Born in 1895 to an old Bavarian family, composer Carl Orff studied piano and cello while still a young boy. He later studied at the Munich Academy of Music, graduating in 1914. Orff is known primarily for one work: his oratorio, Carmina Burana. The piece, written in 1937, is a setting for an adult chorus of 200 or more, a children’s choir of 50 or more, an orchestra of 100, and three soloists. Using powerful, driving rhythms, Orff created a piece that exemplifies his goal of enabling listeners to experience music as an overwhelming, primitive force. He believed that every human being has a fundamental musicality.
He later studied musicology with two of Germany’s leading scholars and developed a strong interest in music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, rare specialties at the time. He also became interested in the many percussion instruments from around the world, particularly African drums.
These influences of early music and percussion can be seen in Carmina Burana. The primitive, compelling rhythms, particularly in the imposing opening chorus, “O Fortuna,” were immediately popular, and the work has been a successful concert piece since its premiere. The title, which means “Songs of Beuren,” refers to the title of a collection of 13th century Latin and German secular poems sung by monks. Most of Orff’s later works were based on texts or topics from Greek antiquity. These are expensive to stage and are usually performed only occasionally, most often in Germany.
Orff is also known as an authority on children’s music education. His system, which enables children to make music using their voices and simple percussion instruments (which Orff developed), became known worldwide and has been taught in the United States.