The Global Citizen

Cerha at Lamsenjoch, Tyrol.

During and shortly after the war, Friedrich Cerha worked as a hutkeeper in the Tyrolean Alps. In 2005, at the age of 79, he returned to that place of freedom. Director Robert Neumüller shot scenes for a film portrait of Cerha, titled So möchte ich auch fliegen können, or “I too would like to fly like this”.

Photo: Robert Neumüller

Cerha’s passport, pages 2–3 with personal data

Friedrich Cerha is not only Viennese by birth, the composer also has deep intellectual roots in the capital city, and his work is closely linked to its history, cultural and otherwise. Yet his artistic life is shaped by an outlook that crosses borders, both geographically and intellectually. An intense and sensual experiencing of the world, an interest in a broad range of phenomena (going far beyond only the musical), renunciation of societally designated havens, rejection of familiar ways of thinking, dogmas, and hardened ideologies—all of this lies at the core of his being. Cerha approaches things with impartiality and curiosity, a methodology that helps explain the immense diversity of his work.
In the early stages of our modern times, humanity’s relationship to the world began to change significantly. Sea voyages and research expeditions opened up new regions, even continents, previously unknown to Europeans. This “Age of Discovery” did not leave the field of Western art untouched. Artists ranging from Albrecht Dürer to Paul Klee began to travel, gaining stimulating, lasting impressions on their journeys. “Grand tours” took writers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Hans Christian Andersen to the Mediterranean, for example. Italy became a particularly desirable destination, increasingly sought out by musicians, whether Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, or Hector Berlioz. The inspiration of the distant, of distance itself, stimulated cultural exchange—and with the advent of technology, distances between different cultures have been decreasing (more than just geographically) ever since. Intercultural exchange continues to shape the present day, condensing the “world into a networked system”, something Cerha had already anticipated as early as the 1980s.Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 84 And in this networked and interconnected world, he remains a free citizen.


Eastern Roots

Cerha, Sieben Stücke für Mandoline und Gitarre, “I. Fernöstlich”, 2014, AdZ, 00000198/2

In 2014 Cerha wrote Sieben Stücke for a duo of stringed instruments: mandolin and guitar. The first of these seven pieces is titled “Far Eastern”, and musically conjures up the sounds of Asia. The title is also an allusion to the eastern point of the compass, towards the land of Cerha’s ancestors, about whom precise information is lacking. His ancestry papers, drawn up during the war, were lost long ago. Nevertheless, some family history has been passed down: Cerha’s paternal grandfather, a watchmaker, was from Hungary, born in the city of Győr before moving to Gänserndorf in Lower Austria. One generation back, the story takes us further east, to Budapest, where Cerha’s great-grandfather first saw the light of day. From there, the paternal line can be traced back to Sibiu in Romanian Transylvania (also the homeland of Cerha’s friend György Ligeti). But the imaginary journey does not end there: “According to family legend,” says Cerha, his roots “go even further back, all the way to Istanbul, where a grand vizier bore our name in the 1490s.”Sabine Töfferl, Friedrich Cerha. Doyen der österreichischen Musik der Gegenwart, Eine Biografie, Vienna 2017, p. 21 An undated manuscript, a copy with no cited sources, attests to this, recounting a failed summertime campaign to conquer Budapest. The name of the vizier: Cerrha Mohammed Pasha.


Cerha, notes on a possible ancestor, undated, AdZ, SCHR0027/2

Even today, says CerhaSabine Töfferl, Friedrich Cerha. Doyen der österreichischen Musik der Gegenwart, Eine Biografie, Vienna 2017, p. 21, there is a mosque with the original family name in Istanbul: “Cerrah Mehmed Paşa Camisi”, built in 1594. Cerha visited the mosque during a later trip to Turkey, probably also on a mission to explore his roots. On occasion he even considered living in Istanbul for a time, but never put this plan into action.Wilhelm Sinkovicz, “Vier Tage für zehn Menuette”, interview with Friedrich Cerha, Die Presse, 11.2.2006, AdZ, SCHR0043/72 He did, however, remain connected to the Arab-Islamic world throughout his life.


