Der Homo Politicus

Cerha, Wiener Metropol 1983

The first Keintate was premiered on 20 June 1983 in the Metropol club, a “real life” public space in the Vienna suburbs. Cerha gave an impromptu speech before the premiere—one of the rare occasions he deliberately stepped up to the lectern.

Image source: Archiv der Zeitgenossen

Cerha, Eine Art Chansons, “synopsis einer politischen rede”, autograph (excerpt), AdZ, 00000091/140

HK Gruber (chansonnier), Kurt Prihoda (drums), Rainer Keuschnig (piano), Josef Pitzek (contrabass), production Kairos 2019.

If one assumes that music is always a mirror of society and the era, then music history has produced a great number of social visionaries—from Beethoven the utopian to Wagner the critic of capitalism to women’s rights activist Ethel Smyth and the decidedly more political composers of recent history. The global crises of the twentieth century almost cried out for the politicization of music. Hanns Eisler wrote fighting music for the working class, Luigi Nono’s compositions reacted to the Holocaust and to capitalist exploitation, Hans Werner Henze denounced social inequities using musical allegories. However, it is difficult to find the exact spot for Friedrich Cerha in the ranks of politically committed composers. Cerha’s music generally doesn’t make a direct appeal to its listeners, bears no ideologies, and doesn’t centre around specific conflicts and world events. However, as is often the case, exceptions are the rule here: in 1963 Und du… was written for a text by Günter Anders, a piece of music with an explicit political message: a reaction to the Cold War and the high tensions emerging from the nuclear arms race. The piece stands alone in Cerha’s oeuvre as a statement on the global political situation. At the same time, it is impossible to dispute the ideological components in his oeuvre. His music may not be anchored in the politics of a party, but “each work of art [is political] in that it moves something inside the listener”Thomas Meyer, interview with Friedrich Cerha, February 2012, “It triggers something. Art is help,” says Cerha in a sentence adopted from his friend Karl Prantl.


Cerha, the Anti-Fascist

Headline of an article on Der Rattenfänger, Bühne Wien, September 1987,AdZ, KRIT0002/81 (“I never liked to keep my mouth shut”)

The opening of Cerha’s creativity to societal issues is closely related to his personal biography. For Cerha, living through the Second World War in all its facets was a highly existential experience. His resistance to the National Socialist dictatorship was ignited by, for example, his identification with societal minorities, whose marginalisation he already empathised with as a child. Early in his life, he felt a deep sympathy with the marginalised groups he came into contact with, describing these memories in his essay “The Jews, Czechs, Slovaks, Mahder, Gypsies, and—Yet Again—the Jews”.Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, pp. 18–25 The abyss between the later fate of the Jewish community and Cerha’s own world must have been enormous, something made clear by the fact that around half of his classmates at the Ottakring primary school were Jewish. He often went “to the Hubergasse synagogue (set on fire by the Nazis a few years later) on Sabbath with his best friend”,Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 19 and his friend attended mass with him “on Sundays at [the] Catholic Kalvarienbergkirche”. There were no cultural, religious, or ideological barriers between the two friends. However, while the Jewish community was still relatively well situated in society in the early 1930s, other groups suffered from enormous and relentless marginalisation—the Roma in particular. One episode from the life of ten-year-old Cerha describes how deep his sympathy was for those cast out:


In the summer of 1936, I travelled to a children’s convalescent home in Seebenstein following a bout of tuberculosis. I had, of course, my violin with me. Not far from where we played ball in the field, there were gypsies camped in the forest. I heard a violin being played, followed the sound, couldn’t get enough of hearing and seeing this old gypsy making music. I hated the convalescent home with its haughty airs, rituals from the youth movement, and incessant blaring of disgusting songs, that idiotic “Wagen, der rollt”. What a small step it was from there to the Hitler Youth! Since I wasn’t interested in the required afternoon ball game, I took my violin into the woods and played. The old gypsy suddenly stood in front of me and asked if I wanted to come with him. I didn’t have to think about it, I said yes, packed my violin, went along, and was given a seat in the trailer. I was immediately accepted by everyone with no formal introduction. The old man’s wife hugged me; she didn’t even have to bend over much. She pressed me into the folds of her long, thick, not particularly clean skirt, smelling very motherly, warm, and of sheep, and just like that I was her child.

