The Composer

Cerha while composing

Friedrich Cerha primarily composed in two places: A glasshouse overgrown with plants in Maria Langegg and the composing room of his Vienna apartment (where this portrait was taken).

Photo: Hertha Hurnaus.

A Short History of Composer Friedrich Cerha

Friedrich Cerha, truly a composer for the century: He wrote music over the course of ten decades, from the 1930s to the 2020s—and as society changed dramatically, so did his soundscapes. Everything started with the violin: It was no great leap from the lines of the strings to the lines of the page—that of musical notepaper. Cerha wrote his first compositions, pieces for “his” instrument, the violin, shortly before World War II broke out, capturing the spirit of earlier times, the salon music and waltz ambience of Vienna, intoxicating in itself. By the time the war was over, these sounds seemed to echo a distant past that had disappeared forever.

After 1945, Cerha sought out new musical arenas, preferably those that were little known, with the curiosity of a researcher. He absorbed everything he was not yet familiar with—including music that was only a few decades old but had been blacklisted during the war. He was inspired by French Impressionism, Slavic music, the Neoclassical, and soon by 12-tone works from the Vienna School, which was rarely played at the time. Cerha took home scores from the academy library by the suitcase, studying and playing them—often in a duo with his companions Hanns Kann, Gerhard Rühm, and others. Happy to experiment, these Viennese composers gradually formed a loose-knit group “who sympathised with the young artists and writers of the Art Club.” Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 218 Though people were leery of anything that suggested the appearance of a strict collective (after all, the abolition of individual freedoms had led to immense catastrophe just a few years earlier), common ground did emerge. An independent musical language turned against the prevailing academic style. The keyword was reduction: A kind of Austrian minimalism was created through the conscious renunciation of the process of developing using themes and motifs. Cerha’s Buch von der Minne (1946–1964), a gigantic song cycle, is particularly influenced by such ideas.
At the same time, Cerha’s great sensitivity allowed him to discover new in the old. He was particularly interested in the early Baroque, a time in which an unprecedented, deeply human expression was revealed through art and music. Works such as Aria und Fuge for eight wind instruments (1946) and Ricercar, Toccata und Passacaglia (1951–1952) conjure up centuries-old genres with their names, yet they are addressed from a contemporary point of view. Cerha remained a mediator between the old and the new his entire life, not least by building bridges through the concert series “Wege in unsere Zeit” (Paths to Our Time).


Cerha at the harpsichord, Vienna, 1950s, AdZ, FOTO0002/4
In the mid-1950s, Cerha’s longing for something new became so great that he attempted to leave Vienna. His journey led him to Darmstadt, the centre of contemporary music. This is where the International Summer Courses for New Music, which had taken place since 1946, created a forum for the avant-garde. This led to the emergence of a new musical style: serialism, a radical evolution of the 12-tone technique, which had also drawn Cerha in with its charms. Progressive works such as Deux éclats en reflection (1956), Relazioni fragili (1956–1957), and Intersecazioni (1959) all reflect his interpretation of the serial process, which was never dogmatic. Cerha always absorbed the new with critical subtlety and always in ways that served the imagination: “I couldn’t and didn’t want to stop organising what was presented. My will for expression and form was greater than my will for liberation”, explains the composer.Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 223
Darmstadt in the 1950s was a place where composers grappled with the future of music . “There was sense of setting sail for new musical worlds,” says Cerha, “a feverishly tense atmosphere in which new possibilities for structuring and organising music were discussed in heated debate from breakfast until late in the night, that was an exciting experience for everyone involved.”Cerha, “Viele Anregungen vom Rande. Stimmung des Aufbruchs in neue Welten”, in: Rudolf Stephan et al, (ed.): Von Kranichstein zur Gegenwart. 50 Jahre Darmstädter Ferienkurse. 1946-1996, Stuttgart 1996, S. 188-191, hier S. 188 The trends of that era can be found in Cerha’s compositions from the time; ideas of a formal openness, for example, yet framed by the catchphrase “aleatoric”, emerged in the 1959 ensemble piece Enjambements, one of the last works of the Darmstadt period. That same year, Cerha turned to completely new, undreamed-of worlds of sound, for which he “clearly no longer needed additional external stimuli”.Cerha, “Viele Anregungen vom Rande. Stimmung des Aufbruchs in neue Welten”, in: Rudolf Stephan et al, (ed.): Von Kranichstein zur Gegenwart. 50 Jahre Darmstädter Ferienkurse. 1946-1996, Stuttgart 1996, pp. 188–191, here p. 191



Friedrich Cerha, Kurt Schwertsik, Sylvano Bussotti, Darmstadt 1958

Gertraud Cerha, Christoph Caskel, Friedrich Cerha, Darmstadt 1958

Photos: Otto Tomek, archives of the Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt

In around 1960, the idea of the masses became of interest to Cerha. Based on the Mouvements, which were “three situation studies […] in which [Cerha] renounced for the first time not only melody, harmony, and rhythm in the traditional sense, but also serial orders”,Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 225 Cerha created tremendous orchestral works—first Fasce (1959), and finally the cycle Spiegel (1960/61). Both compositions are examples of a branching musical soundscape, woven from a plethora of individual voices. At the same time, other composers, such as György Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki, were working on similar structures without knowing of one another’s work. It seemed as if the fundamental issue of finding a solution to the organisational constraints of serial music was in the air. In comparison to his colleagues, Cerha found it much more difficult to experience his music on the concert stage: Conservative Vienna was not particularly open to contemporary sounds and their public performance. However, Cerha was not concerned by the adverse conditions: He composed what he felt within himself, well aware that his scores would first land in the drawer. Though twelve years passed before he was able to hear his seven Spiegel pieces as a coherent work, the music’s visionary expressiveness was alive and well. However, this remains a utopian moment to this day. The Spiegel pieces have yet to make it to the theatre stage, although an ambitious libretto has been written.