The Cerrah Mehmed Paşa Camisi Mosque, Cerha’s private photos
The maternal line of ancestors leads in a different direction, but also to the east—“to Moravia, Slovakia, and Galicia”.Thomay Meyer, interview with Friedrich Cerha, Cerha’s other grandfather was a winemaker who employed Slovakian servants in the 1930s.Sabine Töfferl, Friedrich Cerha. Doyen der österreichischen Musik der Gegenwart, Eine Biografie, Vienna 2017, p. 20 The grandson quickly befriended them.Text for Slowakische Erinnerungen aus der Kindheit, AdZ, 000T0099/2 He would accompany them home on their holidays, and thus became acquainted with the culture firsthand. He experienced Slovakia, especially the towns of Gayring, Senica, Myjava, and Trnava, as “very traditional areas”. “Many houses were roofed only with straw or shingles, none were more than a storey high, the roads were narrow and made of sand, and geese and sheep abounded. […] People played a lot of music back then—the preferred instruments were dulcimer and clarinet, and brass bands played on festival days, which fascinated me at the time and which I followed around.”Sabine Töfferl, Friedrich Cerha. Doyen der österreichischen Musik der Gegenwart, Eine Biografie, Vienna 2017, p. 20 f. In the mid-1950s the composer recorded his musical childhood memories “in a series of piano pieces and sketches”. Much later, in 1989, he was given a cassette tape of Slovakian folk songs that renewed his interest in what he had written many years earlier, and he went on to combine them into one great piano cycle, Slowakischen Erinnerungen aus der Kindheit (Slovakian Childhood Memories). The titles of the individual pieces hint at passing places, people, atmospheres, and landscapes: “Miava”, “Holíč”, “Göding”, “Allein in dunklen Gassen von Tyrnau” (Alone on the Dark Streets of Tyrnau), “Auf den Mauern der Ruine Kokö” (On the Walls of the Kokö Ruins), “Im Gestrüpp an den Hängen des Visoka” (In the Underbrush of the Visoka Hills), “Weinlese an der Waag” (Grape Harvest on Waag), “Den Eidechsen auf den warmen Steinen zuschauen” (Watching the Lizards on the Warms Stones), “Eine Gänseprozession versperrt den Weg” (A Walking Flock of Geese Blocks the Path), and many more. The message of the last piece is the clearest: “Heimweh nach einer versunkenen Welt” (Homesick for a Sunken World).


Cerha, Slowakische Erinnerungen aus der Kindheit, sketch for “Eine Gänseprozession versperrt den Weg”, AdZ, 000S009/51

Two photos from Cerha’s childhood, ca. 1940

Blossoming Worldliness

Cerha’s carefree, culturally colourful childhood ended with the war. After this abrupt end, he needed to regain his independence—and the experience of freedom he had gained in 1945 as a mountain guide in the Tyrolean Alps was useful in this regard. His bond with nature, strengthened during this time, made it more difficult for him to re-integrate into society. On the other hand, rediscovering urbanity also opened up countless opportunities for him to explore the “whole wide world”. Cerha soon began travelling to other countries, broadening his horizons. One of his favourite destinations was Italy. In the early 1950s, he travelled to Bologna for the first time. Wanting to shine a light on baroque music, which had been largely forgotten, he visited the Biblioteca del Conservatorio and the Accademia Filarmonica. He copied the scores he found there by hand—with the goal of performing them in Vienna. Further trips to Italy followed: to Florence, Naples, and Rome. Cerha spent the most time in Italy’s capital. He lived there from the beginning of February to the end of June 1957—a sojourn made possible by a grant from the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education. The composer was inspired by the Mediterranean way of life, its culture, and the music of the nation. Relazioni fragili and Espressioni fondamentali, two important works written in Rome, exude an international esprit—and not just due to their Italian titles. Inspired by the debates of the Darmstadt avant-garde, Cerha worked on these critical Austrian contributions to the current compositional style, serialism, while living in the Italian metropolis. Looking back, he says: “For a long time, it was important for me to see myself as a citizen of the world, and I also saw myself as making music that fit this view.”Thomas Meyer, interview with Friedrich Cerha,


Photos from a trip to Italy, from Cerha’s private collection

It was not only as a composer that Cerha felt open to the world. The activity that most ushered him into the international arena was conducting, above all as the leader of the “die reihe” ensemble, which he co-founded in 1959 in order to bring new international music to Vienna. His achievements as head of “die reihe” soon resulted in numerous guest performances: in Paris, Warsaw, Hamburg, Stockholm, Brussels, Prague, Zagreb, Rome, Berlin, Budapest, Amsterdam, and Venice (to name just a few). As a result, Cerha began receiving increased attention beyond the ensemble, as a conductor and specialist in contemporary music, and as such received invitations both at home and abroad.


Cerha in Amsterdam, 1962.

One concert tour of “die reihe” stands out. In April 1970, after many successful European performances, the group made the great leap across “the pond”. For a month, Cerha travelled with his musicians through North America, from the Canadian capital of Ottawa and on to the USA: Maryland, Massachusetts, Cincinnati, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, and finally California. The musicians mainly performed in university auditoriums. The programme: pure Austria, an “exported hit”. The core repertoire included Arnold Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Cerha’s own Catalogue des objets trouvés, Roman Haubenstock-Ramati’s Multiple II, and György Ligeti’s Kammerkonzert, which was written for “die reihe” and premiered in Ottawa. With the exception of Schönberg’s 1912 melodrama, none of the key pieces were composed before 1969. Cerha was steadfast in his aim of presenting a refreshing, up-to-date programme, thus giving Viennese music a place on the world stage.

