Feb. 5th, 2017

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Such was the title of the panel discussion I attended at Stanford today: in recognition of an upcoming campus performance of the work, five experts delivered thoughtful little talks inspired by this most famous of all musical works to have been composed in Nazi Germany.

Anna Schultz, professor of ethnomusicology, began by examining the definition of nationalism. The ability to define it both by ethnicity and by territory lies behind much of the Nazis' evil. As for Carmina Burana, Nazi music critics were at first puzzled by the work, put off by its hedonism and jazz-like rhythms, two things they abhorred; but then they embraced it for what they saw as its celebration of Aryan ethnicity.

David Abernethy, chorus baritone and professor emeritus of political science, spoke of the challenges of coping with living under a totalitarian regime. Orff did cooperate with the Nazis, most infamously by composing a set of Midsummer Night's Dream incidental music to replace the banned Mendelssohn's. But in other respects he kept himself aloof, despite pressure from the regime. Abernethy concluded passionately by saying it's easy to criticize Orff's failings, but no option for behaving is morally clear. We should avoid facile condemnation of human frailties in horrific circumstances.

In comments later, Abernethy added that, although totalitarian regimes push mass culture and a hive mind, they're ironically highly individualistic as their honors and condemnations, in the arts as elsewhere, are based on the Leader's whim.

David Wilson, tenor and grad student in musicology, gave several comparisons to show that culpability under the Nazis has little relationship to subsequent reputation. His best example was the two leading conductors who stayed in the Nazi regime. Wilhelm Furtwängler actively helped Jewish musicians and avoided open propaganda, but his willingness to conduct before high Nazi officials all the way to the end has stained his reputation so badly that a biography is titled The Devil's Music Master. Whereas Herbert von Karajan actually joined the Nazi Party and had no compensating virtues, but his reputation, based on his post-war work, is clean.

(In speaking of Richard Strauss and his cooperation with the Nazis which has left him still a popular composer, Wilson rhetorically asked, "Who would do without Ein Heldenleben?" Thinking of that bloated and self-indulgent work, I muttered "I would." I intended to speak sotto voce, but was heard throughout the lecture room. Oops.)

Eric Tuan, choral studies administrator, examined Orff's pedagogical method, the Schulwerk. Originally conceived with leftist political overtones in the Weimar era, it proved adaptable to Nazi educational goals. For instance, its child-centered approach and primal content appealed to their anti-intellectual prejudices. And Orff went along with this. Tuan's conclusion was that nothing about the Schulwerk is inherently fascist, but it's easily appropriated.

Anna Wittstruck, conductor of the Stanford Symphony, classed Carmina Burana as a neo-classical work, and noted that this communitarian, accessible style is compatible with mass nationalism. She noted Orff's debt to Stravinsky's Les noces, and played video clips of a stage performance to show that Les noces (and also Le sacre du printemps) enact hive mind rituals right on stage. Orff intended for Carmina Burana also to be staged, a project in sensory immersion that would short-circuit critical distancing.

We also had some music. Wilson sang the tenor solo from Carmina, the lament of the roasting swan (accompanied by three choristers and a pianist) and then, just to demonstrate the musical similarity between Nazi music and Weimar music, pitched in to Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife."

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