Carl Orff is among the most misunderstood and thereby underestimated composers of the last century – which is odd when you consider that one work, Carmina Burana, is among the most popular pieces of music ever written. There is at least one performance of it somewhere in the world every single day of the year, and that has been going on for the last 30 years. And with over 300 different recordings extant in the catalogue today, it easily outranks even Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

So, why misunderstood? Was he really a member of the Nazi Party as is often assumed? No, but there is little doubt that in 1943/4 he was positioning himself to take over as Reichsminister for Music come the Final Victory. He was a close friend of the Gauleiter for Vienna, and previously of Hitler Youth, Baldur von Schirach, later a convicted War Criminal. And when all the other major composers of the Third Reich, including Richard Strauss, had refused to ‘re-write’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the Jew Mendelssohn, Orff accepted. After the war, while he maintained that the Nazi Party had ‘hated’ Carmina Burana, this was untrue. After its premiere at the Frankfurt Opera in June 1937, Goebbels declared it to be the standard by which all German Music should be judged, and it became the most performed piece of ‘new music’ in Nazi Germany.

Music critics outside Germany were huffy at the time, and remain so. ‘A rhythmic simpleton’, ‘harmonically retrogressive’, ‘a primitive celebration of drinking, gluttony, gambling and lust’ – these are among the more generous of criticisms. But the music has been used in countless commercials – Old Spice, Carling Black Label and Nestlé among the more famous – used to introduce The X Factor on TV, and even re-arranged by Ray Manzarek of The Doors and by Philip Glass. Curiously, Orff’s 70th birthday celebrations in Munich were led by Wieland Wagner, grandson of the composer, who pointed out Orff’s affiliations with Stravinsky – not just the emphasis on rhythm but also the shimmering orchestration – and Monteverdi. Orff can reasonably claim to have been among the first in the 20th century to realise Monteverdi’s importance; his earliest major work in the early 1920s was a reworking of Orfeo.

Which brings me to ‘underestimated’. The range of orchestral colours that Orff conjures up is astonishing, often with tiny resources, in this sense much like Britten in his chamber operas. Because of the gargantuan performances of Carmina Burana with colossal choirs and orchestras thumping out the simple rhythms regardless of the fact that they are far from four-square, we assume the music is bombast with a few melodies.

Orff wrote 18 major works for the stage, many of which employ instruments he had discovered in his travels such as tuned wooden xylophones, marimbas, bells of all descriptions and gongs. And I have never heard the harp sound so demonic, so demented, even in Britten, one of the great composers for the harp. Nor the celesta and piccolo used to such nightmarish affect, reminiscent here of Shostakovich. One is not surprised that Glass was drawn to Orff. Orff was the ultimate minimalist before anyone thought of inventing it.

None of this would fire the imagination were it not for another aspect, infinitely more complex and ultimately tragic, of the man and his music. Imagine: he is struggling to survive in a regime which he thought intellectually inferior. Like all his fellow musicians, he was compelled to complete a CV to prove that he was of the purest Aryan stock. This he did, but somehow he ‘forgot’ to mention that his grandparents were Jewish. So from the start he was living a lie. To make a living, he devised a system of teaching music to children called Schulwerk, ‘Schoolwork’, and hoped that through his friend Baldur von Schirach he would be able to sell it to Hitler Youth. Fortunately, as it turned out, Hitler Youth didn’t care for it much, and when it came to the de-Nazification process at the end of the war, that probably saved his neck.

Because, come 1945, Orff was arrested and interrogated. By an extraordinary chance, he was interviewed by a US Intelligence Officer who happened to be a music student and therefore obviously knew who Orff was. Orff was specifically asked to provide evidence that, contrary to all that was known about his apparent collaboration, including receiving an annual stipend from the Nazi Party, he had been ‘active’ against the regime. Ah yes, said Orff, he had co-founded the White Rose Resistance Movement, ‘active’ in Munich in 1942/3 until its ringleaders were arrested, tortured by the Gestapo and hanged or publicly beheaded. Satisfied, the Intelligence Officer gave Orff a clean bill of health.

It was another lie. The White Rose Resistance Movement largely comprised students at Munich University, mostly in the class of Kurt Huber, the professor of music and psychology and one of Orff’s closest friends. He was the scholar who had brought the medieval texts of Carmina Burana to Orff’s attention and had actually worked on their translation into ‘contemporary’ Latin to tone down the explicit sexual references in the original. Following Huber’s arrest by the Gestapo, his wife, knowing of Orff’s friendship with von Schirach and other Nazi hierarchy, pleaded with him to intercede. Not only did he refuse, thus condemning his best friend to certain execution; not only did he refuse to help Huber’s widow, now destitute, thereafter; but later he even wrote to Huber asking for forgiveness… except that Huber was by now dead.

I found Huber’s widow shortly before she died; for her, these horrors that had happened 60 years ago were still fresh in the memory. It’s little wonder that Orff’s post-war works – Antigone, Oedipus at Tyrannus, Prometheus – are consumed by the feeling of guilt where the protagonist protests against his ‘punishment’. Most telling of all is Comedy for the End of Time in which the Narrator pleads not that his sins be forgotten, but forgiven.

Yet it is arguable that Orff’s enduring legacy is the system, the method, he devised for teaching music to children: Schulwerk. I saw it at first hand in South Africa, where it was used to bind the wounds left by apartheid, in China and Taiwan where it is an essential educational tool in making children aware that we must have a care for the planet, in Japan where it is being used to preserve ancient traditions of music-making, and most extraordinary of all at a school in Nottingham where it is used to help children with cerebral palsy. As one of the teachers in Nottingham says, ‘without the Orff method these children would have little hope of becoming fully realised human beings. With Orff’s help, they have just a chance’. In view of Orff’s behaviour and the lies he had told throughout his life, it is hard to imagine a greater irony.

His only child, Godela, had a terrible story to tell. ‘He did not really love people,’ she told me. ‘If anything, he despised people, unless they could be useful to him’ – a view confirmed by at least one of his three (of four) surviving wives. His third wife, Luise, meanwhile, described the many nights when she had been awoken by him screaming and screaming. After she had calmed him down, she asked what was it that had so disturbed him? ‘I have seen the Devil,’ he said. And this is a woman who herself had faced a Nazi firing squad and lived to describe it.

But there in Orff’s first major work for the stage is the clue to everything that followed. Der Mond (‘The Moon’) tells of a group of ruffians who attempt to rule the world by stealing the moon and its light, thus plunging the world into darkness in which they can pilfer and rape as they please. The reference to the Nazis and all their barbarism is unmistakable. I believe that just as Shostakovich is the most eloquent witness we have of Stalin’s nightmare, so is Orff a witness to Hitler’s Germany and the Nazis, in that they too had ‘stolen the light’ …and it is a million miles from what we usually think of when we hear Carmina Burana.

Tony Palmer