Although his fame rests on the success of a single work, the famous and frequently commercially mutilated Carmina Burana, Carl Orff was in fact a multi-faceted musician and prolific composer who wrote in many styles before developing the primal, driving language which informs his most famous work. In addition to his fame as the creator of Carmina burana, Orff enjoyed international renown as the world's pre-eminent authority on children's music education, his life's work in that area represented by Musik für Kinder, five eclectic collections of music to be performed by children, eventually developing into a more extensive series known as Orff Schulwerk.
Born in 1895 to an old Bavarian family, Orff studied piano and cello while still a young boy. He later studied at the Munich Academy of Music, graduating in 1914. The music that he composed during this period shows the influence of several composers, including Debussy and Richard Strauss. In 1914, Orff was appointed Kapellmeister at the Munich Kammerspiele, where he remained until joining the military in 1917. Discharged from service the following year, Orff continued to work as a conductor, accepting further positions in Mannheim and Darmstadt during the 1918-1919 seasons. Returning to Munich in 1919, Orff studied composition privately with Heinrich Kaminski while supporting himself as a teacher. In 1924, he founded the Güntherschule for music and dance with Dorothee Günther, dedicating himself to making musical performance accessible to children. Under his guidance, an entire orchestra of special "Orff instruments" was designed, enabling children to play music without formal training. The following year, Orff made three stage adaptations of works by Monteverdi. Continuing his work in the area of Baroque music, Orff became conductor of the Munich Bach society in 1930, a position he held until 1933. The experience of performing Baroque music, particularly sacred works for the stage, convinced Orff that an effective musical performance must fuse music, words and movement, a goal no doubt partly inspired by his work with the Güntherschule. Orff embodied his conception of music in the fabulously successful Carmina Burana (1937), which in many ways defined him as a composer. Based on an important collection of Latin and German Goliard poems found in the monastery of Benediktbeuren, this work exemplifies Orff's search for an idiom that would reveal the elemental power of music, allowing the listener to experience music as an overwhelming, primitive force. Goliard poetry, which not only celebrates love and wine, but also pokes fun at the clergy, perfectly suited Orff's desire to create a musical work appealing to a fundamental musicality that, as he believed, every human being possesses. Eschewing melodic development and harmonic complexity, and articulating his musical ideas through basic sonorities and easily discernible rhythmic patterns, Orff created an idiom which many found irresistible. The perceived "primitivism" of Carmina burana notwithstanding, Orff believed that the profound appeal of music is not merely physical. This belief is reflected by many other works, including musical dramas based on Greek tragedies, namely, Antigonae (1949), Oedipus der Tyrann (1959), and Prometheus (1966). These works, as well as some compositions on Christian themes, followed the composer's established dramatic and compositional techniques, but failed to repeat the tremendous success of Carmina burana. His last work, De temporum fine comoedia (A Comedy About the End of Time) premiered at the 1973 Salzburg Festival. Nine years later, Carl Orff died in Munich, where he had spent his entire life.