Carl Orff was born into a distinguished Bavarian military family, and after composing songs in his childhood took up studies at the Munich Academy of Music. His early music shows the influence of Debussy, but this was soon cast off in favour of Richard Strauss and Schoenberg. After his military service in World War I he returned to Munich and became a teacher, eventually establishing the Güntherschule for gymnastics, music and dance. Its aim was to teach and explore new music and dance. In 1930 he produced the pedagogical work Schulwerk upon which his fame rested prior to Carmina Burana. In the late 1920s he came over a collection of Latin stories and poems by a group of renegade 13th century students and monks. These colourful and explicit stories tell of life in the village pub, displays of love – at court and among ordinary folk, and above all how fortune rules our lives and we cannot control where her wheel will stop and the fate she has in store for us all.
Carmina Burana was premiered in 1937, at a very dark time in German history, and this has lead to Orff being tainted somewhat by the Nazi era – the Nazis claimed that his music was a model of what contemporary German music should be. He managed to overcome this unwelcome association, though apart from this work, his lasting reputation is that of one of the most influential teachers of the 20th century. Carmina Burana is the first work in a trilogy, the others being Catulli Carmina (1943) and Trionfo di Afrodite (1953). All display his skill for rhythmic energy and primitive, almost barbaric sonorities that proved so potent with the audience at the premiere in 1937, and have done so ever since.