Ricercar, Toccata und Passacaglia

New Music on Old Instruments


Paraphrase über den Anfang der 9. Symphonie von Beethoven

Johannes Florenus Guidantus, viola d'amore, 18th century

During the Baroque period, the artful decoration of musical instruments was widespread. The scrolls of historical stringed instruments like the viola d’amore were sometimes carved into the shape of a human head—a muse for the musician. The instrument shown here was made by luthier Johannes Florenus Guidantus in Bologna, Italy.

Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“New Music on Old Instruments”
This was the motto of a 1956 concert, as well as the headline of a review of the concert in the Weltpresse newspaper.

Unknown author, “Neue Musik auf alten Instrumenten”, Weltpresse, February 1956, AdZ, KRIT0007/71

Like many Viennese concert reviews from the 1950s, this one published by the Weltpresse is not particularly open to contemporary music. It barely differentiates between the various works of the seven composers and explicitly discusses only three. In addition to some “harpsichord-like” 12-tone games by Josef Matthias Hauer, still alive at the time, the review mentions the two youngest of his colleagues, Paul Angerer and Friedrich Cerha, both about 30 years old at the time. The article states that their fresh ideas avoid the dangers of “barren historicism”—yet also poses the question of why a future-oriented composer like Cerha wrote three baroque movements (Ricercar, Toccata and Passacaglia) for three baroque instruments (flute, viola d’amore, and double-coursed lute), while Karlheinz Stockhausen, who was about the same age, was already working on electronic music in Cologne. Answers can be found not only in Vienna’s cultural space, isolated at the time, but also in Cerha’s interest in a different, long-passed modernity …


Cerha, Klavierübung in barocken Formen für R.C., sketches, AdZ, 000S0044

If you peruse Cerha’s catalogue of works from the early 1950s, you will notice an undeniable affinity for older forms of music. In addition to Ricercar, Toccata und Passacaglia there are suites, a single (now lost) toccata for piano (1950), and a sonata for viola and guitar (1951), which also has a version with a lute. Even in initially inconspicuous pieces like the Stravinsky-esque Triptychon für solistische Bläser und Streichorchester (1948–1951), old musical genres resurface, here in the form of a prelude, canzonetta, and (again) a toccata. Klavierübung in barocken Formen für R.C. (1954), a suite with dance movements à la Bach, represents an apex and a finale.
At a time when the musical avant-garde
was rejecting tradition, Cerha’s commitment to the Baroque is striking. At the same time, it is not without precedent; Arnold Schönberg’s piano suite (1921–1923) from the early days of dodecaphony inevitably comes to mind. The “father” of Neue Musik also revived the Baroque by using gavottes, minuets, or gigues, albeit under the guise of the 12-tone method. Schönberg used these old forms as a framework to create something new. Likewise, Cerha used the traditional genres to explore advanced techniques. These “old forms and instruments” Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 218 reflect his love of early music, which was already strong at the time and “never broke off”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 217 after his studies. Cerha attended courses on the Baroque period taught by Erich Schenk. He learned about the history of the suite and sonata, immersing himself in bass exercises and exploring the instrumental music of the seventeenth century. Typical of the young composer, he immediately applied his freshly acquired knowledge to his art.See Cerha’s textbook 1948, AdZ, p. 10 

Cerha, textbook 1944, entries from the 1945/46 winter semester, AdZ (unsigned), p. 8.