Tools for composing, AdZ, FOTO007/17 f.

Cerha, Spiegel I, orchestration, 1961, AdZ, 00000058/1

After these phases focussing on experimentation, Cerha again set sail for new shores in the 1960s. His attention to detail in his sound compositions, and their tendency to create a monolithic mass, aroused an interest in the opposite: transparency, flexibility, and tradition. Cerha expressed these longings in Exercises (1962–1967), all without overlooking his previous experiences as a composer. Within a sound system made up of different levels that were mutually influential, he integrated everything that he had previously worked on: serial orders, overgrown sound structures, motif variations and mixtures—he even invented his own artificial language for the piece. His compositional ideas were largely nourished by cybernetics, a young universal science dealing with the equilibrium of systems and their disturbances. In Fasce, Cerha had already implemented ideas from this field to create dramatic processes, but within an unadulterated world of sound. Cerha now stopped limiting himself to a certain material, to one exclusive way of writing music. In the late 1960s, pieces emerged that almost seemed to play with a forced versatility: the Catalog des objets trouvés, for example, or the first of his three Langegger Nachtmusiken (both 1969). In these works, foreign music enters the listener’s ear; citations and allusions subtly evoke the music of the past. This confrontation with tradition seemed inevitable, the only way to work through the impasse of the avant-garde.




Cerha composing in Maria Langegg

Photo: Hertha Hurnaus

While the Exercises and Netzwerk, the stage work based on them, articulated a break, a “juxtaposition of levels”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 245, Cerha’s interest in unification grew during the 1970s. The opera Baal (1974–1980), based on a libretto by Bertolt Brecht, was a decisive embrace of these tendencies. In order to give the audience the experience of identification, Cerha merged individual aspects of his compositional experience into one homogeneous whole. Sharp contrasts gave way to suggestive music with fine transitions, which nevertheless had an enormous spectrum of expression. One quality typical of Cerha as a composer is his mindfulness of words: Wherever language conveys meaning, he subordinates himself “consciously and with emphasis”.Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 150 This allows word and sound to enter into a sensual unity—one explanation for the emotional intensity of the music in Baal. In later operas like Der Rattenfänger (1984–1986), Der Riese vom Steinfeld (1997–1999), and Onkel Präsident (2008–2010), Cerha remained true to this principle. But other works also attest to the close connection between his music and words. Written in the early 1980s, Keintaten (1980–1985) put Austrian dialect poetry to music with originality and humour. Eine Art Chansons (1985–1987) is in the same family, taking on the Wiener Gruppe and their experimentation with language in order to move onto “the dangerous terrain of ‘cabaret’”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 249. Both works are the result of Cerha’s extensive research into his own cultural origins.



Cerha with Theo Adam at the Baal world premiere,
Salzburger Festspiele 1981, AdZ, FOTO004/15

Cerha, Baal, sketch for the pub scene,
AdZ, 000S0079/113

Well into his later years of composing, Cerha remained open to new impulses. This included an interest in non-European music cultures, which is mainly reflected in works created around 1990. A long trip to Morocco triggered curiosity about traditional Arabic compositional techniques. Cerha used these techniques to stimulate his own imagination, but avoided any type of cultural appropriation. Sound cultures from more distant regions, such as Africa and oceanic areas, also left their traces. As has so often been the case in his life, Cerha intensively researched these various phenomena for a time, after which the insights from his explorations continued subtly influencing his work.
In the new millennium, many aspects of Cerha’s work have seemed to reappear, but in a different form. More than ever, highly dissimilar works are created in parallel. Monumental orchestral pieces like Hymnus (2000), Nacht (2013), and Eine blassblaue Vision (2013–2014) tie into his early sound compositions. Contrasts between the collective and the individual become reality in filigree frameworks such as Musik für Posaune und Streichquartett (2004–2005), as well as on large scales, such as the virtuoso Konzert für Schlagzeug und Orchester (2007–2008) composed for Martin Grubinger. Cerha counteracts his academic compositional style with works that celebrate small and poetic forms: Momente (2005), Instants (2006–2008), and Kurzzeit (2016–2017) all express the “joy of a spontaneous idea, a flash of intuition”.Cerha, text for Momente, AdZ, 000T0137/2.
The reason for the pronounced diversity of his work, explains Cerha, “is that at several stages of development, [I] followed different evolutionary strands, each starting from a single point, that then diverged.” Joachim Diederichs: Friedrich Cerha. Werkeinführungen, Quellen, Dokumente, Vienna 2018, p. 126 His oeuvre resembles—to use one of his most emblematic titles—a network.