O, Fortuna! - Carl Orff and Carmina Burana

A flawed and complex portrait of a complex, flawed composer

Author: 
Guy Rickards

O, Fortuna! - Carl Orff and Carmina Burana

  • Carmina Burana

Should knowledge of a creative artist’s personal life and circumstances affect one’s appreciation of their output? Wagner’s virulent anti-Semitism does not undermine his music – even Parsifal. What then of Carl Orff, creator of one indisputably great popular hit and a revolutionary educational method (taught around the world to this day), yet who blatantly lied about his relationship to the Nazi regime which treated him as a privileged artist?

The image that emerges from Tony Palmer’s fascinating, if uneven, film is of a brilliant creator whose music foresaw the minimalism of the 1960s but an opportunist who despite despising the Nazis manoeuvred himself into official favour and concomitant rewards; who replaced one (increasingly young) wife after another; who with Schulwerk did more for children’s musical education than anyone (much time is devoted in the film to the present practice of Schulwerk and the almost missionary zeal of its practitioners) yet who subjected his only daughter, Godela, to acute emotional neglect; and who claimed in 1946 to have co-founded The White Rose resistance movement, an outright falsehood designed to save his skin.

Palmer’s film contains much intriguing material, with archival footage of the composer and specially recorded excerpts from various works (including Catulli carmina, Die Kluge, Der Mond, Die Bernauerin, Oedipus, Antigonae) by Bavarian Radio conducted by Donald Runnicles. The use of gratuitous imagery (full frontal female nudity accompanying the lewder texts in the cantatas, death camp victims for the Third Reich’s collapse) adds little. Most revealing are the interviews with conductor Kurt Eichhorn (who considered him “sadistic”), Godela, Orff’s second, third and fourth wives – Gertrud, Luise and Liselotte – and the widow of Kurt Huber, the real founder of The White Rose. Their recollections depict a man who placed his creative vision above all considerations: friendship, his daughter, his wives, the holocaust. The path to and from Carmina Burana – which features only for a few minutes – was littered with enough emotional wreckage for one of the Greek tragedies Orff later set to music.

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