While writing Ricercar, Toccata und Passacaglia, Cerha acted not only as a composer, but also a researcher. Though he did not complete his German studies doctorate on Turandot material in German literature until 1950, he pursued research in various musical matters of interest. He was fascinated, above all, by Italian music “of the first half of the seventeenth century”, a time of upheaval, “in which personal emotions found expression in a special way.Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 29 This looking back also included looking ahead. Although separated by centuries, the time around 1600 had something in common with that around 1950: the spirit of optimism, breakneck artistic innovation, and the hard clashing of old and new. At the same time, “the virtuosic expressiveness, the clarity of forms, and the colourfulness of contrasting characters” of the early Baroque differed from the Modernism that Cerha was experiencing in Vienna. It was a Modernism primarily influenced by Neoclassicism, and also by an original “Austrian” minimalism, represented by Paul Kont, for example.
Curious to discover more about music history, Cerha began conducting “archaeological” research.See AdZ, SCHR0028/6 visiting Italian libraries and tirelessly “collecting and copying material by composers quite unknown at the time.”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 29 His first trip took him to Bologna. He brought early Baroque music manuscripts from the local conservatory there to Vienna on microfilm, going on to prepare them for performance. The first result of this editing work was the publication of six solo violin sonatas by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer with Universal Edition,See Universal Edition: https://www.universaledition.com/johann-heinrich-schmelzer-646/werke/sonatae-unarum-fidium-4795
and he continued to intensify his research activities in Italy in the mid-1950s. An application for a scholarship in Rome submitted in 1957 reveals Cerha’s plans at the time.     

Cerha, application for a scholarship to Rome, manuscript, 1955, AdZ, SCHR0028/8

Cerha’s diligent research activities soon paid off. In cooperation with the Doblinger publishing house, the “Diletto musicale” series came into being—a cross-section of chamber music from early Baroque Italy. The published works are a colourful mosaic of composers and genres. Well-known names such as Girolamo Frescobaldi and Giovanni Battista Fontana stand alongside ones still largely unknown today, such as Martino Pesenti, Niccolò Corradini, and Marco Venetiano Facoli. Copies that have remained in manuscript form reveal more names: Vincenzo Castelani, Maurizio Cazzati, Andrea Grossi, and Biagio Marini. Although the works also include vocal music, instrumental duos (mostly for violin and basso continuo) and solo pieces for keyboard instruments are dominant, including the Intabulatora Nova, a collaborative work by several composers.

Cerha, transcriptions of Italian baroque music, manuscript, AdZ, SCHR0017/97,98; SCHR0018/34,68; SCHR0019/20,21


Von oben nach unten: Intabulatora Nova (Venedig 1551); Biagio Marini, Romanesca per violino e basso se piace (1620); Girolamo Frescobaldi, Trio (undatiert)

Overall, several aspects are reflected in Cerha’s commitment to early Baroque music. On the one hand, he was driven to literally “exhume” material that had been forgotten, to make it available, and to perform it himself. On the other hand, as a composer he was interested in the diverse techniques that coexisted during the period. Both these facets, that of the practicing musician and the open-minded composer, fed into the emergence of Ricercar, Toccata und Passacaglia. The composition is clearly affected by his interest in early-seventeenth-century music, although the “immediate expression” that fascinated Cerha at the turn of the epoch is more evident in later works.Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 29 The work evokes the Baroque in a different way: It integrates musical allusions into its instrumentation, but also toys with reaching back to old forms without regressing in terms of musical language.


Three instruments, three movements—the recipe for Cerha’s Ricercar, Toccata und Passacaglia is a simple one. However, the details of how this trio is put together depend on the version chosen by the performers. There are two versions of the piece. In both, the melodic instruments are identical: flute for one, viola d’amore for the other. The historic stringed instrument with its supplemental sympathetic strings was very popular in the Baroque, due in particular to its graceful sound, which was “silver” and “extremely pleasant and lovely” (as reported by Johann Mattheson in 1713Johann Mattheson, Das Neu=Eröffnete Orchestre, Reprint Hildesheim/Zürich/New York 1993, p.283). In Cerha’s trio, however, the timbre of the baroque root note is created primarily by the harmonic instrument. In a first version created in 1951, Cerha used a double-course lute. In the Renaissance and early Baroque, the lute held a status comparable to that of the piano during the Romantic period: It was widespread in society and dominated musical life. Similar to the viola d’amore, the sound of the lute has particularly rich overtones, delicate and bright compared to modern instruments (such as its successor, the guitar). The idyllic sound is characterised by the multiplication of strings tuned to the same note, which come together to form choirs and allow the quiet tones to better assert themselves.
Cerha’s private collection
includes a baroque lute that tells a tale of the historical development of the instrument. The widespread lutes of their heyday (fifteenth and sixteenth centuries) have a short neck, with the peg box at the end bending backwards. After about 1600, this construction changed. Additional bass strings were added to the normally played ones, and a second peg box was built to attach them. In German models such as Cerha’s, the connecting piece from the first to the second box is curved and therefore termed a swan’s neck.

