Every year at the summer Orff Level Trainings, I give a lecture on some aspect of this work.
This year’s is based on the history of the Schulwerk as told by Carl Orff himself. Preparing my talk, I was struck by one part of the story. In 1932, Orff goes to Berlin to meet a man named Leo Kestenberg who was impressed with Orff’s ideas and invited him to try them out in the Berlin schools. Kestenberg’s colleague, Eberhard Preussner, described Berlin at that time thus (boldface mine):
“…A place that had something to offer that could be described as an attempt to build a new society, a city whose intellectual life was shaped by Einstein, Planck, Spengler and where Schoenberg, Hindemith, Busoni worked, indeed, a metropolis of minds and music. Certainly those ten or twelve years were full of tensions that were not, however, pushed to one side, but were experienced, suffered and used. One was full of hope and of apprehension…”
How well that describes us today! “Full of tensions” is actually the ongoing state of the world, but now those tensions have risen up in monstrous forms and are in our face in each day’s report about the next disgrace in Washington. But pay attention here—Preussner notes that these artists and intellectuals did not push them to the side and instead experienced them, suffered them, and used them to push themselves further down the path of their commitment to artistic expression and scientific thought.
And that is precisely what America as a culture is refusing to do. Instead of experiencing the reality of what has gone down and what’s going down, we rush to the mall to shop and have a nice day. Instead of suffering the grief of our brutality, singing the blues and welcoming the necessary sorrow as the price we pay for joy, we refuse to feel the feelings. And thus the rough hand of depression pushes us down and we turn to drugs to solve it. Instead of using all of this as grist for the mill of deeper thinking and fuller expression, the way that artists do, we cut out arts programs in schools and surf the Internet for get-rich-quick schemes. And thus no healing is possible in the land and we trudge through the grey landscape wounded by our denial, bleeding day and night like the King in the Holy Grail story.
The tensions Preussner mentioned brought hope alongside a realistic and healthy apprehension. As it turned out, such apprehension was well-founded and went far beyond anyone’s wildest nightmares. Just one year after Orff’s promising meeting with Kestenberg, Hitler rose to power, Kestenberg (a Jew) fled, vibrant thought and art were shut down within three months and the 12-year horror began.
And now we have another demagogue leading the nation down into the swamp of disaster, but still we have the hope of redemption. That is, if people agree to the hard work of experiencing, suffering and using the tensions to shut down the assault on human rights and common decency and speak out and live out loud the triumph of the human spirit that knows kindness, beauty and complexity of thought and feeling.
And that includes the radical practice of Orff Schulwerk.