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Catullus on stage. Some remarks on Carl Orff’s scenic cantata Catulli Carmina



Markus Stachon. University of Bonn. Germany.



Catullus on stage. Some remarks on Carl Orff’s scenic cantata Catulli Carmina

Markus Stachon. University of Bonn. Germany.

As a side effect of the sexual revolution in the last decades of the 20th century Catullus has become a favourite author of Latin teachers and pupils (see Holtermann 2003, 15–17). A precursor to the trend of recollecting Catullus’ erotic poems was Carl Orff with his scenic cantata Catulli Carmina from 1943 (on which see Liess 1955, 110–117 and Orff 1979, 7f., 91–98, 144f.)

At the beginning of the play we see some young men and women enthusing about the eternal power of love: they are overtly flirting and carressing on stage (large parts of this frame story have been left out in the original libretto [cf. Orff/Stemplinger/Bach 1944, 10/11 with Orff 1955/1990, 23–35]). Then some old men enter the stage and warn the young people by telling them the story about Catullus’ unhappy love for Lesbia who cheated on him with his friend Caelius. But, finally, the young people ignore the warning and go on singing their promises of eternal loyalty to each other.

One way by which Orff bridges the distance between antiquity and its exemplary character for modern times is his technique of using Catullus as his librettist and introducing him as a persona on the stage at the same time (see Thomas 1990, 129f.). Furthermore, the old men’s narration consisting of a recitation of twelve Catullan poems accompanied by a dance performance can be considered a reminiscence of the Roman practice of bringing poems to the stage via pantomimes (cf. Ov. trist. 5,7,25–28).

Besides, by embedding the erotic love songs in a frame story told by austere men as a bad example, Orff manages to obscure his own (most likely, positive) attitude towards undisciplined love; this was necessary because Orff’s Latin compositions still seemed suspicious to the Nazi regime until 1944 (see Kater 1995, 9–14).

As Orff reached a quite big audience with his Catulli Carmina (see Wiseman 1985, 234) and the play is recommended to be read and listened to in Latin classes (see Strunz 1990; Glücklich 1999, 15–17; Maier 2009, 48–52), it is even possible that his selection of Catullan poems had some influence on the present public image of Catullus, who—although he is also considered a bitter satirist by academic classical scholars—stands mostly for passionate love in the collective memory of (former) Latin pupils (see Müller 2015, 46).

However, by presenting Catullus’ poems with a twofold message delivered by the old men and the young people respectively, Orff seems to have prefigured the current usage of Catullan poems in school relating their content to the young readers’ own experience of love—be it positive or negative (see Maier 2009, 4).


H.-J. Glücklich (41999). Catull, Gedichte. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht).

M. Holtermann (2003). “Catull, Sappho und Kallimachos. Intertextuelle Interpretationen im lateinischen Lektüreunterricht,” Pegasus-Onlinezeitschrift 3.1: 15–30.

M. H. Kater (1995). “Carl Orff im Dritten Reich,” Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 43: 1–35.

A. Liess (1955, ²1977, ³1980]). Carl Orff. Idee und Werk (1–2Zurich: Atlantis, ³Munich: Goldmann).

F. Maier (²2009). Catull. An Lesbia. Ein Liebesdichter mit europäischer Ausstrahlung (Bamberg: C. C. Buchner).

U. Müller (2015). “Carmina Amoris. Carl Orffs Trionfi: Carmina Burana, Catulli Carmina, Trionfo di Afrodite. Konzeption und literarische Vorlagen. Mit einem Exkurs zu den mittelalterlichen Melodien der Carmina Burana und zur »Vagantenstrophe« des Archipoeta,” in: Text, Musik, Szene – Das Musiktheater von Carl Orff (Symposium Orff-Zentrum München 2007), ed. T. Rösch (Mainz: Schott), 35–53.

C. Orff, E. Stemplinger, R. Bach (1944). Catulli Carmina. Ludi scaenici. Dt. Übertr. v. R. B., Fassung des lat. Textes in Zusammenarbeit mit E. St. (Mainz: Schott).

C. Orff (1955, ²1983, ³1990). Catulli Carmina. Ludi scaenici. For 2 Solo Voices, Chorus and Orchestra (1Mainz: Schott, 2–3London: Eulenburg).

C. Orff (1979). Trionfi: Carmina Burana, Catulli carmina, Trionfo di Afrodite [= Carl Orff und sein Werk: Dokumentation IV: Trionfi] (Tutzing: Schneider).

F. Strunz (1990). “Catulli Carmina. Zur Interpretation der ludi scaenici Carl Orffs,” Der Altsprachliche Unterricht 33.4: 25–40.

W. Thomas (1990). Das Rad der Fortuna. Ausgewählte Aufsätze zu Werk und Wirkung Carl Orffs (Mainz: Schott).

T. P. Wiseman (1985). Catullus and his World. A Reappraisal (Cambridge: CUP).

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