The Conductor

Cerha at the conductor’s stand, Graz Opera 1981

At the intersection of composition and conducting, Cerha performed his completed version of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu for the first time in Austria in September 1981. The meticulousness of his reconstruction went hand in hand with the way he rehearsed the music. The photo shows Cerha at rehearsal.

Image source: The Archives of Contemporary Arts

Composers conducting, conductors composing: this once was a matter of course. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart conducted the orchestra from his seat at the harpsichord. Jean-Baptiste Lully, the court composer of Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, once accidentally rammed his conductor’s baton into his foot—an incident that ended with his death. In 1817, Carl Maria von Weber started using the baton as we know it today. Previously, conductors often used a rolled-up sheet of staff paper. The question of which of the two professions—composing or conducting—was more important did not seem to matter, as the two activities often went hand in hand. However, there were hierarchies to be found here and there. Richard Wagner, for example, was a passionate conductor of Beethoven’s symphonies and was greatly admired for it by his contemporaries. But in essence, Wagner saw himself as a composer. Leonard Bernstein wrote works that are part of our repertoire today—just think of West Side Story, for example—but his primary focus was always behind the conductor’s stand. His performances of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies are unforgettable. The fact that he sympathised so greatly with Mahler is also telling, as he, too, exemplified the conflicting life of someone who was both composer and conductor.

There have been only a few high-ranking artists since Mahler who have undertaken the balancing act between conductor’s podium and writing desk. Friedrich Cerha is one of them, and this in an era of specialisation that did not leave the world of music untouched. The experiencing and shaping of music from multiple perspectives was always part of his very essence. As a violinist, as a conductor, and as a composer, he encountered music in many facets. At times, his work as an orchestral conductor dominated the public perception.

His Own Ensemble: “die reihe” and How He Got There

The core members of “die reihe” at rehearsal, 1964.

Cerha and “die reihe” in the garden at the Museum of the Twentieth Century, May 1963.

Cerha had his first experiences in leading ensembles while studying at the Vienna Music Academy, where conducting was a required subject for his education as a secondary school teacher. One of his teachers, Hans Gillesberger, was “one of the most important choir teachers of the post-war era”,Andrea Harrandt und Christian Fastl, Art. „Gillesberger, Familie“, in: Oesterreichisches Musiklexikon online and had led countless choirs in Vienna. Another, Ferdinand Grossmann, was also a choirmaster: “Under his guidance,” says Cerha, “I also conducted the recitatives of the St. Matthew Passion very early on, wearing a coat and hat, of course, because after the war there were no windows in the classrooms and glass was in short supply.”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Wien 2001, S. 28


Teaching certificate from the Academy of Music and Performing Arts, excerpt, 1950.

After Cerha finished his education, conducting took a back seat at first, with the exception of his work teaching music at several middle schools. Composition gained the upper hand, as a result of, among other things, his participation in the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music (starting in 1956). There, he experienced a lively avant-garde and its professional infrastructure, arousing in him the need to provide a forum for Neue Musik in Austria as well. In 1958, Cerha and his friend and colleague Kurt Schwertsik made the decision to found a Neue Musik ensemble on their trip back from Darmstadt, inspired by John Cage’s undogmatic European debut. The project quickly took shape: “Schwertsik knew a lot of musicians,”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Wien 2001, S. 52 and Cerha had good contacts at the International Society for Contemporary Music (ICNM). The Secretary General of the Wiener Konzerthaus, Egon Seefehlner, provided them both with support, offering the ensemble “a home”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Wien 2001, S. 52. Only a few visitors were expected to attend the first concert, and thus the smallest room of the Konzerthaus, Schubert Hall, was chosen for the premiere. A name was soon found for the ensemble: “die reihe”—a reference not only to the Reihentechnik (serialism) used in the compositions, a foundational precept of modern music, but also to the intention of holding an ongoing series of concerts. The doors of the Schubert Hall opened on 22 March 1959. On the program: serial compositions of all kinds. Anton Webern’s 12-tone Quartet Op. 22 acted as an almost “classical” centrepiece, framed by the compositions of Henri Pousseur and Pierre Boulez.


