Born in Munich, Bavaria, in 1895, Carl Orff was witness to two world wars. He was the son and grandson of military men, and his mother, a pianist, encouraged his artistic gifts. An intelligent child, at a very young age he began to conceive short pieces for puppet plays. He was also interested in language, and at seventeen composed an opera set in Japan titled Gisei.
Munich, in the 1920s, was a hotbed of pre-Nazi political agitation and strongly anti-Semitic. It was in that stormy context that Carl Orff’s work and career developed, while he regularly had to deal with money worries.
Endowed with a fertile imagination, Orff was haunted by dark thoughts and suffered from nightmares. Dreaming of the devil or witches, he would often wake up in the night terrified and screaming. Beyond Carmina Burana, his best-known and most performed composition, he left the world an original body of work imbued with a theatrical spirit, consisting above all of operas and choral music. Strongly influenced by Monteverdi, the myth of Orpheus and the Renaissance, he went his own way without really coming under the influence of the important musical trends of his time.
“I am convinced,” said Orff, “that all human beings bear an artist inside them, something that can be encouraged or destroyed. My principles have always had the goal of encouraging it.” That conviction certainly guided Carl Orff in the development, with his colleagues at the Günther School for gymnastics, music and dance, of a teaching approach that revolutionized music education. The “Orff-Schulwerk,” or Orff Method, is still used today in classrooms around the world.
That method is based essentially on rhythm, the body and language, as well as on the use of instruments easy for the child to manage, like xylophones and other percussion. Children, here, are the leading actors in their learning. Apart from his work as a composer and orchestra conductor, it is no doubt through this contribution to music education that Carl Orff left the most indelible mark on history.