The Stone Sculptor

Cerha in front of a stone sculpture by Karl Prantl.

Cerha’s friendship with sculptor Karl Prantl provided the basis for Cerha’s artistic work with stones. One of Prantl’s large rocks is set in the garden at Maria Langegg—in the ideal setting, surrounded by largely untouched nature.

Photo: Hertha Hurnaus

Cerha cultivated special relationships with objects and simple things throughout his entire life. He collected things he stumbled across (often by accident), painted over what he found, glued and assembled elements that did not belong together at first glance. Natural materials, whether living or inanimate, were and still are particularly fascinating for him. While his collection of wood, bark, and roots shows his love for the plant kingdom, a different world is reflected by his interest in stones—a cosmos of inorganic, archaic, and seemingly permanent material. Cerha began taking stones under his wing as a child. He found them on roadsides, in the forest, and at stone quarries. Yet he never pursued the goal of building up a collection with a scientific system—by no means was he, like Goethe, an amateur geologist. Cerha saw rough sculptures in the stones, small, primeval works of art that only nature itself can create. His affection can therefore be understood as a gesture of devotion, a sign of reverence for a world of nature untouched by humans.
As with almost every raw material he collects, Cerha also uses “his” stones as a creative element, though he did not begin to work them using tools until he was middle-aged. This crafting led to sculptures which did not take on “very human”See Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human forms and are neither representational nor artificially geometrical. Some of the stones hewn in this way remained autonomous sculptures, while others were given a purpose within a larger context—in Cerha’s self-built chapel in Maria Langegg, for example—a testimony to his irrepressible creativity, set in stone.

A Cornerstone Friendship

Karl Prantl, stone sculpture on Cerha’s property, Maria Langegg

Photo: Christoph Fuchs

Cerha’s contacts and friendships become more widely networked not only with the music scene, but also with other arts, especially in the post-war years. At the Vienna Art Club, writers and painters were omnipresent, sparking fresh new debates about Modernism in the Austrian capital. Unlike their fellow musicians, they had the advantage of not having to rely on logistically and financially demanding projects. “Books and reproductions were much more accessible than musical performances. No wonder openly oppositional musicians eagerly seized the opportunity to meet.”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 50 The art scene was dominated by creative currents that had emerged in Europe shortly before and after the First World War—primarily Cubism and Surrealism, which aroused “the greatest protest among the public”. Karl Prantl, born in 1923, was among the young art students of the post-war period. While studying painting, he sought out abstraction, but soon noticed that the canvas alone did not fulfil his inner imagination. Driven by a strong desire for freedom, he gradually turned to sculpture, creating his first sculptures in 1951 in his studio in Pöttsching, the small market town in Burgenland where he spent his entire life. His characteristic material came to be natural stones, often ones of considerable size. “Prantl held the view that working on stone outdoors in nature opens up other, new dimensions that allow sculptures to function as a communicating medium between and together with one another. He inspired people with a growing interest in art to perceive the quarries and natural landscapes of Burgenland.”“Zum Symposionsgedanken”,


Karl Prantl working on Grenzstein (1958)

The Roman stone quarry in St. Margarethen during the Symposium of Young Sculptors

Left: Wikimedia

Cerha and Prantl met in the 1950s. While both longed for new and inspiring experiences, they found themselves facing the same problem. At the time, Austria suffered from a lack of pioneering spirit, and Vienna seemed paralyzed by its focus on restoration; it was no place for daring, progressive, and revolutionary art. Perseverance was required to change this, and towards the end of the decade there was a breakthrough. In 1958, Cerha founded “die reihe”, the first Viennese ensemble for Neue Musik, together with his friend Kurt Schwertsik. A year later, Forum Stadtpark, an artistic-scientific community of action, was established in Graz.See also: “Wenn wir nichts tun, geschieht gar nichts”, interview with Friedrich and Gertraud Cerha, And Prantl initiated a new collective as well: He wanted to bring young European sculptors together in one place to create art and formulate a kind of unified European vision. A site for this was found quickly, and Prantl was able to win over Gustav Hummel, the “leaseholder of the St. Margarethen quarry”“Zum Symposionsgedanken”, as their “stone sponsor”. Thus, in 1959, the first Symposium of European Sculptors was held, with 14 artists from seven countries. From the very beginning, the community pursued the goal of “creating a beacon for international understanding through cross-border unity.” The young artists were clearly and strongly opposed to the ideological trench warfare evoked by the Iron Curtain, and the quarry became a political as well as an artistic arena. Archived recordings from the documentary Die Steinspur provide insights into this time of pronounced art battles.


