Braunfels, (Almost) Haydn, and Orff – David DeAngelo

As far as I can tell it was a sell-out crowd last night at Heinz Hall.  While certainly well-mannered, the lines at the "Will Call" windows were frighteningly long – out the door and a quarter way up 6th street.

Good thing it wasn't rainy or sleety or icy or the line outside would have been, well, difficult to stand through.

Inside the warm dry confines of the hall, the crowd moved about excitedly, waiting for one of the most popular pieces in the repertoire, Orff's Carmina burana.  In a preview piece at the Tribune-Review, Mark Kanny wrote:

The popularity of Carmina burana by Carl Orff isn't hard to figure out.

"It has lots of color and powerful rhythmic energy that erupt in every part," says Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director Manfred Honeck. "'Carmina Burana' is something outstanding, also, because it's a piece which illustrates key elements in the history of the 20th century in music, including irony and, especially, rhythm."

Before we look at the Orff, we should remember that there were two other pieces on the program as well. 

The first, a segment of a Te Deum by a lesser known (and unfairly so) 20th Century German composer, named Walter Braunfels (1882-1954), was a lush joy.  The piece had it's its première in Cologne in 1922 and according to German musicologist Frithjof Haas, one contemporary report said that it had "largest success that a première ever had in Cologne."  After hearing the snippet, it's completely understandable.

Braunfels, unfortunately, had the misfortune of living in Germany as the Nazi Regime came to power while having been born with a Jewish father (his mother, by the way, was Louis Sphor's grand-niece).  Braunfels was categorized by the Nazis as a "non-Aryan" and in 1933 was dismissed from all his official duties at the Hochschule für Musik Köln and forced to sell his home.  By 1938 all performances of his music were banned, for "degeneracy", by the Reichsmusikkammer and he was, as they say, in internal exile until the end of the war.

After the war, he was reinstated as head of the Hochschule but by that time musical tastes had moved on and his career was never the same.  Unfair.  Just unfair.

Manfred Honeck has recorded the Te Deum and it's available at

The next piece on the program, the Oboe Concerto by "Haydn" was wonderful. Wonderfully played by the PSO and by PSO oboeist Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida.  The cadenza at the end of the first movement was amazing.  I think the word "fluttering" more than adequately describes how easily she moved from lower to upper register and than back again.

The reason I put quotation marks around Papa's name (and I'd be tempted to do that "air quotes" thing if I were reading this to you live) is because the piece has only been attributed to Haydn.  In musicology-speak, "Attributed to – " translates into "almost certainly not by  – " 

So it's pretty much impossible to tell you anything about this currently unknown composer. 

So I'll tell you a story about one of my thesis advisors (who we will name "Egon') instead.  Young Egon, a Canadian, was suffering through his master's oral exams preparation and was compiling a list of poets who'd supplied texts for the composers he was studying.  As he did, he repeatedly came across the name "Dichter Unbekannt."  He'd never heard of Herr Unbekannt and it troubled him greatly.  He was just about to approach his thesis advisors with this problem when he happened to notice in an Italian edition of one of the books he was using the Italian"anonimo" where he'd seen "Dichter Unbekannt" in his German texts.

The proverbial lightbulb went of in his head.

Decades later, he told me that at that when the lightbulb went off he felt two conflicting things;  First he felt like an complete idiot for not seeing that "Dichter Unbekannt" was German for "Poet Unknown" and then he said he felt great relief for not bringing this bit of embarrassing information to his thesis committee.

Now onto the Orff.  Great piece.  Great performance.  I mean what's not to love about a piece that uses a boys' chorus (though it was merely a soprano chorus last night – oo fugeddaboutit) to sing these words: 

Amor volat undique
captus es libidine
luvenes, iuvencule
coniunguntur merito.

Translation from the PSO program notes:

Cupid flies everywhere
siezed by desire.
Young men and women
are rightly coupled.

What's not to love about that?  Though I can tell you that when I was 10 and in a boys' chorus singing Carmina burana, we had no idea what we were singing about.

Andy Druckenbrod's review is here and he said of Friday's performance:

Classical music, that pure and refined art, always spiritually uplifting, right? Not so much, at least not when Carmina burana takes the stage.

Even if the performances are heavenly, as was the case last night at Heinz Hall, Carl Orff's masterful setting of medieval texts by students and itinerant monks remains sensuous, ribald and funny. Combined with the thrill of pounding, primitive rhythms, the energetic music is an excellent break from the more serious (though wonderful) tone of most classical music.

Mark Kanny's review is here and he said of Friday's performance:

Heinz Hall was packed Friday night — not surprisingly — when Manfred Honeck led three vocal soloists, the Mendelssohn Choir and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in Carl Orff's spectacularly popular Carmina burana.

Orff went further back in time than the neoclassical styles popular after World War I to work in the mid-1930s in a neo-primitive style that Igor Stravinsky had established in his 1913 ballet "The Rite of Spring."

Although much simpler in rhythm and harmony than the Stravinsky ballet, the energy and flamboyance of Carmina burana is irresistible. So, too, is the hypnotic lyricism.

Now for the bad part.  In contrast to Braunfels' treatment at the hands of the Nazis, Orff's life in 1930s Germany was vastly different.  As Ann Powers wrote in the The New York Times in 1999:

The fantasy that Carmina burana creates is the source of its pleasures. But it, too, is more complicated than it first appears. Orff's attraction to the primitive was linked to a quest for purity, a troubling desire for an artist working in 1930's Germany. The composer, who wrote music for the 1936 Olympics and worked in Germany throughout World War II, shared certain artistic ideals with the Nazis, all evident in Carmina burana. Its monorhythmic passages, rousing major-chord progressions and lyrical explorations of a Bavarian Arcadia all fit the Nazi regime's model of art as a conduit to an earlier epoch unblemished by the effects of modernity, including racial integration.

Powers continues:

Orff never joined the Nazi Party, although he cooperated with it to survive. For example, he accepted a commission to write a replacement score for ''A Midsummer Night's Dream'' by Mendelssohn, who work was banned because he had been Jewish. The initial Nazi response to Carmina burana was negative: officials condemned it as pornographic and derivative of African-American styles. Orff denied impure intentions, but as the decades have proved, the work's eroticism and the rhythms that link it to rock lay at the heart of its appeal.

Uncomfortable as that some of reads, that's the way it is.

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