Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Columbus Symphony: What do we do about Carl Orff?

The Columbus symphony Orchestra, Columbus Symphony Chorus and Columbus Children's Choir present Carl Orff's Carmina Burana as season opener this weekend in the Ohio Theater.

Rossen Milanov will conduct with his usual skill, charisma and energy. Bring towels. These will be hot nights in Columbus.

This humble writer (!) gives pre-concert talks one hour before every CSO Classical season performance.Come in early and (hopefully) enjoy.

Carl Orff (1895-1982)

In 1944 Josef Goebbels, the Nazi's Minister of Propaganda, discovered Carl Orff's Carmina Burana.

   "In the case of Carl Orff we are not at all dealing with an atonal talent.  On the contrary, his Carmina Burana exhibits exquisite beauty, and if we could get him to do something about his lyrics, his music would certainly be very promising. I shall send for him at the next possible opportunity."

Goebbels was late getting on the Carmina bus. The cantata was seven years old by then. It had a sensational series of performances in 1940 conducted by Karl Bohm, and a triumph at La Scala, Milan in 1942. Carmina Burana was a hit from its very first performance, and remains so today.

In fact, Carmina Burana was hardly admired following the s1937 premiere in Frankfurt. Volkische Beobachter, the Nazi newspaper-soon to be the only newspaper-called the work "Bavarian niggermusik. Even the Third Reich couldn't stop the wild popularity of Orff's new cantata, based on the satirical writings of 12th century students rebelling against the church. 

Orff's name is not often added to the top artists who remained in Nazi Germany: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano,  not only benefited but dismissed charges of collaboration as "Nothing, like being in a labor union." She acted as an informant on her colleagues at the Deutch Oper Berlin. Herbert von Karajan also had Goebbels as a fan, who crowned him, "Das wunder Karajan", the miracle Karajan. Wilhelm Furtwaengler didn't need the Nazis to promote his fame. He was older, well established and a conductor of the finest order.  Richard  Strauss stayed in Nazi Germany, and accepted a post from the Third Reich.Wags like to say he was protecting his copyright. He also had a daughter in law with Jewish relatives, and did keep her safe.

In preparing talk on Carmina Burana for the Columbus symphony, I'm at a loss of how much time I should spend on Carl Orff in Nazi Germany. The composer was born in Munich in 1895, By 1944 he was hardly a dilettante.  Earlier he had distinguished himself by raiding long forgotten cupboards of Italian and German music from the 15th and 126th century, often re-working them to suit 20th century audiences. It's largely because of Orff that we know the music of Monteverdi today.

In addition to CarminaBurana, he had prepared a follow-up work, Cartulli Carmina ad  would go on to produce Trionfo d'Afrodite.

Schulwerk, Orff's comprehensive study on music education was published in 1949. Its tenants are in use today. His work inmusic educaiton, and his founding of a new school in Berlin in 1924 may be Orff's most important legacy.

Orff never approached the success he had with Carmina Burana. This hour long cantata, originally intended to be staged, uses 12 th century manuscripts to depict a riotous countryside of horny peasants, lots of wine and song, lots of dancing, a swan who sings beautifully while being roasted, and a chugging, persistent rhythm that is irresistible. Who doesn't like a little debauchery?

What's surprising was getting this work past the Nazi censors. One imagines they were too stupid to recognize the alt deutch Orff was using, not to mention Latin and lapses into the Provencal of the troubadours.  These are the people who thought jazz was entarete musik (degenerate music) What did they make of Orff's driving rhythms and  texts leaving little to the imagination:

So successful was Carmina Burana with the public that the Nazi propaganda machinery decided an all out battle wasn't worth it. There was fear that people would seek out broadcast performances from elsewhere.

Orff never left Nazi Germany. His career thrived. His work in music education has taught generations of children all over the world. It seems as if Carmina Burana is being performed somewhere every five minutes. Not so the rest of Orff's oeuvre. These indulged his romantic attachment to ancient music, and lack the gut level appeal of Carmina Burana. The closest parallel might be Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, but Carmina is more fun. Orff may have been too clever for the regime.

Orff quaked during the de Nazificaiton tribunals immediately post war. He made much out of an acquaintanceship  with Kurt Huber, executed by the Nazis in 1943 as a member of the White Rose resistance. In fact, Frau Huber maintained for decades that Orff did nothing to help her husband once he had been arrested. "I would be ruined!".

