The father Carl Orff

(* 10.07.1895  † 29.03.1982)

Carl Orff, visionary and philosopher


In the company of a genius…

Decades spent with Godela Orff were also decades, conversations, thoughts and reflections with her father, Carl Orff. My countless encounters with Carl Orff shaped my life, inspired me, opened up new worlds of which music enthusiasts can only dream…

After my wedding to Godela Orff in 1959 – witnessed by Carl Orff and my mother, Elisabeth Büchtemann, nee Scholefield, a concert pianist – I entered the Orffian world. But let me start with some fundamental details:

Anyone wishing to understand Carl Orff beyond his internationally famous “Carmina Burana” and the Orff-Schulwerk, which is used around the world, in fact anyone wanting to grasp the “law” that underlies the creative processes of this outstanding composer, philosopher, poet and educator, needs first to take a look at Carl Orff’s background, his origins, his career and the oeuvre of this genius. Carl Orff always strove to achieve the ultimate, the absolute, perfection in spirit – in keeping with “Ta panta nus – everything is spirit”. The violin quartet at the end of his final work, “De temporum fine Comoedia”, was anticipated as early as 1921. It is based on the Bach chorale “Vor deinen Thron tret‘ ich hiermit” (Before your throne I now appear), BWV 668. Almost like building bridge back over half a century, Orff was returning to his origins. The composer wrote about his work in the eight-volume documentation “Carl Orff und sein Werk” (published by Hans Schneider, Tutzing, in 1981). The documentation includes many articles penned by renowned experts, including Dr Werner Thomas, who was a close friend of Orff’s for many decades.

I would like to take this opportunity to sketch my very personal memories of Carl Orff and my encounters with this exceptional man

1959: The first Carl Orff Week in Stuttgart

In 1959, the first Carl Orff Week was held at the Württembergische State Theatre in Stuttgart. Walter Erich Schäfer, the general director of the Württembergische State Theatre, had conceived it as a “commitment for Orff“. The musical director was Ferdinand Leitner.

The festival week commenced with a matinee:

11 December 1959: Premiere of  Oedipus der Tyrann

The first highlight of the week was the premiere of “Oedipus der Tyrann” (Oedipus the Tyrant) on 11 December 1959, a tragedy by Sophocles translated by Friedrich Hölderlin, with Gerhard Stolze in the title role and Fritz Wunderlich as Tiresias, Astrid Varnay as Jocasta, Hans Baur as the messenger, and others. The musical director was Ferdinand Leitner and the producer was Günther Rennert.

Performances of Orff’s works followed in later in the same week: “Antigonae”, “Der Mond”, “Trionfi”.

These were days of intense joy and pleasure for the composer Carl Orff, who was deeply revered at this theatre. Orff was relaxed, cheerful and radiated wit and charm.

In this same week, Carl Orff was presented with an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Tübingen. As a token of his gratitude, Orff gifted the score of “Oedipus der Tyrann” to the faculty, where Friedrich Hölderlin had also studied.

Despite these spectacular events and honours, Orff remained modest and reserved, but it was clear that he was delighted to receive these exceptional tributes. No living composer before him had been similarly honoured. Stuttgart became Orff’s “artistic home” under its artistic director Walter Erich Schäfer. All Orff’s stage works except “Antigonae” (first performed at the Salzburg Festival in 1949) and “De temporum fine Comoedia, Spiel vom Ende der Zeiten” (first performed at the Salzburg Festival in 1973) were premiered here, including the Bavarian play “Die Bernauerin” with Godela Orff in the title role as Agnes in 1947.

Through the 1960s with Carl Orff …

These were the years during which Carl Orff was at his creative peak. Whenever he had composed something new, the telephone would ring at our home in Grafrath, not far from Orff’s own home. Could Godela and I come to him to Dießen? There was never a great celebration, but Orff always explained his latest work in detail, frequently at the piano, where he would play his “newest stuff”, as he called it. As he sang along, you could see that he was utterly in his element. It was in these moments, sitting on his sofa and drawing on his pipe, that he would let his guard down, allowing you to catch a glimpse of the man inside.