German baroque lute, Cerha’s private collection, Vienna-Hietzing

Foto: Christoph Fuchs

Only a year later, a second version with another prominent baroque instrument was added to the original version of Ricercar, Toccata und Passacaglia: the harpsichord. The piece is the first example in Cerha’s oeuvre in which the composer makes use of the instrument—and was probably also inspired by his wife Gertraud, who was an excellent harpsichordist. However, it would not remain a single piece: In a completely different, far more experimental musical language, the 1956 Relazioni fragili a harpsichord concerto, represents what is probably Cerha’s most important contribution to the rediscovery of the instrument. The harpsichord appears as a natural part of the ensemble in many later works as well, such as Intersecazioni, Spiegel , and Langegger Nachtmusik I . Although visually and technically very different, the lute and harpsichord share their plucked sound, making it logical to create a second version. The two versions also follow a practice common in the Baroque. At times, depending on the situation, the lute and harpsichord were used more or less ad libitum, as in Frescobaldi’s Toccata e Canzona, which Cerha edited for “Diletto musicale”.

Cerha, Ricercar, Toccata und Passacaglia, title on folder, AdZ, 00000038/2

In addition to the tonal stimuli, Cerha’s trio is characterized by its exploration of compositional opportunities in neighbouring fields, oscillating, as it were, between them. The composer summarises that “trying out things new to me and melting down these experiences often make it impossible to locate the exact origin”, something that characterizes many of his early works.Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 221 In addition to minimalist tendencies (for example, in Buch von der Minne) Cerha was particularly interested in Neoclassicism around 1950. At the time, the only direction present in Austrian musical life was a modernist trend. “Hindemith, Stravinsky, and Bartók appeared as the first guiding stars in the […] still sparsely populated firmament of twentieth-century music.“Lothar Knessl, „Versuch, sich Friedrich Cerha zu nähern“, in: Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, pp. 7-15, here p. 11Cerha was fascinated by Stravinsky in particular, as proven by his Divertimento for eight wind instruments and percussion (1954), subtitled “Homage” as a nod to his Russian colleague. He was equally interested in the great counter-current to Neoclassicism: 12-tone music. His curiosity led him to follow the path of the Viennese school, of whose protagonists only Arnold Schönberg was still alive in 1951 (and who died in Los Angeles that same year). In the cultural life of Schönberg’s hometown, Vienna, however, his music and that of his students was hardly performed after the Second World War, as if it had never existed. A young composer like Cerha was forced to teach himself by studying scores. This explains why Cerha began exploring the 12-tone method at a time when it had already been processed by the epicentre of Darmstadt.
Along with other works from the period, Ricercar, Toccata and Passacaglia is a musical testimony to the creative compilation of various influences that come together to find their own form. We will now trace these influences in three steps, mirroring the outer structure of the work.