Friedrich Cerha

Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 22

Cerha’s compassion for those discriminated against corresponds with his criticism of the Völkisch movement. He escaped the rampant indoctrination around him not only through his own personal resistance, but also thanks to his adult role models. In 1934, his father took him to the sites of the ongoing “battles between Austro-Fascists and Socialists for the Ottakringer Workers’ Home”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 18 to show his son “what people can do to people”. Cerha’s first violin teacher, a Czech, likewise encouraged his pupil’s political awareness at an early age:


Some of my parents’ friends were Czech and fate would have it that all of my violin teachers were Czech and had studied at the Ševčik school. The first was named Pejhovsky. […] Not only do I owe my thorough violin training to him, he also gave me Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Hašek, Gorki, and others to read when I was 11, and—a fanatical anti-Nazi—sharpened my political acumen. After the Condor Legion was sent to support Franco in the Spanish Civil War, “Hitler is war” became a constant expression of my father’s. I owe it to him and Pejhovsky that I didn’t get caught up in any of the Nazi ideals as a young person.

Friedrich Cerha

Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 20

A mere decade later, towards the end of the Second World War, Cerha’s internal resistance became an external one. In November 1944, he was sent to a military school in Denmark to be trained as an officer. There, he pilfered a stack of signed marching papers and used them to desert. Arriving in Berlin, he saw “dead comrades […] hanging from the lampposts”Unknown author, “Damit du siehst, was Menschen anderen Menschen antun”, interview with Friedrich Cerha, Wiener Zeitung, 4Jul2012, bearing signs that read “I am a traitor” around their necks. However, such attempts at intimidation failed to discourage the 19-year-old—even when he was forcibly re-enlisted into a military platoon. A second attempt to desert led from Göttingen through the Thuringian Forest to the Tyrolean Alps. Cerha spent the end of the war there, in the seclusion of the mountains, watching civilisation from a distance with skeptical eyes: “The temptation to take advantage of a return to the ‘academic’ world (of order) was long counterbalanced by the reservations.”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 59 This period, almost a kind of limbo, was probably one of the most formative experiences of Cerha’s life. His experiences of profound peace contrasted with the sheer barbarism of war and became fertile nourishment for all facets of his political mind-set.


Music as a Mirror of Society

Cerha’s artistic approach is underpinned by several factors: the experience of being cast out, the dictatorship, and the blind obedience of the masses. In an essay, Daniel Ender explains how the composer’s public persona is shaped by being “understood as a homo politicus, an artist who associates a certain approach to society through their creativity and oeuvre.”Daniel Ender, “‘Ein äußerst verstörendes Element’. Zur öffentlichen Wahrnehmung Friedrich Cerhas als homo politicus und Individualist”, in: Matthias Henke and Gerhard Gensch (eds.): Mechanismen der Macht. Friedrich Cerha und sein musikdramatisches Werk, Innsbruck et. al. 2016, pp. 231–242, here p. 236 Cerha’s reflections on his own work encourage this perception. Although the orchestral cycle Spiegel, for example, was not composed as an autobiographical work, the composer sees in it a latent reflection of “the horrors of my war experiences on the one hand and on the other the boundless sense of happiness in the freedom I felt as a deserter in the nature surrounding my refuge in a hut in the Tyrolean mountains.” Friedrich Cerha, Spiegel-Monumentum-Momente, SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, Sylvain Cambreling, ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien, Dennis Russell Davies, Friedrich Cerha, Kairos 2010, booklet, p. 5 Political implications emerge in the parts of Spiegel through the use of mass structures that refer to the ideologies of uniformity and oppression of the individual. It stands to reason then that Cerha also creates an association between images of “the military parades, party marches, and mass gymnastics exercises of National Socialism and Communism, all group formations within systems that excluded all contradiction and punished with banishment and death” with the composure of musical masses that is omnipresent in his oeuvre. The “human masses, seen from an infinite distance, uniform in behaviour”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 236 is something Cerha also thematises in Netzwerk, with numerous images shaped by demonstrations and the criticism of power dynamics. Rulers are named, dethroned, hanged (as in Hauptsatz IV B); crowds of people follow orders, revolt, and instigate change.


