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The overriding challenge of 20th century music was progress with integrity. Once tonality had run its course, some pursued further innovation through bypassing traditional notions of melody, harmony, rhythm, and structure altogether, but alienated their audiences in the process. Most of the best known composers averted this problem by clinging to the popular models of the past and lapsed into recycling formulae of the previous century. Carl Orff, though, looked back even further, to the era before tonality had begun. Rather than remain just another one among the legions of minor composers of his time, Orff turned to education and developed an innovative system that revolutionized music teaching and still wields enormous influence. As he later recounted in his Schulwerk (Schott, 1950), children rebel against being plunged into the boring technical exercises and “polite minuets, insipid rondos and empty sonatinas” inmost practice books. The key to the Orff method is so simple it now seems obvious � recognizing that kids are kids rather than miniature adults. Thus, music is thoroughly integrated into gymnastics, dance, and play through bodily movements and speech patterns so children first experience and internalize music on a meaningful level before serious study and formal training. The predominant force is rhythm,derived from the subconscious patterns of nature � heartbeats, breathing, walking. The first lessons use the body as an instrument, with clapping hands, patting thighs, stamping feet, and snapping fingers. Students then transfer these instinctive rhythms to percussion instruments, specially adapted to the physical requirements of youngsters. Improvisation is encouraged through use of a pentatonic scale (C-major without F’s and B’s), with an expressive sound sufficiently exotic to discourage mere imitation of conventional music, yet thoroughly pleasant, with none of the tones combining into discord. After a decade of working with children,Orff came upon the means to apply his method to the theater � a collection of 200 13th century poems written in Latin, German, and French and that had been found in the library of a Bavarian monastery near Munich, where Orff spent his entire life. Essentially counterculture protest songs, the poems had been written by the Golliards, a roving band of students and lapsed clerics who mocked authority and celebrated the pleasures of life. Indeed, the manuscript had rudimentary notation that suggested instrumental accompaniment, but its meaning was obscure. For his 1935 “Carmina Burana,” Orff selected two dozen of the Golliard poems. All share the quality of the best folk music � deceptively simple but implying a remarkable depth of reflection upon the human experience. Thus, in a grotesque song by a falsetto tenor, a charred swan roasting upon a spit recalls its former grace and beauty, providing a wry yet powerful reflection upon the cycle of life in which death is transformed into sustenance. Another, a single line set by Orff as an exquisite soprano melisma, merely states: “Sweetest boy, I give my all to you.” Has there ever been a more complete expression of all-encompassing love? Inspired by his educational work, Orff applied the same principles to simplify his musical vocabulary and to craft a seemingly new but timeless style, with a sound that was fresh yet firmly rooted in the past. Chantlike phrases are repeated rather than developed; rhythms remain constant with little tempo change within a piece; accompaniment usually doubles or briefly comments on the vocal lines; harmonies are rudimentary, with no counterpoint; keys are firmly established with little modulation or chromatic coloration; vocal writing is in octaves, fifths, or thirds with lots of parallel movement; and the instrumentation is dominated by a percussion section of 32 instruments and eight players. If all this sounds like punk rock, it has the same appeal of primal energy and a rediscovery of basics. As with punk rock, some commentators discerned fascist overtones in the repetition and simplicity of Orff’s style (which, admittedly, emerged in Germany between the wars). Yet, the texts hardly uphold conservative values, dwelling instead upon lust, decadence, and contempt for authority. Indeed, the Nazis generally condemned his percussive sound as tastelessly vulgar. Other detractors deride the work as dumbed down Stravinsky but, as Tim Page has noted, it looks forward to a number of compositional trends that were yet to be born, including those of Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Henryk Gorecki, and even the minimalism of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and others. Page aptly notes: “Nobody but the most antiseptic musical snob need apologize for enjoying � and admiring � ‘Carmina Burana.’ “ RECOGNIZABLE AND UNFORGETTABLE The work announces its essence at the very outset with one of the most oft-quoted of all classical pieces. “O Fortuna” is instantly recognizable and unforgettable, relentlessly building a short killer motif in D minor without even a hint of harmonic progression. The text is an extended metaphor of life, its joys and frustrations buffeted by the constant turning of the wheel of fortune. The three major sections that follow trace the resurgence of the human soul amid the follies and rewards of fate, a force that inexorably links all mankind throughout the generations. The first part, “Primo Vere � Uf Dem Anger” (“Springtime � In the Meadow”), reverts to the dawn of Western music, as chantlike phrases hover over a simple, two note motif (G to A) and chords of A and E, thus presenting the simplest tonality (a minor, with no accidentals), the most elementary tonal progression (adjacent notes), and the most basic polytonal interval (an