Wiener Konzerthaus, program, 22 March 1959, AdZ, KRIT007/183

In many ways, the first “die reihe” concert was symptomatic. It was dedicated to a specific topic and interwove older compositions with recent ones. The two ensemble leaders shared the conducting, with Schwertsik conducting Pousseur’s work, and Cerha the remaining pieces. In a certain sense, the debut concert of “die reihe” can also be seen as Cerha’s initiation as a conductor, as this was his first time presenting himself in the role to a broader public. The response was tremendous: A “full house”Karl Löbl, „Von Schubert zu Pierre Boulez. Zwei Welten unter einem Dach“, unbekannte Zeitung, 24.3.1959, AdZ, KRIT007_1947-1959/199 came to hear the new sounds, still unfamiliar in Vienna. A look at the audience also proves interesting, as it consisted “for the most part of young listeners”.Helmut A. Fiechtner, Rezension in unbekannter Zeitung, unbekanntes Datum, AdZn, KRIT007_1947-1959/202 The older ones were more drawn to a concert taking place in the building at the same time: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was presenting Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin in the Great Hall. The media reported on the premiere concert in quite different ways. Lothar Knessl celebrated the evening as a “sensational success of serial dreams”,Lothar Knessl, „Sensationeller Erfolg mit seriellen Träumen“, unbekannte Zeitung, unbekanntes Datum, AdZ, KRIT007_1947-1959/198 while a different reviewer used his article’s headline to pose the polemical question, “When is it the ear’s turn in the series?”O.A., „Wann kommt das Ohr an ‚die Reihe‘?“, Heute, 4.4.1959, ArdZ KRIT007_1947-1959/20
However, without a doubt the first concert of “die reihe” was the beginning of a success story. By as early as the third concert, the Schubert Hall was no longer large enough to satisfy audience demand. Concerts were then moved into the larger Mozart Hall, where one of the ensemble’s most sensational concerts was held in November 1959. The program was made up entirely of aleatoric works—that is, works that consciously included the element of chance. While Cerha conducted Christian Wolff’s Music for Merce Cunningham for six to seven players, Schwertsik directed the performance of John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, an essential work of chance operations in music. “The concert,” said Cerha, “sparked the greatest scandal since the end of the Second World War. All the newspapers were full of pictures of Schwertsik showing the time with both arms outstretched like a clock, while hiding himself from the throngs of onlookers on the street at my place on Salzgries.”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Wien 2001, S. 36


“A Scandal of Notes”, newspaper page, 1959, AdZ, KRIT0010/25

“If Mozart had had to live through this …”, newspaper page, 1959, AdZ, KRIT008/14

Not only did the Cage concert ignite public interest in the activities of “die reihe”, it also achieved the ensemble’s aim of bringing the very latest (and not just vaguely current) pieces to Austria’s music program: The premiere of the Concert for Piano in New York and the European premiere in Cologne had taken place just that previous year, for example. Staying current and in step with the Zeitgeist remained a fixed point in the years that followed, securing “die reihe” and thus also Cerha, the conductor, a permanent place in Viennese cultural life. The Wochen-Presse described the concert series of 1960/61 as “avant-garde by subscription”.

Author unknown, “With Mixed Feelings of Anticipation”, Die Wochen-Presse 22 October 1960, AdZ, KRIT008/69