Robert Neumüller, Die Steinspur. Der Bildhauer Karl Prantl, ORF production, 2002

Cerha has often mentioned that he and Prantl have a history of sharing identical mentalities. “The ensemble of stones on the hill in St. Margarethen [is] the most striking evidence of the renewal movement” in cultural life at the time. And furthermore: “The entire arrangement of the stone sculptures on this piece of nature breathes the common creative will of their creators and, in addition to the artistic value of each individual stone, represents a relevant chapter of Austrian cultural and contemporary history.”“EXIT Bilderhauerhaus”, Cerha and Prantl remained connected over the decades. Each followed the work of the other, always with a “sense of agreement on our fundamental artistic (and human) ethos.”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 256 Several works mark the mutual appreciation of the two artists; among them, a stone sculpture in Cerha’s garden, a gift from Prantl.


After the first full performance of the Spiegel in June 1977 in Vienna, a celebration was held in Prantl’s studio in one of the large pavilions of the 1873 World’s Fair in the Prater park. Prantl approached Cerha, who was the last one to arrive, and said: “That was wonderful, Fritz—pick out a stone for yourself.” Cerha pointed to one of the largest, clearly the most beautiful one in his eyes, and said: “That one!” We didn’t hear anything for a while, but the following spring a call came from the Kunsttrans transportation company, informing us that they had a stone sculpture from Prantl to deliver. It now stands near the chapel in Maria Langegg, testimony to a friendship in more than one way.

Gertraud Cerha

Gertraud Cerha, correspondence for Cerha Online

In the decades to follow, the two filled the gap between stone sculpture and music with further tokens of their mutual admiration. In the mid-1980s, Prantl sculpted the Stein für Friedrich Cerha on Pöttschinger Feld; Cerha soon went on to compose an orchestral work titled Monumentum, a tribute to his friend, and wrote the ensemble piece Für K in 1993, its title indicating its dedicatee. Here, the sounds of a hammer and chisel can be heard in sections; like a sculptor, Cerha chips away at the rugged musical material with resounding blows on the anvil and flywheel.


Karl Prantl, Stein für Friedrich Cerha, Pöttschinger Feld, 1984–1987

Photo: Lukas Dostal,

Klangforum Wien, Ltg. Friedrich Cerha, Produktion col legno 2012

The suggestive sounds raise questions about the relationship between music and sculpture. Cerha searched for the answers by working and sculpting stones himself—supported by Prantl as a mentor and companion of ideals.

Hammer, Chisel, Grindstone

Cerha, stone slab, Maria Langegg, full view

Cerha, stone slab, Maria Langegg, details

Photo: Christoph Fuchs

Prantl decided to follow the path of the sculptor, not least because it provided him with the opportunity to work outdoors under the open sky. As a logical consequence, most of his stone sculptures merge with their surroundings, forming an inseparable unit. Prantl’s sculptures usually retain the origins of the stone being worked. In this, his work methods and approaches harmonise with those of Cerha. Both start with a natural form, which they then carefully exaggerate with immense sensitivity to the material—aiming to emphasise the underlying structure of the stone, to make it visible while preserving its original strength.
Like Prantl, Cerha’s stone sculptures are arranged in contexts with complexity. His property in Maria Langegg features large, covered slabs (see above) bearing numerous found objects. The stones create an “omnium-gatherum”, with differing sizes, shapes, patterns, colours, and potential for association. This reveals something that is typical of Cerha in both his painted as well as his musical works, a recognizable design feature that surfaces again and again: the unity of what is different.
Cerha’s collage of stones reveals his desire to assemble and contrast, while other pieces show an inclination to detail. This design principle, dedicated to timely precision, forms another arm of his branched oeuvre (one reflected especially clearly in his sound compositions). Many of his early sculptures in particular owe their existence to his fondness for collecting. Cerha began working on stones found in nature, polishing them, in the 1960s.
Two sculptures finished in 1967 are good examples of his way of adapting found objects. He discovered the fascinating stones “during a family stay in Istria”, a peninsula situated between Croatia and Slovenia.Gertraud Cerha, correspondence for Cerha Online “The fundamental shapes of the stones” prompted him “to take them with him and later grind them into their final shape.” The finished sculptures have a visibly succinct originality. One sculpture tapers into points on the sides. A hole in the middle is reminiscent of Prantl’s stones, but is less symmetrical and coarser in comparison. The other sculpture is suggestive of a torso. Cerha mounted the stone on a pedestal, increasing this impression. The allusion is vague, however, arrested in the grey area between concrete and abstract. The two stones are both objets trouvés and consciously shaped sculptures.





Cerha, stone sculptures, both 1967

Photo: Christoph Fuchs

Some of Cerha’s other stone sculptures are dedicated to even finer designs, their appearance determined by soft and wave-like contours—for example, a stone made of “hard, grey Mühldorf granite” hewn in the 1960s.Gertraud Cerha, correspondence for Cerha Online The basic shape of the 40-centimetre-high sculpture, like the other stones from the same period, was already there. However, the aesthetic of this piece moves in a different direction, characterised less by representational allusion than by a pure expression of form. The smooth surface can almost be felt just by looking at it, and the curved lines tempt one to reach out and touch the material—this, too, is a connection to Prantl, who referred to many of his stones as “meditations” and not only thought about haptic qualities, but also placed them at the centre of his focus.