“Parable of Rulers and the Ruled”, scene for Hauptsatz IV B in Netzwerk

In terms of its political dimensions, a scene in Netzwerk that was created only for the later theatrical version stands out. In a number titled “Protest-Ostinato”, a piece written for five speakers, the imprisonment of five individuals from different cultural areas is staged. Several “wardens of order”—symbols of the power of the state—guard these people, preventing their release. Resistance rises audibly from the individual prisoners: “The five repeat the same accusatory arguments over and over in their ‘cages’ […] and are left only to themselves.”Friedrich Cerha, libretto for Netzwerk, Vienna 1981, p. 24 Their stylised calls for freedom—there is no real semantics, as the language is fabricated—fail to resonate, instead only triggering threatening gestures from the wardens. The scene ends with the speakers “falling silent and freezing”. An allegory can be found here in the incompatibility of the needs of the individual with social constraints. The fact that, in 2011, Cerha rewrote “Protest-Ostinato” into a choral arrangement with seven voices (Zwei Szenen, CR No. 166) and gave it the name “Hinrichtung” (Execution)—a metaphor for the silencing of an individual by a hostile crowd—speaks for itself.


The “mechanisms of power”See Matthias Henke and Gerhard Gensch (eds.): Mechanismen der Macht. Friedrich Cerha und sein musikdramatisches Werk, Innsbruck et. al. 2016 are each explored in their own way in all of Cerha’s stage works. In his notes on Baal, he writes: “It seems to me that I am able to represent nothing other than this machinery of world theatre in which we are actors and spectators—albeit in very different ways.”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 88 In the three operas Baal, Der Rattenfänger, and Der Riese vom Steinfeld, which create almost a kind of trilogy, these gears are always noticeably turning, each concentrating on a single character who is at odds with society and is ultimately separated from it. Baal disregards the rules that enable a life of ease and conformity in the community. The Pied Piper of Der Rattfänger is the projection of an alternative existence in the face of corrupt human machinations. And the giant of Der Riese is pushed out due to a factor beyond his control, his abnormal size. Of these three stage works, Der Rattenfänger in particular is perceived by the public as a “political opera”. In the piece, this direct political reading is made possible by not only the protagonist, an outsider, but also the metaphor of the rats themselves and the way they are manipulated. The “kidnapping” of the children at the end of the piece subtly merges with Cerha’s previously described experiences with the Roma. The idea of being “stolen”—and thus escaping a rule-following, immoral society—“was not so much a fearful trauma and more a pipe dream,” remembers the composer.


Friedrich Cerha, Das Phänomen der Macht, Bühne Wien, September 1987

Hansjörg Spiess, “Eine politische Oper”, Kleine Zeitung, 25Sep1987

Der Rattenfänger reveals a prototype of how the political is articulated in Cerha’s work. The endeavours here are similar to the largely abstracted theatrum mundi works Spiegel or Netzwerk: a propensity for the allegorical, an examination of systemic connections, and a simultaneous ambiguity and unambiguousness. “The references to current political events” are clear, as well as “inadmissible aspects of direct comparisons and the risk of being correlated with the content and form of current controversies.”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 99 f. However, Cerha did make an exception to this at the premiere (1987): He dedicated the character of the Little Hangman to Austrian Federal President Kurt Waldheim, who had just come into focus as a war criminal. Cerha, however, saw him as neither a “war criminal nor a Nazi […], but—like so many others—a representative of the mentality […] that implements and draws on the prevailing system to get to the top and stay on top.”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 99 The same year Der Rattenfänger premiered, Cerha also protested against the opening of an exhibition by Waldheim at the Salzburg Festival.


