In Defense of Transparency at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

O P I N I O N   /    M U S I C

by Ronald C. Kent

In January 2012 I became aware of a then-upcoming performance of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Since I knew that Carl Orff was a Nazi-approved composer, who created this work in 1936, I wrote a letter to Maestro Andreas Delfs and Music Director Edo de Waart, requesting that they place the biography of Orff during the Nazi period in the program, in the interest of enlightenment, transparency, and full disclosure, thereby situating “Carmina Burana” in its historical context for listeners.

Just recently, on June 1, 2015, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran a full-page advertisement on behalf of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s June 19-21 performances of Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” featuring yet again Maestro Delfs, with the support of Music Director de Waart. I re-sent my letter of January 18, 2012 to the MSO on June 18, 2015, explaining that I was renewing my protest and corresponding request for biographical and historical transparency. Although I no longer expect a reply but rather a continuing deafening silence, it remains our responsibility to remember the past and not overlook the actions of historical figures no matter what rank they may hold in society. The text of my letter follows.

January 18, 2012 [re-sent on June 18, 2015]

Dear Maestro Delfs and Director de Waart:

It has come to my attention that the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will perform “Carmina Burana” composed by Carl Orff (1895-1982) on January 20-22, 2012. This is at least the second time Mr. Delfs has performed this work with the MSO since 2005. I write to urge you both to reveal to your intended audiences the biographical and historical context of this musical piece.

As you may well know, Carl Orff was born in Munich in 1895, becoming a conductor in Mannheim, Darmstadt, and later in Munich (1919). Biographical and historical details are in Ernst Klee’s Kulturlexikon zum Dritten Reich (Fischer Verlag, 2007). During the Nazi regime, 1933-1945, Orff failed to distance himself from or protest against his involvement in Nazi “culture.” Becoming a favorite of the Nazi elite, he was listed in the Nazi Fuehrerliste (Liste der Begnadeten) as one of the most important composers of the Nazi state. A willing compulsory member of the Nazi Reich’s Chamber of Culture, he assisted in 1936 with composition and performances for the Olympics held in Nazi Germany. In 1937 he conducted the debut of his work “Carmina Burana” in Frankfurt am Main (composed in 1936), with a second performance arranged by the Nazi party on June 12, 1937.

In 1939, Orff willingly performed his piece commissioned by the City of Frankfurt for Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” as a “substitute” for Felix Mendelssohn’s composition, since Mendelssohn’s works were banned by the Nazi regime from being performed because he was Jewish. Orff composed as well with Nazi supporters such as Gunhild Keetman. After 1941, Orff was in part supported financially by the Vienna Gauleiter (District Leader) Baldur von Schirach, who was later convicted at the Nuremberg trials for deporting Jews from Vienna to their deaths in concentration camps. At no time during the Nazi regime (1933-1945) was Orff’s music prevented from being performed.

Orff failed to protest the injustices of the Nazi regime, while others in the music community chose to voice their opposition by their actions in disassociating themselves from the Nazi administration of music. Musicians such as Karl Muck, who resigned as the conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic, and Fritz Zweig, who resigned as conductor of the Berlin State Opera, are examples of artists who showed civic music courage in that dark time.

Finally, with the millions of possible musical selections available from around the world, it is disturbing that you both have selected Orff’s “Carmina Burana” without revealing the composer’s biography, thereby uncritically associating yourselves with a well-known composer of Nazi entertainment “culture.” Why not seek to perform the musical works of those murdered or banned during the Nazi regime, such as Rudolf Karel (murdered in Teresin), Otto Klemperer, Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Schreker, Paul Hindemith, Rudolph Serkin, and Wolfgang Korngold?

While it is true that one cannot ban music, one can, however, place music in its historical and biographical context and be clear to an audience about it. If you were to take this step, you would be honoring those who perished or were banned while remembering an era in which the music was created.

I hope that both of you will choose to disclose to your intended audiences the facts concerning Carl Orff’s past during the Nazi regime that continues justifiably to taint “Carmina Burana” and the composer himself. Such a contextualization would create an educational moment in musical and human understanding.


Ronald C. Kent

Editor, International Labor History Association (Madison, Wisconsin)

Ronald C. Kent has been working in the U.S. labor movement for over 44 years. He is currently the editor of the International Labor History Association (ILHA, est. 1988), located in Madison, Wisconsin. He is also co-editor of Culture, Gender, Race and U.S. Labor History (Greenwood Press, 1993). 


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