Carl Orff was born into an old Bavarian military family and learned piano, organ, and cello at an early age. His first works show the influence of the Impressionist composers but he soon became drawn to ancient Greek tragedy, the aesthetics of the Baroque period and Christian mystery plays, and traditional Bavarian folk music. His style changed to a spare, direct, modal style with dramatic tension and exuberance expressed outright or just below the surface. This similar texture can be heard in its most refined state in the operas Antigonae (1949), Oedipus der Tyrann (1959), and Ein Sommernachtstraum (1939-1962), but the first piece in which it occurred is still the most compelling and seems to flow directly from the composer's imagination (unlike some later vulgarizations where he plagiarized his first success). This first piece was the popular cantata Carmina Burana (Songs of Beuren, 1937) and the most quoted of all his compositions. Originally conceived for the stage, Carmina Burana is a setting for soloists, chorus, and orchestra (including two pianos) of profane poems in low Latin and German from the 13th century sung by the Benediktbeuern monks. The texts have as their subjects drinking wine, nature, and love. The section most quoted, "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi," praises Fortune with a muted to full-voiced chorus underscored by a subdued pulsing, skulking rhythmic pedal point (pizzicato strings, piano bass octaves, staccato "toots" from bassoons, and low clarinets). This section is also often imitated (like B. Herrmann's Psycho string slashes, for example) in original scores by other film composers. Carmina Burana excerpts occur in moments of mystery and dementia, such as in Shylock (1999), The General's Daughter (1999), Sady skorpiona (Garden of Scorpions, 1991), The Doors (1991), Excalibur (1981), Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), and Ternos Caçadores (1969) (aka Jailbird). Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's Carmina Burana (1976) is the only filmic realization based on the original work.
The dark humor of Badlands (1973) is wonderfully enhanced by Orff's Musica Poetica for wooden xylophone-like, metal gamelan-like instruments, tympani, and occasional chorus vocals (with words from ancient children's rhymes to the poetry of Sophocles, Goether, and Hölderlin). The universal title Musica poetica was given to the series of ten records of the composer's Schulwerk, music to be played and sung by children, issued by the French label Harmonium Mundi between 1963 and 1975. The Orff-Schulwerk became renown in educational work throughout the world. It was based on the composer's belief that children should not be taught music in isolation from kinetic movement, theater, and speech. In Badlands, the character Holly's offscreen narration throughout the movie concerning her adventures with her gentle, sociopathic boyfriend Kit, whom she thinks looks like James Dean in blue jeans, is perfectly accompanied by the Orff music which combines a simple, direct naivety of harmony and rhythm with a conceptuality foreign to the badlands of 1959 Montana. Especially effective is the use of an old folk song-setting in Phrygian mode that highlights the burning of Holly's house after Kit has shot her father. Other music by Erik Satie, James Taylor, George Tipton, and Nat "King" Cole fill out the soundtrack.
Another style that arises occasionally in Orff's works is that of the grotesque and surreal, heard in Der Mond and the anti-Fascist Die Kluge. His Trionfo di Afrodite appears in an adapted version in Liquid Sky (1982). Unfortunately, there are no biopics concerning this often controversial composer.