Cerha, written protest against an exhibition opening by Kurt Waldheim, 1987, AdZ, TEXT0036/2

Living Cultural Policy

The uprising against Waldheim is one of Cerha’s many statements critically addressing (cultural) politics. A considerable volume of writings, whether speeches, letters, or essays, testifies to his commitment, giving the “homo politicus” a clearer profile. At the same time, Cerha’s relationship to this role remains ambivalent. He sees himself not as a rhetorician, but rather as an advocate of a (musical) culture that is insufficiently represented in public life. Defending this culture, decrying the grievous failings and deficits of cultural policy, or, in short, giving his profession and the actors therein a voice—this is motivation enough for him to raise his public voice.

Cerha, beginning of his speech manuscript for the event “Neue Musik—Voraussetzung und Möglichkeiten in Österreich”, undated, AdZ, TEXT0030/2

Regardless of how Cerha expresses himself, the target of his criticism usually remains the same: the Austrian government and its inertia, along with the anti-artist conservatism of the post-war era and the aftermath thereof, something which drove Cerha to reposition himself again and again. On this point, his connection to Thomas Bernhard cannot be denied, although Bernhard’s polemic, highly stylized into an aesthetic experience, does not correspond to Cerha’s way of expression. It is significant, however, that one of the composer’s most public appearances is directly related to Bernhard. In 1986, when Cerha was given the news that he was to be awarded the Grand Austrian State Prize, he asked Herbert Mortiz, the Minister for Education, Arts, and Sport, to present the prize to him before a concert—in hopes of creating an “act of living cultural policy”.Friedrich Cerha, letter to Herbert Moritz, 28 August 1986, AdZ, 000K0086/30 At the event scheduled for this purpose, Requiem für Hollensteiner was premiered following Bernhard’s work Gehen. The libretto expressed blunt criticism of Austria’s cultural apparatus, which, thanks to the circumstances of the event, enabled Cerha to make a statement through exclusively artistic means. Minister Moritz was so flustered by the event that he wrote to Cerha, informing him of his astonishment. And just like that, Cerha’s artistic push to reflect on the problems of the present had achieved its goal.


Cerha with Minister Herbert Moritz, 28 October 1986.

Cerha, letter to Minister Herbert Moritz, excerpt, 28 August 1986

Cerha’s displeasure with his country’s cultural policy also found other forms of expression beyond public speeches and published texts.See the texts in the “Cultural Criticism” subsection, Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, pp. 110–133 Among the most interesting documents related to this are his “angry notes”—a collection of comments written sporadically between 1958 and 1973 concerning the developments in and inadequacies of the New Music scene in Austria. Cerha rediscovered these notes in 1995 and now characterises them as “documentation of an era”. Now, he has observed, many of the grievances he complained about at the time no longer exist—an indication of the success of long-term struggles and efforts. On the other hand, Cerha, a steadily vigilant observer of social change, has also registered a new type of indifference: True thoughtfulness and public debate have both decreased noticeably in the media, for example. What this indicates is that although New Music has found an audience over the decades, it has also undergone a new kind of isolation. This position as an outsider makes the fight for public representation a topical political issue worth fighting for.


A 1958

Im 18. Jahrhundert gab es Dutzende von Fürstentümern mit einem eigenständigen Musikleben; dazu kam noch die Musikpflege in den Kirchen. Dadurch gab es eine Streuung, einen Spielraum,
in dem sich persönliche Haltung, Vorlieben, Launen, Eitelkeiten – ein Reichtum an unterschiedlichen Möglichkeiten entfalten konnte, wiewohl der einzelne Musiker unfrei war.
Heute herrscht rundum eine Tendenz zu Monopolbildungen. In Wien haben wir zwei Musikgesellschaften; beide vom Staat unterstützt. Sie halten alle Zügel in den Händen, diktieren das Musikleben. Zusammen mit dem Staat haben sie eine uneingeschränkte Machtposition.
Zwei Möglichkeiten kulturpolitisch zu handeln; die eine: Rückgratlos, gesichtslos von allem etwas zu machen unter Vermeidung von Dingen, die schwer durchzusetzen sind. Kommentar eines Subventionspolitikers: „Wir sind keine Kunstbewertungsstelle, wir sind eine Geldverteilungsstelle”. Kein Risiko eingehen, sich keine Urteile bilden, Geld ins Blinde verteilen nach dem Gießkannenprinzip, vor allem an die, die am meisten schreien. Die andere Möglichkeit: Persönliche Vorlieben auszuleben, nach persönlichen Urteilen zu handeln. Das gefällt mir besser. Freilich werden damit die Monopole durch das, was sie privilegieren und das, was sie unterschlagen leicht zu Instrumenten des Terrors. Eigenwillige, starke Persönlichkeiten haben unter derartigen Voraussetzungen oft keine Chance. Sie sind unbequem, sie wollen etwas Spezifisches: In die Katakomben mit ihnen!