Documents on the American “die reihe” tour, all from 1970
University of California concert poster, Davis (left), Vienna newspaper article (top right), headlines from the San Francisco Examiner, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the Chicago Sun-Times

In America, Cerha was met by audiences that were as knowledgeable as they were enthusiastic. The media also celebrated the ensemble. It almost seemed as if “die reihe” was more welcome here than in Vienna. Slowly but surely, however, the tide began turning in Austria as well—thanks to Cerha, who had been bringing international Modernism into the capital for years.
The era of such grand tours came to an end over the course of the 1970s, although “die reihe” continued to make guest appearances abroad—in London, Madrid, and Barcelona, for example. Travelling remained important to Cerha not only in his role as a conductor; increasingly, his artistic work was deeply influenced by inspiration from around the world.

“die reihe”, returning from their American tour, 1970

Traces of the World

The “small world” that Cerha grew up in acted like a cultural melting pot.Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 18 In the Vienna suburbs, the “rural hinterland” held the same importance as the “petty bourgeoisie confronted with the urban proletariat”. Very different cultural identities shaped Cerha’s “later very keen awareness of world events”. He remained open to other cultures throughout his life. Often, he was inspired by similarities, the essence of being human, including his great interest in the spiritual questions of “all world religions”.Cerha, text on Requiem, AdZ, 000T0131/2 In the 1970s, his first ideas about writing a universal requiem began to take shape. Cerha was considering “books of the dead from various cultures and the Book of Ecclesiastes from the Old Testament”. Much later, at the turn of the millennium, he changed his plans and decided instead to set his own poems to music, incorporating them into the emerging Requiem. The monumental piece is nonetheless marked by a palpable respect for all faiths. “Even today, the Bible, Talmud, and Koran stand peacefully next to each other by my bed and I peruse them frequently,” says Cerha. “Not because I am such a religious person, but because I am puzzled by the revelation religions, which have certainly considerably determined the evolution of our culture.”Sabine Töfferl, Friedrich Cerha. Doyen der österreichischen Musik der Gegenwart, Eine Biografie, Vienna 2017, p. 26
He was also influenced by Asian spirituality, inspired by the “Far Eastern worldview”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 32 of Josef Matthias Hauer, and Zen Buddhism à la John Cage, colleagues with whom Cerha also formed personal friendships. In 1952, fascinated by “thinking in changes” and “developmentlessness”,Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 219 he set to music a section of the Chinese I-Ching, an ancient collection of calligraphy and sayings from the third millennium BC. Unfortunately, the manuscript of this fragment has been lost.


Koran and I-Ching, Cerha’s private copies

Photo: Christoph Fuchs

Cerha’s visual works also reveal a kind of universal spirituality. Private photographs of his travels tell of his love for architecture, sculpture, and nature. The family travelled to Crete in 1969, visiting ancient archaeological sites such as the Minoan palace of Knossos—sunken worlds that never lost their aura. The sight of these magnificent columns and ruins, thousands of years old, turned Cerha into a builder: His Mediterranean-esque chapel in Maria Langegg is his only architectural creation, but it is an eloquent example of how his impressions of the world interacted with his (literally) hand-made design.

Impressions from Crete, Cerha’s private photos

A sculptor and collector, Cerha tracked down raw materials for sculptures and assemblages during his travels. How much of his travels he integrated into his creations is difficult to say—after all, it is impossible to guess the origin of many of the found objects he used. Other artworks, in turn, boldly announce their inspiration: In the northeast Italian port city of Trieste, he found unusually shaped rocks in the 1960s—natural materials in the best sense of the term. He transformed them into art, sanding them down and placing them on a base. The resulting objets trouvés are a combination of the dual joys of creation and discovery.



Rock from Trieste, presumedly at the location where it was found, Cerha’s private photo, 1960s

Elsewhere, it was sounds that sparked Cerha’s imagination. In 1989, at the same time he was rediscovering and processing the Slovak melodies of his childhood, several non-European cultures entered his field of vision. He was strongly influenced by a spring trip to Morocco. He stayed in the south of the country for a long time, and was thus able to research the musical culture and history of the region. “Experiencing live Arabic music” was ultimately the “direct triggering moment” for his first string quartet, which he composed largely on site.Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 259 Cerha had not been entirely oblivious to Moroccan culture before this. At university he had studied Islamic culture, as attested to by his compositions from the time, Zehn Rubaijat, which are set to ancient Persian poetry. But in the late 1980s, for the first time, the sounds of far-away truly began to settle into his music. The way he processed them is revealing: Cerha incorporated quarter tones in the quartet for the first time (something not found in Western music) and used the old Arabic “maqam” technique alluded to in the subtitle. However, the piece does not sound particularly oriental. Rather, it shows “how the creative imagination was inspired by musical conditions and constellations that do not exist in our part of the world,” says the composer.Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 259 Other pieces can be interpreted the same way—for example, a work with its “ear” tuned towards Oceania, Zweite Streichquartettor the multicultural Phantasiestück in C.’s Manier. Cerha did not visit all the places that can be heard in his music. He didn’t need to travel to Papua New Guinea, for example, to become fascinated by the ancient indigenous culture situated around the tropical Sepik River, a culture that survives to this day. Curiosity was enough to inspire him to strike out from his own familiar world into unexplored horizons.




Cerha, 1. Streichquartett “Maqam”, sketch with quarter tones, 1989, AdZ, 000S0104/14