Performances and Premieres—Nationally and Internationally

Cerha cemented his reputation as a conductor in 1961, when the International Society for Contemporary Music organised the 35th World Music Festival in Vienna in June. In the course of this, a “look through the work of the younger generation was offered” via numerous concerts,Rudolf Klein, „Moderne Musik in Wien“, Baseler Nachrichten, unbekanntes Datum, AdZ, KRIT008_1959-1960 showcasing compositions from France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Norway, Iceland, England, Japan, and the USA. Two of these concerts were performed by “die reihe” and directed by Cerha, whose Relazioni fragili was included in the program as a representation of Austrian music. The World Music Festival secured the conductor’s first considerable international attention, and his engagements quickly became more numerous. Only a few months later, in October 1961, he was whisked off to (nearby) foreign climes when he conducted his first ballet performance at the newly opened Deutsche Oper Berlin. The performers danced to Pierre Boulez’s Improvisations sur Mallarmé, Igor Stravinsky’s Les Noces, and Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations. Egon Seefehlner, who had made it possible for Cerha and “die reihe” to play at the Wiener Konzerthaus two years earlier, had in the meantime become artistic director of the Berlin Opera. He suggested that Cerha “stay at the opera as their conductor”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Wien 2001, S. 53. “I thought about it briefly—and then refused,” Cerha writes laconically about the possibility of turning his back on Vienna. The reasons behind this decision reveal a great deal about Cerha’s attitude towards art and life itself: While watching a performance of Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at the opera, he decided that he didn’t want “to live like this”,Vgl. Interview mit Friedrich Cerha für „Friedrich Cerha Online“, September 2019 where “this” refers to a life that is entirely subordinate to the cultural apparatus. Cerha wasn’t comfortable with the idea of only conducting established repertoire pieces and decided to follow other—yet no less successful—paths as a conductor. However, he did not have to leave Berlin entirely behind; a fruitful collaboration with the radio symphony orchestra of the German capital came into being. Through this, Cerha brought back from oblivion numerous works that had not been performed for a long time, among them Alban Berg’s Altenberg-Lieder.Vgl. Interview mit Friedrich Cerha für „Friedrich Cerha Online“, September 2019 His growing presence abroad was accompanied by his lively participation in important music festivals. While in the early days, the Wiener Konzerthaus was still the only venue where “die reihe” played, their radius expanded during the 1960s, when the ensemble was a guest at the Semaines Musicales in Paris, the Nutida Musik in Stockholm, the Prague Spring, and the Biennale in Zagreb. At the 1961 Warsaw Autumn Festival, Cerha conducted several works by Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, Arnold Schönberg, and Edgard Varèse. The latter continued to be—like Erik Satie and Anton Webern—a composer to whom Cerha kept returning as a conductor, and not only with “die reihe”. It is important to observe how the four colleagues just mentioned also left their traces in his compositions; this illustrates the close interrelationships between the producing and the reproducing artist, who fought an ongoing battle against the underrepresentation of works from the first half of the century which he viewed as central.


Konzerthaus news, announcement of a Varèse concert, Wiener Konzerthaus, November 1961, AdZ, KRIT009/38

ORF orchestra, conducted by Friedrich Cerha, 1976

In the 1960s, Cerha was able to gain deeper experience with music theatre. Unlike he had done in the case of his commitment to the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Cerha remained true to his combative conception of art. He accepted an offer from the Theater an der Wien to conduct Arnold Schönberg’s three one-act plays as part of the Wiener Festwochen: Erwartung, Die glückliche Hand, and Von heute auf morgen. The stage production was by Werner Kelch, director of the Berlin State Opera at the time. Cerha also broke stage music ground with highly avant-garde projects such as the first stage presentation of György Ligeti’s duo of works Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, a performance that the Württemberg State Opera in Stuttgart staged in 1966: a “pantomime version”Konzertankündigung, Württembergische Staatsoper Stuttgart, 1966, AdZ, KRIT0012_1966-1967/78 of Ligeti’s “musical drama in 14 images”Vgl. Ligetis eigener Untertitel: Aventures & Nouvelles Aventures, Textbuch, Edition Peters 2002. Rolf Scharre, pantomime specialist, was responsible for the production.
Aventures, a milestone in avant-garde language composition, was undoubtedly one of the most spectacular premieres of “die reihe”. On 4 April 1963, it was performed in Hamburg for the first time under Cerha’s direction and soon (together with its “twin”, Nouvelles Aventures) became part of the ensemble’s core repertoire.


Rehearsals for Ligetis Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, Hamburg, May 1966.

Ensemble “die reihe”, conducted by Friedrich Cerha, 1968.

Even in light of his success abroad, Cerha stayed true to “die reihe”. Together with the ensemble, he helped Ligeti’s Kammerkonzert (1969/70) see the light of day, and also helped other colleagues to premiere their works, among them: Krzysztof Penderecki (Dimensionen der Zeit und Stille, 1961), Anestis Logothetis (Parallaxe, 1961), Istvàn Zelenka (Adaptionen, 1964), Roman Haubenstock-Ramati (Multiples, 1969), HK Gruber (Vertreibung aus dem Paradies, 1969), Jungsang Bahk (Seak I, 1971), Ernst Krenek (Von vorn herein, 1974), Bojidar Dimov (Bewegliche Signallandschaften, 1975), Luna Alcalay (New Point of View, 1975), and Dieter Kaufmann (Boleromaniaque, 1976). Countless Austrian premieres testify to Cerha’s great service to the musical culture of his home country, including: Arnold Schönberg’s Drei Stücke für Kammersensemble, Claude Debussy’s Les Chansons de Bilitis, Erik Satie’s Le Piège de Méduse, Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question, Luciano Berio’s Tempi concertati, Iannis Xenakis’s Atrées, Morton Feldman’s The Straits of Magellan, Witold Lutosławski’s Paroles tissées, and Alfred Schnittke’s Konzert für Violine und Kammerorchester.