It was never entirely and exclusively about his work, although music was often the focus of his musings. He would also talk about philosophy or current events, revealing how knowledgeable he was in many fields. He could explain things, debate them expertly. These were wonderful hours, filled with the deepest, most valuable insights. Every time we left, his farewell would be warm, almost tender. “Come back soon!”, he would say. Every time we left, we would drive away with a sense of sadness, asking ourselves what triggered this feeling of melancholy when we left Godela’s father. Unfailingly, shortly after our return home to Grafrath, the phone would ring and it would be Orff, asking whether we had arrived back safely. We viewed this as a pretext, a sign that he was lonely and needed the warmth he may have lacked in Dießen. Essentially, Orff was a person like you and me.

This was what it was like at Christmas, too. On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, he would visit us in Grafrath, after first going to visit his parents’ grave in the cemetery in Unteralting. Godela would cook a delicious meal, serving the dishes she knew were her father’s favourites. Lebernockerlsuppe and other Bavarian delicacies which he particularly loved. One could tell how comfortable he felt at home with his daughter in what had been his parents’ house. Every year, the nativity scene, which Godela arranged differently every Christmas, and the imaginatively decorated Christmas tree would be admired. He would lie on the floor and look up at the tree, admiring the sight of the candles going out, one by one until it was quite dark. This gave him particular pleasure. The relationship between father and daughter was something truly special, and I was always very happy to watch these two people so obviously enjoying each other’s company.

Carl Orff talking to …

… Godela in Unteralting/Grafrath in the 1960s

Carl Orff would often call me on the telephone in my office in Hamburg. Usually very early in the morning – and usually to share some concern or problem. Often the topic was his health. He would ask me for my advice, ask me to recommend good doctors, as I was familiar with the medical scene in Munich. He would ask me to accompany him and open doors for him.

During these phone calls he would often talk about his daughter, about whom he was constantly worrying. “What is wrong with her now?” he would ask, and would seek reassurance from me that everything was okay. Orff, a man who was always so busy, was also touchingly concerned about everyday human problems.

Theatre evenings in Munich

I will never forget the immense pleasure of our visits to Munich’s big stages in the 1960s. “Der Mond, Die Kluge”, which was Orff’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Godela Orff; “Die Bernauerin” with Godela Orff, the charming Heinz Rosen production of “Carmina Burana”. These were unforgettable performances.

During this time, Carl Orff’s mother, Paula Orff, nee Köstler…

Carl Orff’s mother, Paula Orff, née Köstler

…and Orff’s sister, Maria Seifert (shown further below in the photos of the presentation of the Romano Guardini Prize), wife of the landscape architect Professor Alwin Seifert, would also be part of our group. Asked what they thought of their son and brother being celebrated in this manner, the two ladies would modestly reply that it was “normal”, that they were used to it. But you could tell that inside they were very proud.

Carl Orff being applauded at the State Opera in Munich in the 1960s

The concert “Musica Viva” with Paul Hindemith conducting his opera, “Mathis der Maler” was an unforgettable evening. Orff had asked me whether I would like to accompany him, and we sat directly above the orchestra and followed the score.

24 March 1968: premiere of Prometheus

The first performance of Prometheus, a tragedy by Aeschylus and performed in Ancient Greek, took place on the 24th of March 1968 at the Württembergische State Theatre. The musical director was Ferdinand Leitner and the producer was Gustav Rudolf Sellner.

The opera was a challenge for the performers – and the composer.

Long before the premiere took place, Carl Orff had spent hours rehearsing with the soloists at his house in Dießen, preparing them for the challenge of actually performing this work on stage. He had played sections on the piano for then, sung them and had introduced them to the complexities of pronouncing Ancient Greek. One of the evening’s protagonists, Carlos Alexander, wrote that Orff had introduced him to the piece three years before it was first performed. (In: “Carl Orff. Ein Gedenkbuch”, published by Hans Schneider, Tutzing, in 1985).