B 1961

Ohne Geist gibt es keinen Kulturstaat, zu viel Geist aber ist unbequem. Auf dieser Überzeugung ruht ganz und gar der öffentliche Kulturbetrieb: Er achtet streng darauf, Geldmittel für Lehr- und Forschungsstatten bereitzustellen, aber ja nicht zu große Geldmittel, sondern solche, die in einem angemessenen Kleinheitsverhältnis zu den Beträgen stehen, die der Staat für Repräsentation, Autos und vor allem für Waffen ausgibt. Diese Grundvoraussetzung schafft auf allen Wegen freie Bahn dem Tüchtigen und unterstützt ihn, unter der Bedingung, daß er auch der Geschäftstüchtige sei.

C 1967 Relationen:

Die Abendgage eines Spitzensängers an unserer Oper betragt etwa so viel wie ein Professor an der Musikakademie für ein ganzes Jahr Unterricht bekommt und ist höher als der große Österreichische Staatspreis, der ein bedeutendes schöpferisches Lebenswerk würdigt. Vergleichsweise bekommt man dafür etwa 10 m² meiner Eigentumswohnung in der Wiener Innenstadt.
Ein anderes Beispiel: Das Defizit der Staatsoper betragt etwa S 500.000.- täglich. Ich unterhalte ein »Praktikum für neue Musik“ an der ersten Musikschule des Landes, an der Musikakademie. Es fehlt uns an Instrumenten, wir spielen Celesta am Klavier, pfeifen die Glocken, schlagen auf Stühlen herum, weil wir keine Tom-Toms, probieren auf Gängen, weil wir oft keine Proberaume haben. Außerdem gibt es keine organisatorischen Grundlagen. Der Mann, der sie liefern könnte, wird nicht entsprechend eingestuft und bezahlt. Das Nachtlokal um die Ecke ist besser eingerichtet als diese „erste Schule“ des Landes. Es ist mir in acht Jahren trotz aufreibender Bemühungen nicht gelungen, daran etwas zu ändern. Ich habe keine Lust, diesen Dilettantismus weiter mitzumachen.

D 1973?

Die offizielle gegenwärtige Musikkultur ist Staatskultur, zumeist kulinarische Repräsentationskunst, gekennzeichnet durch einen hohen Anteil an Mittelmaß, Klischee, Opportunismus. Das bessere Österreich ist in die Katakomben verbannt. Schönberg, Berg, Webern, Schiele, Loos, Gerstl, Kraus: sie alle waren zu ihrer Zeit nicht das offizielle Österreich. Der jüngst erschienene Band ,,Aufforderung zum Mißtrauen“ zeigt, daß sich die Verhältnisse wenig geändert haben. Es gibt eine Menge an jungen Begabungen, die zu einer Existenz im Untergrund verurteilt sind. Gelingt es innen, doch einmal ans Licht der Öffentlichkeit zu treten, dann nehmen die Medien kaum Notiz davon. Gleichgültigkeit, Interesselosigkeit schlagt innen entgegen. Manch einer geht außer Landes, kommt zu Rang und Namen, dann hat er vielleicht auch in Österreich Chancen.
Das offizielle Österreich war immer finstere Provinz. Charakteristisch am Provinziellen ist, daß man dem persönlich bestimmten Urteil und Risiko aus dem Weg geht, daß man nicht aus einer  persönlichen Haltung heraus Entscheidungen trifft, sondern den Weg des geringsten Widerstands, der geringsten Schwierigkeiten verfolgt; das tut, was alle anderen schon tun, das propagiert und fördert, was alle anderen schon schätzen. Die genannten Künstler hat man entdeckt und ans Herz gedrückt, nicht weil sie einem am Herzen liegen, weil man sie liebt, sondern weil sie in der ganzen Welt anerkannt werden.