Ensemble “die reihe”, conducted by Friedrich Cerha, 1968

Cerha’s almost boundless loyalty to his ensemble was put to the test in 1968. The general secretary of the Wiener Konzerthausgesellschaft, Peter Weiser, took the tenth anniversary of “die reihe” as an opportunity to make a questionable offer. Leading up to this event was a dispute well documented by the local mediaVgl. den Artikel „Nicht für zehn Schilling“, unbekannte Zeitung, 23.6.1967, AdZ, KORR0014/20 between the Konzerthaus and the Musikalische Jugend, a young music society and one of the largest buyers of “die reihe” concert tickets. Weiser wished to increase ticket prices for “die reihe” concerts, an attempt that was emphatically rejected by the Musikalische Jugend. This resulted in a “feud with blurred lines”Gertraud Cerha, Brief an Peter Weiser, 16.6.1967, AdZ, KORR0014/19.. In order to “realign the complex landscape of the contemporary music scene”Peter Weiser, Brief an Gertraud Cerha, 23.6.1967, AdZ, KORR0014/21, Weiser presented Cerha and his wife with a three-point plan:

  1. “The ‘die reihe’ ensemble will play four concerts in the Mozart Hall during the 1967/68 season […].
  2. For the 1968/69 season, the ‘die reihe’ ensemble will perform a representative cycle of works to mark its ten-year anniversary, a cycle that provides an overview of what has been achieved during this time and, with this cycle of performances, is discontinuing its activities at the Wiener Konzerthausgesellschaft.
  3. As part of the 1969 Wiener Festwochen, Dr. Cerha will begin a new phase of his professional life, with a large orchestra concert, which will make it possible for him to break out of the confines of chamber music and to begin performing as an interpreter of modern music for normal orchestral concerts.”

Cerha categorically rejected Weiser’s proposal to discontinue “die reihe” and break up the ensemble in order to grow his career as an orchestral conductor. In a letter dated December 1967, he accused Weiser of “typically dictatorial power politics”:Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Wien 2001, S. 56 “One simply does not make ambiguous proposals to a conductor.” Although this conflict did not lead to a break between the Wiener Konzerthaus and “die reihe” and its conductor, their activities did change. While they had already played in alternative venues in Vienna in previous years, such as the Museum of the 20th Century or the ORF broadcasting hall, starting in 1968 the ensemble increasingly performed on international stages, for example embarking upon a major tour of America.



Cerha as a Conductor

Caricature of Cerha as a conducting Ichthyosaurus.

Two whimsical caricatures from the early 1980s show Cerha at the conductor’s desk as a hybrid of human and dinosaur. But what do they reveal about him as a conductor? The name “Ichthyosaurus” can be read on the desk. If one knows anything about how the ichthyosauri that swam the oceans of the Mesozoic looked, the caricatures become even more irritating. Apart from the baton, which resembles the pointed snout of the prehistoric reptile, Cerha’s dinosaur tail and clawed hands and feet have nothing in common with those of the prehistoric creature. If, on the other hand, one digs further into his oeuvre, the irritation is resolved. The animal moniker is a play on the “Ichthyosaurus Parable” in Bertolt Brecht’s play Baal, the basis for the text of Cerha’s opera of the same name. In it, Baal tells of Noah’s Ark and how the Ichthyosaurus refused to enter the ship and gain safety from the flood. A symbol for the entire opera, the story describes the stubbornness of an individualist refusing to adapt to society, instead striving to placate the needs associated with his own being. One could conclude that the caricatures subtly convey a message about Cerha’s will, about his refusal to be bent into a purely business-minded orchestra conductor. His interest in promoting music that had difficulty finding a place in the commercial music scene indeed runs throughout his entire conducting career. The message of the caricatures thus also contains a cultural and political component. On the other hand, the drawings also reveal something about Cerha’s unique way of conducting. His gaze is stoic and unwavering, focused on nothing other than the music itself; this is one way to interpret the message.

