NOTES BY ROBERT STEVENSON
Born at Munich July 10, 1895 - the same year as Hindemith - Carl Orff scored his first big success so late as June 8,1937, when at the ripe age of 41 his Carmina Burana was at last premiered in Frankfurt am Main. Before that, he was a composer unknown to even such compendious dictionaries as Grove's. Nicolas Slonimsky's 1938 and 1949 editions of Music Since 1900 signal 28 and 37 works by his exact contemporary Hindemith but limit Orff to a single opus - and that a mere arrangement (of William Byrd's The Bells (Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, no. 69) for organ and five separately placed orchestral ensembles). No edition of the International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians gave Orff an entry until the 9th (1964), Percy Scholes's Oxford Companion as recently as the 10th edition (1970) merely sniffed at him. But by the time Slonimsky compiled his fourth edition of Music Since 1900 (1971), Orff's stature had so grown that Sionimsky now listed the premieres of 14 Orff works: none a mere arrangement.
In a real sense, Orff's recent rating as the most widely and successfully performed living German composer represents the worldwide triumph of two works, Carmina Burana and Catulli Carmina. In 1950/51 he composed a third choral work, Trionfo di Aphrodite, to make a triptych called collectively Trionfi. But to date this third has been too explicit a reenactment of the wedding act to woo concert audiences, who continue preferring the act behind a screen.
Not that Catulli Carmina lacks sexually explicit language. Orff-who must be the only twentieth-century composer capable of fashioning his own Latin texts - indeed wrote some lines for the chorus to sing in the percussively accompanied praelusio (prelude) to Catulli Carmina too lascivious to be translated. So far as the structure of this scenic cantata goes: Catullus's 12 poems sung a cappella are framed by the praelusio and an exordium (which is an abbreviated recapitulation of the praelusio). The 12 Catullus poems make a play within a play. In the praelusio, youth shouts exultantly that love endures eternally. Old men counter their boasts with the warning that not even the most violent love can withstand the ravages of time. To prove their point, they ask youth to behold the example of Catullus, the vernal Roman poet (c 84-54 B.C.).
Catullus's poems as grouped by Orff unfold in three acts the story of his passion for the married Lesbia (pseudonym for Clodia). Act I traces the birth of the poet's passion. Believing her vows eternal, he discovers himself betrayed before Act I ends. In Act II (poems 6 and 7) he seeks consolation for lost love in barren philosophy. In Act Ill Catullus disports himself with Ipstilla and with the harlot Ammiana in his effort to quench the memory of Lesbia. But to no avail. In poem 11 he bemoans himself as a wretched fool who has wasted his best hours on traitorous woman. In 12 he protests that no one ever loved a woman with the passion and intensity that he bestowed on faithless Lesbia.
After this "proof" that even the most intense passion avails naught against treacherous time, have the old men taught youth a lesson? By no means. The youthful chorus has learned nothing. Despite having witnessed the wretched poet's misery, they are confident that for themselves all will be different. Away with the counsel of age and experience! They therefore again begin the exultant tribal chant with which the praelusio had begun, "I am yours forever."
Stripping down to the naked primitivism of Catulli Carmina cost Orff no little calculated effort. Already in 1932, five years before Carmina Burana, Schott had published his first a cappella versions of the Catullus poems that figure as items 1 (Odi et amo = I hate and I love), 2 (Vivamus, mea Lesbia = Let us live, Lesbia), 3 (tile mi par esse deo = He seems to me the equal of a god), 10 (Ammiana puella = Ammiana, that girl), 11 (Miser Catulle = Wretched Catullus), and 12 (Nulla potest mulier = No woman can say). Although no scholar has yet attempted an erudite comparison of the Catulli Carmina of 1932 with the versions of these same poems premiered at Leipzig November 6, 1943, Orff's biographer Andreas Liess confirms that all the 1932 poems were rewritten (Carl Orff Idee und Werk [Atlantis, 1977], 22). More to the point: the brilliant idea of framing Catullus’s unaccompanied poems with an instrumentally accompanied opening and closing praelusio and exordium was a stroke of genius entirely new in 1943.
The accompaniment prescribed for Orff's own lascivious Latin lines in the praelusio (Eduard Stamplinger helped him confect them) consists of four pianos, four kettledrums, castanets, and sixteen other percussion instruments played by ten or twelve suonatori. So far as these sixteen “otther” percussion are concerned, Orff allows marimba to substitute for tenor xylophone and vibraphone without motor to replace metallophone. He prescribes stone slab rolled with sticks when youths enthrone Venus as goddess of all joy. Shaken maracas join the ensemble when muttering old men warn youth that “nothing can endure time’s depredations."
