The legacies of Wagner and Nietzsche, German geniuses long dead before the advent of the Nazi scourge, still buckle under the taint. Festival destinations like Bayreuth and Oberammergau (home of the Passion Play) that long eluded denazification have, albeit only recently, embraced an ethos of reform. While these people and places were rightly seen as tenders of the flame of antisemitism, in no sense did they produce Nazi content. Yet “Carmina Burana,” an extraordinarily popular and recognizable work in the classical repertoire, has almost entirely evaded the “working through the past” conversation. Unlike those others, it is indisputably a text of the Nazi era, and while it may not qualify as “Nazi art,” as Anne-Charlotte Rémond of France Musique rightly put it, it was a work of art “made for Nazis.” The disproportion between the fame of “Carmina Burana” and the lack of deliberation on its troublesome origins demands a closer look. 

Originally premiered in 1937, “Carmina Burana” was the result of years of effort by composer Carl Orff to craft a work consonant with the ethos and cultural guidelines of his new Nazi overlords. The result was an extremely popular and recognizable work of classical music. It has lodged its way into the cultural vocabulary, sampled and soundtracked to a degree hardly rivaled by any other in the classic canon. “Carmina” is a reliable box office banger, but one that does little to immerse audiences in the challenging debates and tendencies of modern art. 

The lack of probity and hesitancy with regard to “Carmina” is a signal that the topic of cultural denazification has largely been a non-starter. From the oeuvre of Leni Riefenstahl and its application in “Star Wars” to the fashion of Hugo Boss, the aesthetic of the Nazi years is pervasive. Given that the Nazi project was substantially a theatrical phenomenon, a phantasm perpetrated by failed artists, this oversight amounts to both a cruel irony and a severe misunderstanding of the nature of that once (and possibly future) enemy. 

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Cultural denazification is left an ad hoc affair, the work of enterprising artists shoring up where the state has fallen short. “Carmina” is particularly unwieldy as a “classical” text now recognized primarily as part of commercial and entertainment media. But some new renditions and reappropriations unwittingly function like theory and guideline for how to handle such cultural plutonium. A recent performance by Opera Philadelphia, pairing the work with Margaret Bonds “Credo” (with a libretto by W. E. B. Du Bois), comes closest to a rethinking of programming practice that fuses trigger warning, inoculation, and counterpoint. 


For one of the most popular “youngest” pieces of classical music, “Carmina Burana” is profoundly, willfully archaic and deliberately anachronistic. In line with the backward-looking, anti-modern Nazi ethos (forcefully “suggested” as a quasi-mandate), the subject is the far-away past. It constitutes a flight into the medieval, based on a set of poems in Latin, old French, and an archaic form of German found in a Benedictine monastery in Bavaria. Against the 19th-century European cultural imperialism that simulated the order and majesty of the Greco-Roman world, Orff plunged into a ribald, carnivalesque celebration of the feudal—a “low” field of monks and drunks. Safely unmodern, the work premiered one year before the infamous “Degenerate Music” exhibit, which codified the demonization of anything vaguely atonal or jazz as Bolshevik and Jewish. By this time in Nazi Germany, the consequences for cultural choices were not mere career setback, but financial ruin and even bodily persecution by the apparatus of a police terror state. 

Soprano Brandie Sutton in “Carmina Burana” and “Credo” at Opera Philadelphia • Photo Dominic M. Mercier

Orff’s Nazi-era biography is messy and mired with controversy, particularly over claims and counter-claims of links to the White Rose resistance group. But we know for certain that he wrote replacement music for Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and therefore contributed to the cultural erasure that was a key dimension of the Holocaust. Also beyond debate is that Orff remained in Nazi Germany, and that his successful career grew only more lucrative as the regime progressed through the real-life apocalypse of World War II and the Holocaust.

Listening to “Carmina” is like being inside of a thundering glockenspiel surrounded by armies of Gregorian chanters. Designed as a mass event, it is so visceral that from the opening moments it feels as if one is wrenched back into the seat in a stunned posture. Despite the monastic sourcing, there is little Christian thematic material at work; much is explicitly pagan. The specific lyric basis for this cantata were “Goliard” songs, transgressive carousing anthems of younger sons of the elite in the 12th and 13th centuries. In today’s terms, we would deem them fraternity wails, and the connotation of too much male entitlement and bad behavior is entirely fitting in both contexts. 

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At first the lyrical content seems breezy enough: the whims of fate, the joys of drink, and the beauty of maidens. But a more concentrated glance reveals a fervent nature worship that makes explicit in words what Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” only suggested musically. A step-wise spring awakening of flowers and forests bedecked with choruses of maidens gives way to hymns to longing and drink. Bacchus, Helen, and Venus are all name-checked, and what emerges is one long Dionysian panegyric to intoxication. In Thomas Mann’s revealing post-war summary of Nazi Germany at the Paulskirche in Frankfurt, he referred to the state of Rausch throughout the land—an intoxication that was really a poisoning. 