Cerha dirigiert ein Stück von Anton Webern (vermutlich Zwei Lieder nach Rainer Maria Rilke op. 8) mit der Sopranistin Adrienne Czengery, Madrid 1983

The silhouette of a conductor is usually a reflection of the people who stand behind him. Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, for example, belonged to the same era, yet their conducting techniques were profoundly different. While Mahler was extremely gestural, with large and sometimes even chaotic movements, Strauss was more of a minimalist—which Cerha had experienced in person himself:

In 1944, I was on leave from the military when Richard Strauss celebrated his 80th birthday in Vienna. I went to the opera or to a concert every single day. He was standing in front of the building during an intermission of Frau ohne Schatten, and I observed him from a distance as if he were a timeless monument: It was unbelievable to me that all this music could have emerged from this head. At that time, I also saw him conducting his Sinfonia domestica and admired his extremely economical, entirely unspectacular movements.

Friedrich Cerha

Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Wien 2001, S. 27

It is difficult to say whether these impressions rubbed off on Cerha’s own conducting style. An assimilation of Strauss in the sense of his sparse movement style can certainly be ruled out. The complex works that Cerha had directed since his early days demanded precise clarity and unmistakable guidance—whether due to complicated time changes, tricky vocal interludes, or aleatoric moments that required intense communication. On the other hand, in Cerha’s early appearances his style was far from the theatrical movements à la Mahler. In any case, he was committed to a precisestyle of conducting that served only the purposes of the music, as HK Gruber remembers in looking back on the 1960s:

At that time, Cerha had developed a style of conducting that was “anti-show”. While the success of other conductors was clearly due to their gymnastic exertions, he never felt compelled to conduct music occurrences such as a reversal while doing somersaults. Despite his refusal to use traditional musical gestures, enthusiasm was evident on all levels—there was hardly anywhere in Vienna where audience interest was more vivacious, and some enthusiasts spoke of “die reihe” concerts as being the Philharmonic of modernity—overlooking the intrinsic contradiction in the compliment for sheer excitement.

Heinz Karl Gruber

„Friedrich Cerha: Vollblut mit Maske“, Programmheft zu Netzwerk, Wiener Festwochen 1981, S. 4-7, hier S. 5, AdZ, KRIT003/5

Cerha’s straightforward conducting style in the early days of “die reihe” corresponded with his rehearsal work, which proved to be equally objective and stringent. The focus was on the thorough preparation of the music—down to even the deepest layers. His rehearsal work earned him the reputation of being a “Bitzler”, as Gruber explains. “Bitzeln”, an Austrian expression for nit-picking or pedantry,Vgl. „Das Österreichische Wörterbuch“, is derived from a word referring to the cutting off of small pieces. “This is exactly what Cerha does when he completely dismantles a piece during rehearsal, ‘biting off’ the smallest particles in order to inspect them in detail with the musicians before putting them back together again.”Heinz Karl Gruber, „Friedrich Cerha: Vollblut mit Maske“, Programmheft zu Netzwerk, Wiener Festwochen 1981, S. 4-7, hier S. 5, AdZ, KRIT003/5

Film stills of Cerha conducting the three-act version of Alban Berg’s Lulu, Austrian premiere, Graz Opera, 1981

But this evidence of analytical sharpness and musical objectivity still do not create a full picture of the conductor. Cerha’s orchestral conducting was as highly diverse as his composed works. It would be wrong to paint a picture of him as nothing more than a sombre “hard-working man”: He is also impulsive and passionately expressive—only, however, where the musical texture calls for it. His grander gestures are particularly useful when working with symphony orchestras, as can be seen in a recording of a rehearsal of Anton Webern’s Passacaglia in D minor. The late Romantic orchestral line-up and the powerful swells of the piece call for a conductor with matching force.

Another good example of conducting with temperament: Cerha’s own Baal-Gesänge. These, too, are filled with an enormous range of expression and a multitude of dramatic eruptions. Conveying them appropriately as a conductor sometimes calls for extravagant gestures. Cerha performed the cycle several times with Theo Adam interpreting the vocals. However, he conducted his own operas just a single time: at the world premiere of Der Rattenfänger.

Rehearsals for Baal-Gesängen with Theo Adam and the Staatskapelle Berlin, Konzerthaus Berlin, 1987

Cerha, Baal-Gesänge, Nr. 1 ("Ichthyosaurus-Parabel")

RSO Wien, Ltg. Friedrich Cerha, Theo Adam (Bass), Produktion ORF 2006