‘Germany’s greatest artistic asset, its music, is in danger,’ warned The Spectator in June 1937. Reporting from the leading new-music festival in Darmstadt, the correspondent mentioned only one première of the two dozen on offer: ‘The most important achievement was the scenic cantata Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, a piece that would have been impossible without the influence of the “cultural Bolshevik” Stravinsky.’
He’s not wrong: give Stravinsky’s Les Noces some nail clippers and a face scrub and you get Orff. Carmina Burana can today seem irredeemably boorish and kitsch. But you can see how the piece’s hiccupy primitivism might have once startled. Still no less startling today is Orff’s final work De Temporum Fine Comoedia (1971/1981), about the end of time, which I heard last month in Salzburg, and sounds as if it was written by a five-year-old – albeit one more into the early church fathers than Peppa Pig.
The work is the apotheosis of Orff’s postwar impulse to boil down his musical language to almost nothing: an apocalyptic minimalism of morse-code rhythms, monophonies, tremolos, scales and shrieking. A monstrous simplicity reigns: the vast army of musicians tracing out play-school shapes and melodies, often in bullying unison, while the vast army of singers shout, scream, babble and wail Becketty gobbets (‘We/ fall, fall,/ fall, fall,/ fall, fall,/ fall, fall,/ fall out of time,/ at the end of all time’). Orchestral colours, doggedly primary, are delivered in blocks, within which Orff hides more than 100 different percussion instruments from around the world (though you wouldn’t know it).
The effect is kind of horrible. And yet a part of me was glad to live in a world where a disturbed child – trapped in the body of a 75-year-old Bavarian – was given the chance to express their eschatalogical ideas in the medium of the opera-oratorio.
The audience loved it.