- Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance by Peter Godman
Duckworth, 364 pp, £29.50, February 1985, ISBN 0 7156 1768 0
It is hard to imagine how a future United Europe (supposing there is ever such a thing) could grow a literature of its own – distinct, that is, from the literatures of the nations which compose it. Yet there exists a precedent for such a development in the Latin writings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Once Latin had ceased to be recognisable as a language of the Italian peninsula, it was free to be employed as a transnational medium, available to educated writers regardless of their native speech. It did not matter whether one had been trained in the schools of York, or Paris, or Bologna – Latin was your language, quite as much as if it had been learned in Rome, and you would write chronicles or treatises or poems in that language, not in the local vernacular. Peter Godman’s anthology of poems of the Carolingian period provides some remarkable instances of this international character of Medieval Latin. Here in the eighth and ninth centuries, if ever, is a true European literature. Among the poets associated with Charlemagne himself are to be found Englishmen, Irishmen, Spaniards and Italians, as well as Franks, all speaking the same language in praise of the great emperor, magnificently styled pharus Europae – the beacon of Europe. Charlemagne’s court at Aachen attracted writers from all parts of the empire and beyond, just as Rome had done in its palmy days. It was hailed as the new Rome, nova Roma: ‘Our times are transformed into the civilisation of Antiquity. Golden Rome is reborn and restored anew to the world.’
Vol. 7 No. 20 · 21 November 1985
SIR: Carl Orff has reached the age of 90 and probably does not need to care about the opinions of Professor Burrow (LRB, 17 October). It is nevertheless extraordinary that there should persist this snobbish dismissal of a splendid and inventive score that has firmly established itself in the repertoire and in the esteem of the public if not of some critics. On what knowledge of Orff’s music does Professor Burrow base his epithet ‘awful’? At the Staatsoper in Berlin I recently heard Carmina Burana and Der Mond in a double bill and came away again marvelling at the power and magic of the composer’s distillation of some of the simpler human emotions. Going on to Leipzig, I was lucky enough to hear an excellent and informative illustrated talk on Orff, with particular reference to his earlier work (including settings of Werfel and Brecht), by Professor Clement of Leipzig University.
Medieval Latin poetry used a language then still universal throughout Europe. Orff has made use of a similarly universal language, powerfully based upon rhythms that can appeal to a wide audience but able to embrace also some fine tunes (rather despised nowadays) and moments of spellbinding beauty – as in the final pages of Der Mond. I remain puzzled at Professor Burrow’s side-swipe, based as he thinks on some received opinion. If puns are the order of the day, he should abandon the tunnel-vision of the burrow and emerge into the primary colours of Orff’s vigorous world.
Vol. 7 No. 22 · 19 December 1985
SIR: Your correspondent, John May (Letters, 21 November), takes exception to Professor Burrow’s remarks on Orff’s Carmina Burana in his review of my Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance (LRB, 17 October). I have not asked John Burrow why he describes Orff’s music as awful (not as bad a pun as May claims), but I imagine that one of his reasons for choosing that accurate epithet is the ponderous musical pomposity which Orff considered a suitable setting for some of the wittiest, subtlest and most elusive lyric poetry that Medieval Europe produced. There is no need to invoke ‘received opinion’ to see why Orff does not attract Burrow, and why he appeals to May.
Pembroke College, Oxford.
SIR: John May’s spirited defence alludes to the deliberate anti-Modernism of Carmina Burana. But the ‘vigorous world’ of Orff’s music is surely less innocent than he thinks it is. When Carmina Burana first appeared in 1937, a year after the success of Orff’s music for the opening of the Berlin Olympic Games, critics spoke of a ‘Bolshevistic levelling’ of musical standards and, more positively, of a ‘spontaneous return to simple, natural, bodily and elemental things’. The Nazis’ exploitation of Orff’s style to help boost a ‘vigorous’, not uncontroversial anti-intellectualism in Germany in the Thirties is unlikely to harm the integrity of Orff’s work now. Nor is his successful career in Nazi Germany, despite a string of commissions, first performances (including Der Mond in 1939), and a public Declaration of Faith in the Führer in 1944 replete with a Horatian Ode in Latin, remembered as anything much worse than a minor blemish on a reputation more distinguished than most critics are prepared to admit. But don’t those bland, Black-and-Decker rhythms in Carmina Burana, appealing as they are to modern fresh-air fanatics tired of listening to contemporary music, sound just a bit more ominous if we remember when, and in which circumstances, they were composed?
Incidentally, Orff has not ‘reached the age of 90’ and certainly ‘does not need to care about the opinions of Professor Burrow’. Orff died on 29 March 1982 at the age of 86.
King’s College, Cambridge
Vol. 8 No. 2 · 6 February 1986
SIR: As an ex-Bomber Command pilot who lost many good friends in the skies over Germany, I remember well the nature of the regime we fought to defeat and its corrosive effect on artistic and intellectual life. However, over forty years later I am content to judge by musical rather than political standards the work of German musicians in that period, whether composers (Orff, Richard Strauss) or conductors (Furtwängler). We in Britain never had to face the agonising choices of conscience and morals which men like these confronted in Germany: there is nothing to be gained by reviving these controversies.
John Deathridge (Letters, 19 December 1985) implies that one cannot properly like both Orff and Birtwistle. This is the Thatcher/Kinnock confrontation syndrome transferred to music, and it makes no more sense there than it does in politics. Peter Godman, on the same Letters page, considers ‘musical pomposity’ what I find splendid, invigorating and rhythmically exciting music: these are normal differences of reaction, but I do not understand why Dr Deathridge thinks that my admiration for Orff (even were it not combined with similar views on Birtwistle) turns me into a ‘modern fresh-air fanatic’.
It was remiss of me to be seduced by attendance at a ‘90th birthday lecture’ about Orff in Leipzig recently into failing to consult the reference books about his dates.