Indeed he would have. Those of us lucky to have never experienced a criminal regime can't judge others for their behavior. Orff's place in music is guaranteed by Carmina Burana.The same work alienates many, among them conductor Edo  de Waart. In a lecture years ago, I  remember de Waart telling us that O Fortuna was the sign on/sign-off music for Radio Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. He dismissed the work as "that Nazi music."

Still, Orff knew what he was doing. The combination of rhythm,volume and debauchery makes Carmina Burana irresistible wherever its performed.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Gethsemani 2015

Gethsemani Abbey is home to forty Trappist Monks, the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, located on 2500 acres near Bardstown,  Kentucky. The Abbey was founded here in 1848. I made my first visit in 2013:

I recently made a three day retreat.

Monday, September 14

Uneventful four and a half hour drive from Columbus on a beautiful day.

Gethsemani Abbey offers clergy and lay people retreats of silence, prayer and reflection. There is no fixed schedule. You could spend the entire time asleep. Retreatants are not required to join the monks for the daily office, which begins at 3 a.m. The Monastery sits on 2500 acres of farmland, featuring small hills (called 'knobs') and several walking trails through the woods. You seldom see monks outside of the Abbey Church. A chaplain and guest master are available.

I was glad to catch sight of the Abbey after a six mile drive down Monk's Road, like a huge white ship coming up on the left. Parts of the Abbey Terrace are being repaired, so I was greeted not by peace but by power washing! Imagine 100 leaf blowers magnified 100 times! I was furious!

Ah, those of us needing silence don't think of others with a job to do, not to mention keeping the terrace from falling down. A good first lesson.

(This before I had parked my car!)

I was assigned  room 204 in the guest wing. A simple, well appointed room with private bath. There is no charge to come to Gethsemani. Offerings are accepted.

I climbed the hill just across the street, the one with a statue of St Joseph holding the Christ Child. St.
 Joseph is a favorite of mine. I think of him as the patron saint of fathers. It seems to me he gets less than his due in scripture. He disappears when Jesus goes wandering off to the Temple at at age 12.

The view of the Abbey and the surrounding lands was splendid. Nothing but fields, remains of the
corn harvest and wildflowers, yellow and purple, wherever you looked. I was sweating and huffing but looked out joyfully. I was a short breathed mess, too! But whaddaya know? The power washing had stopped! But there was an old man with a sun hat mowing the monastery yards on a huge and noisy machine (Fucking silence! Fucking contemplation! Come on!) No total silence yet. I did stop to watch him maneuvering around the graves in front of the monastery and he did beautifully, never missed a blade.

None was at 2.15, the Ninth Hour. Cleopatra seduced Marc Antony at the Ninth Hour but this was the liturgical hour.  The church slowly filled with about 20 monks, sitting on either side of a central aisle. Visitors do not sit in the church proper, but in the balcony or a partitioned area in the back. The monks take their place in the same choir stall. I think you are assigned the same stall for life.  So the seat and the desk become part of a home.

The monks chant the psalms seven times a day, in addition to a daily mass. They cycle through all 150 psalms every 2 weeks.  Its a deep, manly sound. Some of these monks look quite brawny. The congregation has many older monks but there are a fair number at age forty and under. Two postulants look very young. There is a young man, has to be 20 at the mos, t in mufti who works with the monks but eats with the guests. He is an "observer." You can come observe for a week at a time, up to threw times. Then if they like you,  you can be accepted as a postulant.


We had Vespers at 5:30 concluding with the Magnificat, which I have always loved.  Earlier I wondered if we were listening to recorded chant, since it was hard to tell if the monks mouths were moving! No. It was real chant. They keep together perfectly with dark, untrained voices.  A masculine sound suited to a no frills chapel and a life of work.

Supper was penitential. Fish, tomatoes, mashed potatoes and fruit cake. About 20 of us retreants eating in silence. Earlier, I was reading over by the cemetery. A man was sitting near me. When leaving I felt compelled to offer a handshake.

Compline at 7.30, then the grand silence (what have we been doing all day?) until the bell rings for Vigils at 3 a.m.

Tuesday, September 15

Up at 3:00 a.m. for Vigils at 3:15

The bells tolls deep in the belly of the Abbey, and hits you in the same place. It is a warm sound, comforting but insistent.  I counted 37 peals of the bell!

Very few of my fellow visitors made it to Vigils.  I figure that as long as I've come all this way its silly to miss out.,  It seemed like the longest of the services. No doubt the hour and the pitch darkness contributed to this.  The church was at one point completely dark, the only light coming from the lector's's stand.

The acoustics of the church make the words difficult to make out.  Every few seconds you get Lord--sinner--Jerusalem, like bad phone service.