Cerha puts a ricercar at the beginning of his trio—a decision that lends the work an academic bent, since the genre retained the “status of being a ‘scholarly’ composition for centuries.“Markus Grassl, „Ricercar‟, in: Österreichisches Musiklexikon onlineThe ricercar comes from a branching line of music history. In the early Baroque, the so-called “imitation ricercar” developed, a precursor to the baroque fugue. The shared principle is reduction: If possible, a soggetto (a characteristic sequence of tones) is processed using contrapuntal techniques (the Italian term ricercare, meaning “to search out”, alludes to the constant “revisiting” of the tonal sequence). The result requires mental and musical concentration.
The credit for composers taking up ricercari again in the twentieth century goes to Neoclassicism, an era that also influenced Cerha. It is possible that, in 1950, he already knew Webern’s colourful instrumentation of the six-part ricercar from Bach’s The Musical Offering.
The viola d’amore introduces Cerha’s ricercar. “Quietly flowing”, it presents a floating theme, striving upward as if on a staircase. Skilful overlays disguise metric focal points, with a natural style setting the tone. Following the imitative tradition of the ricercar, the lute (or harpsichord) takes up the theme at a different pitch after three bars, while the viola continues to vary the material (variations which are later imitated again). Finally, the flute “searches out” the theme. In keeping with the old practice, it begins again with the original opening note, a custom once intended to ensure that the music remained anchored in one key. Cerha adopts the tradition without pursuing the goal, and the voices overlap freely without being tied to fixed harmonies. At the same time, the strict note ladders (which are taken up in the following bars) create anchor points. The music maintains its exacting profile.

Cerha, Ricercar, viola d’amore, Soggetto, 1952, AdZ, 00000038/4

Erwin Klambauer (Flöte), Margit Urbanetz-Vig (Viola d’amore), Walter Würdinger (Laute)

The ricercar gains new impetus after a rigorous, unified interweaving with a second theme, introduced by the flute. Here, Cerha skilfully allows this new idea to be accompanied by the viola alone. While its line seems at first completely free, the opposite soon turns out to be the case: It plays the same theme, but begins at a later point and is thus offset. This artful enigma is resolved when the flute evolves the theme further. It is now necessary to listen not only forwards, but also backwards.
This game of shuffling and imitating ideas continues to the end of the ricercar. After the introduction of the second theme, it is combined with the first, and then Cerha also introduces a third theme with the harmony instrument—in this way allowing the trio to live up to its name structurally as well. In order to make the new idea tangible, the trio becomes a duo again for a short time. Decompression on one side, compression on the other: In the closing section, all three themes emerge in complex layers to culminate in a powerful finale. This is where the polyphony ends. Viola and lute/harpsichord produce powerful chords, preparing for the next piece.

Cerha, Ricercar, duos of Theme 2 (left) and Theme 3 (right), 1952, AdZ, 00000038

Erwin Klambauer (Flöte), Margit Urbanetz-Vig (Viola d’amore), Walter Würdinger (Laute)

Cerha interacted with the genre of the toccata twice in and around 1950. It is the second in his trio, and a year earlier he wrote a toccata for piano that was never performed (the manuscript has since disappeared). In 2020, 70 years later at the age of 94, he wrote another toccata, this time for the instrument it is traditionally associated with, the organ. Originally, however, toccatas were not written for keyboard instruments, but for the lute.
Over the centuries, one element has crystallised out of the genre: Its gesture is based on improvisation. The baroque “stylus phantasticus”, nourished above all by playing with toccatas, is also a key term in later developments. In a toccata, virtuosity and drama meet as free radicals.
A change of direction is also noticeable in Cerha’s Toccata. There is hardly anything left of the severity of the ricercar in the piece that follows. Its basic ingredients are immediately revealed: A bold, arpeggiated chord is followed by a relaxed flute figure—a brief and alert opening. Directly afterwards comes a driving element, one which dominates large parts of the movement, pushing it on again and again. Athletic runs are heard in the voices, initially played by the melodic instruments, while chordal ostinatos simmer in the background: An energetic, dancing music.

Cerha, Toccata, beginning, 1952, AdZ, 00000038/10

Erwin Klambauer (Flöte), Margit Urbanetz-Vig (Viola d’amore), Walter Würdinger (Laute)

The virtuosity increases noticeably during the toccata. Staccato chains of 32nd notes flutter briefly in the flute, while the viola and lute/harpsichord grapple with strumming, wide-ranging chords. The driving chords build on a hidden characteristic of the toccata, the name of which comes from the Italian word toccare, meaning “to hit”. The concentrated, often polytonal percussion power is also reminiscent of other modernists—Béla Bartók or Igor Stravinsky, for example, both role models for Cerha at the time.
Towards the middle of the movement, the virtuoso figures almost tumble over themselves to reach the climax. A short, fading intermezzo prepares the way for the return of dance-like gestures with folkloric colouring.