With lyrics that explicitly instruct the “driving away of prudery,” and admonish that “girls shouldn’t be without a lover,” “Carmina” resonates abstractly with the regime’s Lebensborn program, essentially a series of birth farms for future warriors. Even its dwelling on the slings and arrows of fortune reveals something of the inner truth of the Nazi regime. Among themselves, Hitler and his henchmen relished the phrase “va banque spielen” (essentially “to bet the house/go for broke”), and employed it at each audacious power grab on their barrel to cataclysm. Neither Greek logic nor Abrahamic messianism motored their sick momentum; instead, it was a simple gambling metaphor, so theatrically captured by “Carmina.” This work stages a transgressive mass neo-pagan ecstasy, containing in two hours so much of what animated that deadly 12-year regime. One could even say it aesthetically aligns, in a classical key, with the Speer-designed rallies of Nuremberg or the aborted open-air Thingspiele of countryside theater for the masses. 

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One method for grappling with toxic historical undertones is the embrace of cultural reappropriation as a means of reparation. In 2015, “Carmina Burana” debuted at Israel’s Masada Festival. Designed site-specifically with the desert and mountain as dialogue partners and even lead actors, this pyrotechnic extravaganza brought the work into the symbolic cradle of Jewish resistance and survival. (Masada is the site of the “last stand” of the Jewish revolt against Rome in 72-73 CE, after which Jewish sovereignty was lost until 1948.) The setting itself, with the heaven-bestowed might of the mountain overshadowing it, had the effect of curbing and reducing the pompous monumentality of the work. Located in Israel’s southern Negev desert, a traditionally economically-underprivileged area populated mostly by Middle Eastern refugees, this performance brought the work to those normally excluded by metropolitan concert houses. That the director and his large support staff were Polish brought an added layer of symbolic reappropriation, and even reconciliation between principal targets of Nazi aggression. 

Choosing an intellectual reframing rather than a dramatic staging in nature, the American Symphony Orchestra took the inspired route of focusing instead on Orff’s two sequels, “Catulli Carmina” (1943) and “Trionfo di Afrodite” (1951) to curb the enthusiasms of “Carmina Burana” in 2001. The production of these two virtually unknown sequels helps us rethink the work’s origins and stubborn popularity. The first sequel premiered during World War II and underlines the success of the original piece, as the commission was issued by Nazi authorities in Vienna in 1941. Then the fact that Orff constructed a second sequel at the height of the Cold War, when serialism had won the day, proves that his escapist aesthetic was not just politically expedient but made out of genuine philosophical commitment; “Carmina” was a part of the Nazi ethos that could prevail culturally where the regime collapsed. 

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The wide use of “Carmina” as a musical ready-made does much to puncture its bombast. The work of denazification was outsourced to the commercial marketplace, where it is mechanically reproduced, recycled and scoured until there isn’t a hint of any faux sacred aura. Now there are even self-parodies of parodies—like the Carlton Beer advertisement that intones “This is a big ad,” instead of mecum omnes plangite. Still, it is disquieting how often “Carmina” is sampled to evoke combat, booze, and the hunt, maintaining its status as the eternal frat boy of classical music. The very ease in commercial adaptation corroborates passivity and uniformity as the intended, default reaction to overwhelming stimuli.  Perhaps the most politically sensitive and historically aware détournement (or situationist “hijacking”) of this work are the talk shows that use it for Dick Cheney or Conan O’Brien’s “Evil Puppy” (supposedly a diabolical beast/pet of the devil, “ready to plunge the earth into a billion years of darkness.”)

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In the concert hall, where “Carmina” still has the demonstrable power of stunning the audience into passivity, even a trigger warning may not suffice. Inoculation is also necessary. The recent pairing of “Carmina” with Margaret Bonds’s “Credo” by the Opera Philadelphia comes closest to the kind of critical annotation usually standard for other texts of Nazi culture, especially the screening of propaganda films. In this February concert, pairing an over-performed work with an almost invisible one, “Carmina” meets its match in tone, argument and outlook. (This final opus of one of the most powerful Black classical voices remains unheard by most audiences.)

It’s an act of historical justice to counter the injustice of “Carmina”s over-saturation: Though written and premiered at the height of the Civil Rights movement in 1967, the score for Bonds’s “Credo” was only published three years ago. “Credo” is also a large-scale, cinematic choral work that is quite liberal with the timpani, but exchanges maturity for bombast, and a plaintive striving for thundering braggadocio. Reminiscent of Copland’s Popular Front-era aesthetic, critical is the pride of place given to the female solo voice, one that registers as a blend of classical and folk traditions, with sensitive, blues-y notes.

The counterbalance of these choral cantatas juxtaposes lyrically: striving for racial equality against the merriment of an insouciant elite; the abject experience of lawlessness inside a democracy against the espousing the state of exception by a fascist regime; looking ahead to the triumph of the underclass against looking back to a medieval golden age; an ethos of service and labor against idle chasing and carousing; and, ultimately, a text of the American civil rights movement to counter that great German uncivil, anti-rights movement that was Nazism. Though Unitarian Protestant in its religious ethos, the “Credo” is bravely dissenting, as it closes with a counsel of patience—not just with the ignorant and the strong, but even with the Almighty. This is a “Credo” more about the equality of humanity than the perfection of the divine. So fitting that Opera Philadelphia engaged rising star soprano Brandie Sutton and the conductor Lina González-Granados, who has done much to uncover and champion overlooked works from South America. To Orff’s tired ethnic pagan argument for German “chosenness” in music, one can counter with a brave new wider world of ecumenical classical excellence. ¶

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Adam Sacks is a cultural historian of modern Europe and a part-time classical music reviewer. He writes on the politics of memory, public history, and cultural interpretation and criticism.