During this period, Godela also often visited her father in Dießen and reported that only in the Ancient Greek language could Orff “hear his music”. She was there during the rehearsals with the singers. The brilliant teacher Orff succeeded in making what was difficult seem easy, and familiarizing the performers with this work, which was so challenging to produce and perform. He reassured the singers: “If you forget the lyrics, simply sing ‘Kyriazi, Kyriazi’ (Ed: the name of a popular cigarette brand). Nobody will notice!” But there was no need to resort to such subterfuge: the premiere was an overwhelming success, not least thanks to the efforts of the very impressive production and the intense dedication of the singers and the orchestra. Moments like this remain indelibly imprinted in my memory.

Orff could only truly relax the following morning, because despite the success of the premiere there was always the anxious question of what the critics thought. There was a tangible sense of tension and anticipation. Woe betide any unqualified reviewers. Orff came to our hotel room in Stuttgart and discussed the press with Godela. Much could be said and written about these moments – let me just say that they were an unforgettable experience, simultaneously wonderful and deeply exhilarating.

The morning after the premiere of  Prometheus

5 March 1972: photo session with Carl Orff…

Orff invited me to take some photographs of him in his study in Dießen. As usual, it marked the start of an engrossing and productive dialogue…

20 August 1973: Premiere of De temporum fine comoedia

The final highlight of Carl Orff’s oeuvre was the premiere of  De temporum fine Comoedia – Das Spiel vom Ende der Zeiten – Vigilia at the Salzburg Festival. It was conducted by Herbert von Karajan and directed by August Everding.

Pictures from the morning after the world premiere of his De temporum fine Comoedia – Das Spiel vom Ende der Zeiten – Vigilia.

1974: Presentation of the Romano Guardini Prize

Receiving the Romano Guardini Prize was one of the most prestigious honours in Carl Orff’s life. The ceremony at the Catholic Academy in Bavaria was attended by many celebrities:

1970s: Father and daughter together

On the loggia of Carl Orff’s house in Dießen am Ammersee. Father and daughter are deep in conversation.

1975: Honorary citizenship of the city of Munich

In the old city hall of Munich, Professor Dr. h.c. Carl Orff was awarded the honorary citizenship of the state capital of Munich.

4 May 1975: Carl Orff reads from  Die Bernauerin

10 July 1975: Carl Orff’s 80th birthday

The grand celebration for Orff’s 80th birthday took place at the Munich State Opera and it included the unveiling of a bust of Carl Orff.

The speakers included Orff’s publisher Willy Strecker, the State Music Director Günther Rennert, celebrities from the Munich State Opera and many, many old companions, including the well-known harpsichordist Anna Barbara Speckner. Everyone had come to honour Orff, and to hear the speech he had written for the occasion. The bust stands in one of the world’s premier opera houses and is in the company of some of the greatest composers of all times: W.A. Mozart, L. v. Beethoven, G. Verdi, V. Bellini, G. Puccini, R. Wagner, R. Strauss.

The new version of Prometheus

One of the highlights of the composer’s 80th birthday celebrations on 10 July 1975 was the concertante performance of the new version of “Prometheus”, directed by Rafael Kubelik as part of the Musica viva series of concerts. The composer was there to watch the performance.

The concert featured Roland Herrmann in the title role, Colette Lorand as Io Inachus, Fritz Uhl, Josef Greindl, Kieth Engen, Heinz Cramer, Women’s Choir and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Roland Herrmann spoke about the changes that Orff had made to the score during the singer’s week-long stay at Carl Orff’s house in Dießen am Ammersee.  (“Carl Orff: ein Gedenkbuch”, published by Hans Schneider, Tutzing 1985).

On 1/2 October 1975, the new version of “Prometheus” was recorded, again with Rafael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and again in the presence of the composer.

A historic document: the CD of “Prometheus” by Carl Orff from 1975

1975: a film is made of Carmina Burana

Carl Orff asked me to accompany him to the film adaptation of “Carmina Burana” by Jean-Pierre Ponelle at the Bavaria Film Studios in Munich Geiselgasteig

23 June 1980: Orff’s last journey ….

One of the last and perhaps the greatest highlights in Carl Orff’s life was his trip to Berlin to see “Carmina Burana” being performed on 23 June 1980 by the Berlin Philharmonic with conductor Riccardo Muti. This was two years before Orff’s death.

