writing songs, and with the help of his mother, learned musical notation in order to write down his works. Largely self-taught, he learned the art of composing by studying classical masterworks on his own. This may have laid the foundation of the development of his musical education methods. His first works were published in 1911, at the age of 16. Many of his youthful works were songs, often settings of German poetry. They fell into the style of Richard Strauss and other German composers of the day, but with hints of what would become Orff's distinctive musical language.

In 1911/12, Orff wrote Zarathustra, Op. 14, an unfinished large work for baritone voice, three male choruses and orchestra, based on a passage from Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical novel Thus Spake Zarathustra. The next year, he composed his opera Gisei, das Opfer (Gisei, the Sacrifice). The colorful and unusual combinations of instruments used by the French Impressionist composer Claude Debussy influenced Orff so much that he began to incorporate such combinations in his orchestration.

He studied at the Munich Academy of Music, graduating in 1914, and with the German composer Heinrich Kaminski. Afterwards, he held various positions at opera houses in Mannheim and Darmstadt, later returning to Munich to pursue his music studies. In 1930 he published his Schulwerk, a manual describing his method of conducting. Another noteworthy influence was the Russian-French émigré Igor Stravinsky, who at that time was an inspiration to many other composers.

Orff edited some 17th-century operas and in 1937 produced his secular oratorio Carmina Burana. Intended to be staged with dance, it was based on a manuscript of medieval poems. This work led to others inspired by Greek theatre and by medieval mystery plays, notably Catulli carmina (1943; Songs of Catullus) and Trionfo di Afrodite (1953; The Triumph of Aphrodite), which form a trilogy with Carmina Burana. His other works include an Easter cantata, Comoedia de Christi Resurrectione (1956); a nativity play, Ludus de nato infante mirificus (1960); and a trilogy of “music dramas”—Antigonae (1949), Oedipus der Tyrann (1959), and Prometheus (1966).

These works, as well as some compositions on Christian themes, followed the composer's established dramatic and compositional techniques, but failed to repeat the tremendous success of Carmina Burana. His last work, De temporum fine comoedia (A Comedy About the End of Time) premiered at the 1973 Salzburg Festival. Nine years later, Carl Orff died in Munich, where he had spent his entire life.

Although his fame rests on the success of a single work, the famous and frequently commercially mutilated Carmina Burana, Carl Orff was in fact a multi-faceted musician and prolific composer who wrote in many styles before developing the primal, driving language which informs his most famous work. Orff’s system of music education for children, largely based on developing a sense of rhythm through group exercise and performance with percussion instruments, has been widely adopted.

Here  you can find a list of compositions by Carl Orff.