Cerha, Toccata, middle section, T. 37 ff., 1952, AdZ, 00000038/14

Erwin Klambauer (Flöte), Margit Urbanetz-Vig (Viola d’amore), Walter Würdinger (Laute)

The end of the toccata also provides a glimpse of Cerha’s later years as a composer. In a kind of coda, all the instruments come together to form a densely woven texture that constantly strives forward and yet nonetheless revolves almost statically around itself. Only minimal changes can be heard here—there is an impression that the sound fabric could continue indefinitely. This is a distant harbinger of Cerha’s later inwardly moving soundscapes, as can be heard about ten years later in Spiegel -a precursor that the composer himself could hardly have imagined around 1950.



Cerha, Toccata, tonal texture, T. 69 ff., 1952, AdZ, 00000038/17

Erwin Klambauer (Flöte), Margit Urbanetz-Vig (Viola d’amore), Walter Würdinger (Laute)

Cerha’s trio concludes with a passacaglia—a Baroque variation form that rose to new fame in the twentieth century. One of its old masters was Frescobaldi, although Bach also left behind a Passacaglia that defined the genre and is probably the best known of its kind to this day. A typical feature is a basso ostinato, usually consisting of four or eight bars, with all kinds of variations playing out on top of it. The Vienna School brought the genre into the modern age: Anton Webern’s Passacaglia in d-Moll, composed as a journeyman, is a well-known example. But passacaglias by Arnold Schönberg and Alban Berg also interpret the baroque model in a new way, or at least much more freely than before.
Cerha’s passacaglia in the trio is the first in his oeuvre, but by no means the last. Surprisingly, there are several more, particularly in the later stages of his work. Passacaglia are found in Baal
, Der Rattenfänger and in Der Riese vom Steinfeld, often in morbid or satirical places.
The passacaglia in this trio ties in most clearly to the 12-tone method that Cerha had just discovered at the time. At the beginning, a song-like theme consisting of 12 tones is presented by the lute/harpsichord. The leisurely tempo and low register tie in to traditional ideas of the genre: striding movements, melancholy character. Also typical is the bass being initially featured, which is also reminiscent of the ricercar of this piece. Despite regaining the three-part polyphony, the passacaglia develops in a different direction. A new 12-tone series is begun on the last note of the bass theme, played first by the viola d’amore before being taken up by the flute (starting on the same first note). Meanwhile, the harmony instrument stoically repeats the bassline, in the manner of a traditional passacaglia.

Cerha, Passacaglia, beginning, 1952, AdZ, 00000038/19

Erwin Klambauer (Flöte), Margit Urbanetz-Vig (Viola d’amore), Walter Würdinger (Laute)

Although the compositional form seems at first to be quite consistent, it later becomes apparent that Cerha interprets the details more freely. As early as after the second passage, the ostinato breaks off, leaving room for imitations by the flute and viola, before they begin to act more freely. The viola moves in rapid waves, which the flute later adapts to. Finally, the passacaglia ostinato reappears in the bass, although it does not regain the upper hand. Instead, Cerha steers events down other pathways. At first, the theme of the ricercar unfolds unobtrusively in the flute, accompanied by the ostinato of the passacaglia. A little later, the dance-like theme of the toccata emerges in the eighth-note waves of the lute/harpsichord. The thoughts of all three movements now freely communicate with each other—proof of Cerha’s drive to shape. Driven by the motor-like elements of the toccata, the music heads into a furious finale that closes with a shared thought: The baroque dialogue ends in agreement.

Cerha, Passacaglia, finale, 1952, AdZ, 00000038/19

Erwin Klambauer (Flöte), Margit Urbanetz-Vig (Viola d’amore), Walter Würdinger (Laute)