Liselotte Orff had asked me and Godela to accompany her husband, a request I was only too glad to fulfil. At the same time, I was highly conscious of the responsibility and the need to keep an eye on Carl Orff day and night. He was not well and we were already afraid that the flight to Berlin would be too much, plus the exertion of checking in to the hotel, the rehearsals and the actual performance. But the moment his music started, Carl Orff forgot everything. After the stupendous performance I accompanied him up onto the stage. His words, “This is the second premiere of my Carmina Burana”, were met with a never-ending storm of cheers from the orchestra, the choir and the audience. It was a deeply moving moment.

Backstage, in the artists’ lounge, Carl Orff and Riccardo Muti signed copies of the new recording of “Carmina Burana”.

Hand-signed record with the signatures of Riccardo Muti and Carl Orff

The days in Berlin were very exhausting for Carl Orff. He was restless during the night after the performance, getting only two or three hours of sleep. Then he was awake again and he talked and talked and talked… We heard so many astonishing instances from his life, from a very personal and intimate point of view.

10 July 1980: Orff’s Greek Dramas at Circus Krone

The final performances in Carl Orff’s life were unforgettable events.
His Greek dramas at Circus Krone in 1980 – in honour of his 85th birthday!

Initially, Carl Orff had vehemently rejected the idea that his greatest works should be performed in a circus. He was insulted that the city of Munich did not consider it necessary to perform his works on one of the city’s major stages. Godela Orff wrote in her book “Mein Vater Carl Orff und ich” (copyright by Henschel Verlag in der Seemann Henschel GmbH & Co.KG.) that he raged and complained: “Am I to be relegated to the monkeys?”. “Finally, though, Orff gave up his resistance and allowed himself to be persuaded that these performances were a great experiment and that they were the continuation of the great success of the performance of his Greek dramas in Athens” (ibid.) It was a terrific success. Orff was universally acclaimed and honoured!

Godela and I sat next to him in Circus Krone during the performance. He was utterly engrossed, following the score, note by note in complete rapture – he was no longer “there”. Nobody could tell what Carl Orff was thinking in those moments.

Deeply immersed in his work. This is the last public picture of Carl Orff

Deeply immersed in his work. This is the last public picture of Carl Orff


Carl Orff’s final days come

Carl Orff was very ill. He was only allowed to leave the hospital for these performances at Circus Krone. In her book “Mein Vater Carl Orff und ich” (copyright by Henschel Verlag in der Seemann Henschel GmbH & Co. KG.), Godela Orff wrote:

“During one of my final visits: I am sitting by his bedside, holding his weak hand; he looks at me and asks in astonishment: “Mia?” This was the name of his sister who had died. Silence. “Godela?” I attempt to smile at him.
Suddenly, loudly and full of fear, he calls: “Mama? Where is mama?” I reply: “Mama is there. She is always there by your side.”
He relaxes and gazes at me for a long time. “You are my good angel!”
He becomes silent again.”


My last encounter with Carl Orff…

Liselotte Orff asked me to approve Carl Orff’s death mask in the pathology department in Munich.
It was a hard task.
Deep silence.



Found while looking through Godela Orff’s bookcase: a bookmark in a copy of the “Gedenkbuch Carl Orff” (Hans Schneider Verlag, Tutzing, 1985) owned by Orff’s widow, Liselotte Orff, who died in 2012. The volume is full of tributes from those who performed Orff’s works: singers, conductors, percussionists, composers.

The composer Hermann Reutter wrote:

“Where can we find a second creative spirit whose life’s work encompasses everything in infinite, unlimited spaces and highlights the place that is due it! The range extends from the Theatrum Mundi to fairy tales, from intimate love stories to rustic farces, from Bavarian folk play to Attic tragedy, for which Sophocles and Hölderlin were the powerful magicians and inspiration. Christmas idyll, Easter passion dawn in the midst and to crown it all, a play from the end of times resounds.”

The global popularity of Carl Orff started with this work – in the composer’s own hand.

Gerhard Büchtemann
Januar 2020