Cerha, Mühldorf granite stone, late 1960s

Left: Joachim Diederichs: Friedrich Cerha. Werkeinführungen, Quellen, Dokumente, Vienna 2018.
Right: Christoph Fuchs.

In a similar and yet entirely different way, a much later sculpture by Cerha also includes the sense of touch. He obtained the material, a pink marble slab, from “a quarry in Carinthia that Prantl recommended”.Gertraud Cerha, correspondence for Cerha Online Cerha incised organic depressions on the base, causing a rolling, crater-like landscape to emerge in miniature. He named the finished sculpture Urstromtal (Glacial Valley), a name that aptly captures the archaic sculptural quality. Today, the stone is a meditative element in Cerha’s self-built chapel, drawing attention to another of his design principles.


Cerha, Urstromtal, marble, ca. 1980

Photo: Christoph Fuchs

Stone on Stone: “Projekt K”

Cerha’s most impressive stone creation is without a doubt the chapel in Maria Langegg, a particularly unique piece of architecture which he began building with his own hands in the 1960s. It stands in the midst of a remote forest, not far from his home, a hidden location that makes the chapel a “secret magnus opus”.Monika Mertl, “Der Alte Wilde und die Musik”, Die Presse, 5 February 2016, Cerha became inspired to build the chapel on a family trip to Crete, where the local “chapels, stone houses, and sheep pens of the interior” motivated him to build a sacred building.Gundula Wilscher, “Ein ‘sinnlicher Dialog’ mit dem Material. Betrachtungen zum bildnerischen und kompositorischen Schaffen Friedrich Cerhas”, in: Gundula Wilscher (ed.): Vernetztes Werk(en). Facetten des künstlerischen Schaffens von Friedrich Cerha, Innsbruck et. al. 2018, pp. 87–109, here p. 98 The building does indeed exude a Mediterranean flair; the rounded contour, and above all the small bell tower at the top, are reminiscent of Greek architecture.


Cerha in front of his chapel in Maria Langegg

Photo: Hertha Hurnaus

Side and front of the chapel

Photo: Christoph Fuchs

The construction of the chapel may be comparable to the Sisyphean efforts that go into the composition of an opera: They both share the need for careful planning and staying power. It took Cerha about 20 years to complete the chapel; as a busy composer and conductor, he was only able to devote himself to working on it for limited periods of time. He made the first sketches in the 1960s. They are titled “Projekt K” on one sheet—a reference to the German word for chapel, Kapelle—as well as an initial nod to Karl Prantl and the ensemble composition later dedicated to him titled Für K. In themselves, the drafts for the chapel are an artistic achievement, drawings filled with architectural vision and pictorial power. The extent to which Cerha was preoccupied by the project is shown by his sketched sheets for musical works, sprinkled here and there with images of the chapel façade and floor plan—for example, on sketches for Intersecazioni and Fasce, two orchestral works composed in 1959 that Cerha revised around 1973, at a time when he was feverishly working away at the chapel.



Cerha, plan drawings for the Maria Langegg chapel, undated, AdZ

Cerha, sketch for Intersecazioni, 1959–1973, AdZ, 000S0054/36

The building was finally completed in 1985—a personal “place of silence and meditation”, as the composer testifies. “The years of heavy physical labour were perhaps more important than the result, which is of course overwhelming: a magical room filled with archaeological finds.”Monika Mertl, “Der Alte Wilde und die Musik”, Die Presse, 5 February 2016, Stone sculptures can be discovered everywhere: A granite stone (see above) is nestled into a small, hollowed-out niche, while the shining Urstromtal is situated centrally in front of yet another gigantic work—the altar stone. This finely shaped block of stone “can be regarded as Cerha’s most essential work as a sculptor.”Gertraud Cerha, correspondence for Cerha Online Like Urstromtal, it shimmers with pale hints of shades of pink, in Carrara marble that comes from an Italian quarry. At the time, Cerha ground the stone down on site. “After a very difficult transport” he then finished the final touches in Langegg. The chapel was almost finished by then, with only the floor still to be laid. In the end, Cerha sank the altar stone into a step, thus turning it into a natural part of the overall architecture. Between the altar stone and the Christian cross at the ceiling, an elongated peephole between the bricks reveals the nature outside, Cerha’s most beloved place of all. The silent stones lead straight to Mother Nature.


Cerha, chapel in Maria Langegg, interior

Photo: Christoph Fuchs