open fifth). Next, a baritone solo introduces simple scalar melody. Rhythm emerges in a rollicking orchestral dance in common (4/4) time with measures of 1-1/2 beats tossed in to disrupt the regularity. Although seemingly a leap into modernistic complexity, actually Orff provides a valuable historical lesson, reminding us that while music has become rhythmically standardized, usually cast in unvarying meters of 4 or occasionally 3, medieval music tended to be far more varied. Indeed, Orff seals the point with a lilting round dance that fluently scrambles measures of 2, 3, 5, and 7 beats. But lest this section appear to be a dry history lesson, Orff concludes with a macho choral plea to bed the Queen of England (pointing toward Paul McCartney’s “Her Majesty”?). In the next part, the resurgent hormones of Orff’s salute to spring wind up “In Taberna” (“In the Tavern”), highlighted by a bold aria in which doubts and inhibitions are dissolved by vice and pleasure, the ramblings of a drunken abbot mocked by the crowd, and a dizzy drinking song that offers 13 toasts and then catalogs with accelerating haste all who imbibe (“sister, brother, maiden, mother”). The third section is “Cour d’amours” (“The Court of Love”), an exquisite set of poignant, na�ve, and sincere observations that explore the mind of youth, ever tottering on the timeless cusp between innocence and lust, chastity and indulgence. For his magnificent conclusion, Orff seemingly steps outside his constraints with a fully harmonized chorus in an ardent salute to the power and fulfillment of love. But then, just as the chorale soars to its dazzling climax, poised on a seemingly final cadence, we plunge into an exact repeat of the opening “O Fortuna,” thus closing the work with a final warning that life is a vast cycle and that its only guarantee is the uncertainty of fate itself. Upon completing “Carmina Burana,” Orff disavowed all his prior published work as too extravagantly harmonized, insufficiently rhythmic, and thickly orchestrated. All his further output eschewed the standard songs, symphonies, concertos, and even solo or chamber pieces of other composers to focus exclusively upon oratorio and opera. “Carmina Burana” became the first part of a tryptich. “Catulli Carmina” (1943) was even bolder in its use and distillation of spare materials. Although scored for four pianos, percussion, solo voices, and chorus, all but the opening and closing is a capella, the spell of its intensely rhythmic repetitions occasionally relieved by declamation to tell the tale of the Roman poet Catullus’ obsession for a consul’s wife. Added to Orff’s trademark ancient texts, unwavering harmonies, and parallel motion are insistent rhythms, extreme dynamics, and contrasts between men’s and women’s voices for an extraordinarily challenging and exhausting yet invigorating singers’ workout. The cycle was completed with the 1951 “Trionfo de Afrodite.” Poetry of Catullus, Sappho, and Euripides conjures newlyweds’ wedding night, but while the text is a bit impish, the music is unremittingly parched, grim, and formally ritualistic without a hint of the expected joy and tenderness of the occasion. Indeed, the bride’s deflowering is a cartoonish depiction of screams and moans, sex without love. This dry display of technique shorn of substance led the way to Orff’s final work, his relentlessly bleak and oppressive 1973 “DeTemporum Fine Comoedia,” a grueling ordeal about the end of the world that’s a world apart from the joyous celebration of life in “Carmina Burana.” In all candor, I’ve never heard a fully satisfying recording of “Carmina Burana” that projects both its steadfast ardent simplicity and elemental visceral power. The first recording, by Eugen Jochum and the Bavarian Radio Symphony and Chorus (1952, DG), is fast, steady, and with a natural expressive ease and conversational solos � vigorous without being forced. All these qualities are preserved and enhanced in his famed 1968 stereo remake (DG). Among other worthwhile entries, Blomstedt/San Francisco (Decca) is vibrant, sharp, and bursting with life and wit; Tilson-Thomas/Cleveland (Sony) is youthful and dynamic, with striking tempo extremes; Muti/Philharmonia (EMI) is highly theatrical and atmospheric, with full-blooded climaxes and exquisite repose; Previn/London(EMI) combines more judicious tempos with precise diction for a spirited, brash, and even occasionally rude texture; and Shaw/Atlanta (Telarc) is comparatively straightforward, its especially agile choral work captured with crystalline clarity by the early (1980) digital process (and a bass drum that will justify your subwoofer). (Runnicles/Atlanta (Telarc)) claims to reach for an extra measure of authenticity by restoring 13th century diction, but the differences between it and the same forces in the Shaw recording are quite subtle.) Weirdest of all is a 1983 “arrangement” by Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek (A&M). Although intended to channel the work’s spiritual power to create “an enhanced intense feeling for life akin to the passion and revelry of the wandering poets of so long ago,” the constant volume,unremitting thudding down beats, thick rock texture, echo-drenched vocals, and added instrumental breaks are more disco than retro. (The cover art, though, is a riot, with medieval monks and maidens devoutly playing rock instruments.) Yet, despite the disconcerting clash of serious and pop cultures, it’s a wholly appropriate application of Orff’s insistence that music be purified and recast into primal rhythms. Peter Gutmann is a partner at the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice and can be reached at [email protected]. Music articles by the author are posted on his Web site at www.classicalnotes.net.

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