(E) C 1966

Wer sich über gegenwärtige österreichische Komponisten informieren will muß nach Köln, Baden-Baden, Paris, Hamburg, Stockholm oder Berlin gehen; in Wien findet er so gut wie nichts. Diese Stadt hat ihre wunderbare Fähigkeit Neues, Fremdes zu integrieren verloren.
Von Ligeti ist in den zehn Jahren seit seiner Emigration aus Ungarn ein einziges Orchesterstück — und das auf mein Drängen hin — erklungen, von den Orchesterwerken Haubenstocks im gleichen Zeitraum auch eines im Rundfunk; von mir war noch keine einzige Note Orchestermusik zu hören. Warum müssen die österreichischen Komponisten ihre Hoffnungen ins Ausland setzen, warum finden sie dort Interesse und Aufführungsmöglichkeiten? Wir verzichten gerne auf die Rolle des Propheten im eigenen Land.


Kommentar zu diesen zufällig gefundenen „Zornigen Notizen“: Sie sind Zeitdokumente. Im letzten Vierteljahrhundert hat sich vieles in Österreich gewandelt — und zumeist zum Besseren. Da ist zunächst das veränderte Publikumsinteresse: Ich erinnere mich noch gut der IGNM-Konzerte im Vortragssaal der Musikakademie in der Lothringerstraße, wo es zwischen zwanzig und fünfzig Zuhörer gab; bei den seltenen Konzerten im Schubertsaal des Konzerthauses waren es nicht viel mehr. Die Konzerte der „reihe“ konnten ab 1959/60 dann bereits den Mozartsaal füllen. Und als die „reihe“ nach ihrer Emigration (1968-1978) unter Hans Landesmann mit dem Projekt ,,Wege in unsere Zeit” ins Konzerthaus zurückkehrte, war der Ansturm so groß, da wir für Schüler Konzertwiederholungen anbieten mußten.

Vor dem Webern-Fest zu dessen 100. Geburtstag im Jahr 1983 war ich bezüglich der Anteilnahme des Publikums angesichts der von Landesmann angesetzten großen Zahl der Konzerte ängstlich besorgt. Daß sie dann alle sehr gut besucht waren und das ganze Unternehmen zu einem wirklichen Publikumserfolg wurde, war für mich eine freudige Überraschung und nach meinem Eintreten für Webern in den vergangenen 25 Jahren auch eine große Genugtuung.

Heute haben Feste wie „Wien Modern“ und „Hörgänge“ ein großes interessiertes, aufnahmefähiges Publikum, – eines der besten in Europa, wie mir Künstlerfreunde immer wieder bestätigen. Leider gibt es in einigen anderen Ländern — Deutschland, Italien, Ungarn, Tschechien z.B. — gegenläufige Tendenzen, einen Besucherschwund bei Konzerten mit Neuer Musik. Die mit der positiven Entwicklung einhergehende große Anzahl von Veranstaltungen und die Tätigkeit vieler Ensembles bringt es mit sich, daß die Komponisten verhältnismäßig leicht zu Aufführungsmöglichkeiten gelangen; es gibt keinen einigermaßen begabten Komponisten, kein halbwegs gutes Stück, das durch die enger gewordenen Maschen des Förderungsnetzes fiele, u.a. auch dank der Arbeit der vom Staat bestellten Beirate und Kuratoren.
Allerdings ist das Interesse und die Anteilnahme der Presse an den gegenwärtigen Entwicklungen stark zurückgegangen. Haben jene IGNM-Konzerte in den Nachkriegsjahren, die vor zwei Dutzend Zuhörern stattfanden, – auch angesichts der damaligen Vielzahl an Presseorganen – eine große Zahl von spaltenlangen Artikeln ausgelöst, so werden heute oft selbst wichtige Konzerte von der Presse überhaupt nicht mehr wahrgenommen: Eine bedenkliche Entwicklung!

Angry Notes: Manuscripts and Transcriptions, AdZ, TEXT0024