The tonality throughout the 40 minutes is mostly D dorian or D aeolian. Only exceptionally does Orff inhabit any other tonal territory (poem 6, "You promise me that our love will last forever" is, by way of exception, in four sharps). Orff's disdain of counterpoint, restriction of melody to narrow range formulas incessantly repeated, avoidance of chromaticism, disdain for modulation - all these limitations that would disastrously cripple another composer, enable him to concentrate on powerful rhythmic figures repeated so incessantly that they hypnotize even the most sophisticated auditor.
Everett Helm, "Carl Orff," Musical Quarterly, XLI/3 (July, 1955], 299) rated Catulli Carmina thus: "Catulli Carmina expresses as no other work of Orff's an intensity of passion that ranges from the intimate to the orgiastic. It is, in this writer’s opinion, possibly his most successfully realized work, the one in which he entirely fulfills what he sets out to do, both musically and dramatically." To arrive at this summit of his "primitive" art, Orff had climbed a long and painful previous pathway.
NOTES BY THE COMPOSER
African Sanctus represents Belief. In 1969, I had a burning ambition- to travel up the river Nile through Egypt, Sudan, Uganda and Kenya to Lake Victoria and to record on stereo tape recorder traditional music, religious ceremonies, chants, dances and sound effects of the peoples of the Nile and their environment. I wanted to explore, in effect, the source of the Nile’s music and then to compose a large scale setting of the Latin Mass, with the exception of the Lord's Prayer purposely set in English. My aim was to combine selected field-recordings into musical composition which would express my belief in the unity of different peoples and their music and my love of the world through faith and praise to one God. I heard in my mind the Call to Prayer, chanted in the Islamic world, accompanied by the Christian Kyrie Eleison. An English translation of this reaffirmed my belief in its spiritual unity - "God is great, God is great: Lord have mercy upon us".
At that time, a decade ago, aged twenty-six, I had no idea of the obstacles I would face. It was as if I were blindfolded and sent on a mission to achieve a goal - the goal became African Sanctus. The journey became a symbolic one, the ‘Sanctus Journey’, and the distance covered, hitch -hiking with virtually no money, was over twenty thousand miles. I was jailed as an alleged spy, escaped and without permission or permits traveled in secret by night on sailing barges up the Nile. I heard exotic sounds, like the Egyptian wedding dance (Gloria) and risked my life recording in forbidden villages on several occasions. I became involved in inter-tribal wars, was beaten with donkey sticks and thrown into the Nile, imprisoned in Tanzania, fell into a water well in a sand storm and lost my tape recorder to an angry hippopotamus when my canoe was upturned - and yet - my belief in the harmony of indigenous music with a Western choral setting of the mass seemed to make the day to day hazards insignificant. On reaching Khartoum, I decided to go west to the legendary “Mountains of Paradise". I travelled by camel and one moonlit night, by accident or divine providence, I heard fantastic chanting. On top of the mountains, I came upon four men in a deep trance, swaying vehemently. I recorded them and vanished and they never saw me. From that moment - belief in the shape of my journey and the geographical relationship between North, West, East and the deserts of the Red Sea hills, followed by a lengthy expedition to South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, became another important symbol - The Cross. As the indigenous music changed character from North to South, so my composition would be very different from music composed to the highly rhythmical ostinato patterns of the Acholi Bwala Dancers of Uganda. An unorthodox setting of the Mass was therefore to take its final form in the shape of my travels and the Lord's Prayer was to become an Offertory to a mother's lamentation on the death of her son. The main dedication is to: Musicians who neither read nor write music.
The recordings are unique and since 1969, many of the musicians have died. There has been widespread unrest in Africa; and the world, for better or worse, is changing at a phenomenal speed . African Sanctus from conception to completion took eight years. It has been revised five times. The recording is a clear indication of what is intended. The award winning BBC Television film which retraces my journeys in Africa has been seen by millions - however, the work is now published (Theodore Presser) and now exists as a living entity and it is my sincere belief that it will be performed and enjoyed by many and that the African music will live in the hearts of both performers and listeners. The world premiere took place in Toronto and other major premieres have been given in Ireland, at the Three Choirs Festival, Worcester, at the Royal Albert Hall, London, in Australia and Canada. We live on a small planet and Every Day is a Day of Praise and of history.