We have a retreatants conference at 9 a.m. with the guest master, Father Seamus.


Father Seamus is 83 years old. He let us know, "They don't let us drive any more when we're past 80. You have to get someone to take you if you have a doctor's appointment." (Medical appointments seem to be the only reason any monk ever leaves the monastery). Fr. Seamus was delightful. He's a former diocesan priest from Florida who entered Gethsemani at age 70. I didn't know anyone could enter at 70!  He mentioned Brother Norbert and a few others who entered right after high school and have been at Gethsemani well over 60 years.

What keeps them here?  "It's not the building, or the work or even the prayer life.  It's the love for the community."

Father Seamus told us about Brother Martin, now living in the monastery infirmary with dementia.   He needs to wear diapers.  He wouldn't cooperate with a nurse who was trying to clean him.  "You know, " said Fr. Seamus, "Sometimes people with dementia get a little reason, and Brother Martin did not want this woman to wipe his bottom. She tried and tired until he snarled at her, "Go wipe your own ass!"-The Abbot apparently had to walk away to keep from cracking up laughing. "There's a lot of humor here!"

I took a one hour walk through the woods.  Gethsemani owns 2500 acres, including some land leased to farmers, "A great source of income" says Fr. Seamus.

I met one of the other retreatants on my walk, a Byzantine Catholic priest. He had worn florid orange robes earlier. I was a little taken aback when he called out to me to say hello (Silence!) but enjoyed a brief exchange with him.

Took a nap and skipped None (2:15) Then an hour outside reading and climbing hills.  So far, I find Thomas Merton's letters more interesting than his contemplative writings. He seems more peevish and less "on." It's quite something to be reading Thomas Merton's words sitting fifty feet from his grave.

Fantastic weather continues.  You feel forced to be outside "doing". The reason you come here is NOT to feel forced to do anything. I'm tempted to say I have work to do!   The silence is not hard but sometimes the lack of action is.

Wednesday, September 16

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a monk here who became world famous for his many books on The Seven Storey Mountain is a "must read"-and you should. Merton was finally allowed to travel away from Gethsemani in 1968. He went to Asia to study Bhuddism.  Merton died in Thailand on December 10, 1968 in a freak electrical accident. He was brought back to Gethsemani in a plane filled with the remains of soldiers killed in Vietnam, a war he was criticized for deploring.  Merton was also very concerned about nuclear weapons and sweated out the Cuban Missile Crisis with the rest of the world. He too was astonished with the suggestion of "limited nuclear war" that was discussed at the time.
theology, politics and the contemplative life.  His autobiography

Merton permeates the gift shop and the library.  No doubt the Abbey benefits from Merton's royalties. All of his books are in print. They are widely read and taught. A few of the older  monks remembered him. "He wasn't much of a hermit., with rabbis and the Dalai Lama and Joan Baez and Leonard Bernstein coming to see him."

This is Merton's centennial year, but I heard of no special plans to commermorate what would have been his 100th birthday.

There are several women among the retreatants.  Three nuns are staying down the hall.Several priests are here. Another man says he's been coming here every year for fifty years! Another just got out of prison and may be going back for"drugs and alcohol and fights". He calls this place heaven on earth.

The warm, dry days continue.  Perfect weather.  I've been outside a lot, walking many trails on the Abbey's acreage. Fr. Seamus said, "In spring time we have black snakes two feet long. And ticks! They get in everywhere!" (All clear so far) The woods are deep and utterly silent. You cross several small knobs and lots of perilous looking foot bridges. They are worth the vertigo.

The monks walk with real purpose. The outer life never changes, from 3 a.m. to 8 p.m. Prayer-study-prayer-work-work-prayer-study-sleep. They must have incredible inner lives. The idea is to be in constant conversation with God. I have never seen a monk look bored or unhappy. For the right person  this must be an incredible life.

I wonder what is going on in the head of the very young man who is here observing.  He carries around the writings of the 12th century Cistercians. If this book nourishes him at his age, more than friends or sex then he is indeed  "blessed".

Father Carlos says you kow you have "the call" to this life when "You are willing to give everything up, with joy." The days never change.

Thursday, September  17

Leaving for home after breakfast. Skipped VVigils at 3 a.m., but made it to Lauds at 5.30, Mass at 6.15 then Terce at 7:30. Took a walk until the gift shop opened at 9.. Bought bourbon fudge and a few presents. One for a beloved friend who has had a lousy year, who I hope will come to Gethsemani.

I'll be back.