Tag Archives: Composers

The Genius of Carl Orff

The Genius of Carl Orff

Carl Orff (born July 10, 1895; died March 29, 1982), the prolific German composer, is perhaps most famous for his secular oratorio Carmina Burana, based on medieval poetry. Listen to the opening chorus, O Fortuna:

If you’re an elementary general music teacher, you’re probably familiar with, and possibly using, his Schulwerk, the process he devised for teaching music.

The music he composed for Schulwerk uses layered repeated patterns that make it possible for even young children to play parts in ensembles.

From 1924-1943, Orff served as the music director for the Güntherschule, a training school for dancers and gymnastics teachers which he cofounded with Dorothee Gunther. His goal was to help dancers become more musical in their movement. After the school dissolved during World War II, he began synthesizing his technique as a way of teaching music to children.

Orff Schulwerk employs a combination of improvisation, ostinati (repeated rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic patterns), speech, rhythm, play, singing, movement, and use of instruments such as recorders, xylophones, metallophones, glockenspiels, drums, and other percussion. It is used in music training from preschool through junior high and beyond, and in music education programs in colleges and universities world-wide.

Four well-known quotes from Carl Orff help illustrate the ideals at the heart of Orff Schulwerk.

Tell me, I forget, show me, I remember, involve me, I understand.–Carl Orff

Since the beginning of time, children have not liked to study. They would much rather play, and if you have their interests at heart, you will let them learn while they play; they will find that what they have mastered is child’s play.–Carl Orff

Elemental Music is never just music. It’s bound up with movement, dance and speech, and so it is a form of music in which one must participate, in which one is involved not as a listener but as a co-performer.–Carl Orff

Experience first, then intellectualize.–Carl Orff

In  Schulwerk, students learn musical principles by first making music, then generalizing what they’ve experienced over time. It is guided discovery.

Listen how simple musical motifs are layered to create a complex piece. This approach lends itself beautifully to student composition. Dance is also a part of the full performance.

Variations on Hot Cross Buns:

Here are some older children performing at an Orff Schulwerk convention:

Though he passed away more than forty-four years ago, Carl Orff’s legacy lives on through his own compositions and through the millions of musicians who learned how to play, improvise, and compose as a result of the process he founded.


S is for Stravinsky

S is for Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky was born June 5, 1882, near St. Petersburg, Russia. A prolific composer, he is probably best remembered for two of his ballets, Firebird and Rite of Spring.

Though he took music lessons as a boy, he studied law and philosophy at St. Petersburg University, while experimenting with musical composition on his own. In 1902 he had an opportunity to show some of his pieces to the father of one of his classmates. Igor_Stravinsky_EssaysThe father (Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a great Russian composer in his own right) was so impressed that he offered to mentor Stravinsky, and dissuaded him from enrolling in the music conservatory.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s contacts included Sergei Diaghilev, founder of Ballet Russe, who commissioned Stravinsky to write music for a ballet about the mythical Firebird, a recurring character in Slavic folklore. When Firebird premiered in Paris in 1910, its success gave Stravinsky the reputation of being one of the most promising new composers.

When I taught elementary general music, the Infernal Dance from Firebird was my favorite example of the use of sforzando (Italian shorthand for “suddenly, with force,” or a distinct accent).

Relocating to France, Stravinsky spent the next two years working on a musical image of a pagan ritual sacrifice. Paired with choreography by Nijinsky, the premiere of Rite of Spring on May 29, 1913, sparked a legendary riot. The provocative dance and the harsh rhythms and dissonance of the music offended the sensibilities of the audience, accustomed to a more genteel Russian ballet.

I’m not sure how the choreography in this clip compares to the original, but do you see how it could have enflamed the observers?

The dancers’ movements remind me of bird mating rituals, or meercats.

When Walt Disney set beloved works of the musical canon to animation in Fantasia in 1940, here is how he and his artists interpreted Rite of Spring:

Excerpt from Fantasia:

World War I and the Russian Revolution made return to Russia out of the question for Stravinsky. However, references to Russian folk texts continued to show up in his music.

In 1940, Stravinsky moved to Hollywood, California. He lived and and worked in the United States until his death on April 6, 1971, in New York City.

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B is for Bach

B is for Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most beloved  composers of all time.

He’s also one of my favorites. And why not? He had great hair.

Born on March 31, 1685 to a family with a long musical heritage, he was prolific in more ways than one. Married twice, he sired twenty children, most of whom did not survive childhood; yet, four of them became respected composers and musicians in their own rights: Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, and Johann Christian Bach. (And then there’s his long lost son, P.D.Q. Bach–but he’s a topic for a future post.)

Nearly every classical piano student has worked through the Notebooks for Anna Magdalena Bach (actually, two notebooks–the first containing only works by J.S. Bach, the second also including pieces by other composers), which Bach wrote out as lessons for his second wife.

This prelude (which I can only play at about half this speed) would make a good soundtrack for a movie about a pianist losing his sanity (kind of like the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in the the movie Shine). Prelude and Fugue in C minor BWV 847 no 2 :

And  who doesn’t get goosebumps at the sound of the organ on the first few notes of the Toccata and Fugue in d minor?

The Brandenburg Concertos demonstrate Bach’s flair for chamber music. (Yay for harpsichords!)

A deeply devout Christian, J.S. Bach spent much of his career as a church organist and choir master, writing chorales and cantatas for services. His St. Matthew Passion, a setting of the story of Christ’s late ministry and death for the Lenten season, exemplifies his gift for creating music that engages the emotions and draws the listener into worship.

In this excerpt, Erbarme Dich (Have Mercy), the contralto responds to Matthew 27:26, “Then he [Pilate] released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.”

Bach died on July 28, 1750, a date which is synonymous with the end of the Baroque period and beginning of the Classical era in music.

For more information about J.S. Bach, watch this mini-bio.

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