The Networker

Cerha with Pierre Boulez, Salzburg 1996

Pierre Boulez was one of Cerha’s closest allies among his circle of colleagues. The two were not only composers, they were also active conductors and performed each other’s works. The photo shows them getting ready for a concert of Cerha’s orchestral piece Impulse in the Großer Festspielhaus Salzburg, conducted by Boulez.

Photo: Marion Kalter

In the age of social networking, establishing good connections with other people, both like-minded individuals and casual acquaintances, is more relevant than ever before. Since the digital revolution, the word network has become a common way to describe the benefits of having a certain ease in one’s personal relationships. In order for someone to strengthen their ideas, make them visible, and ensure they become reality, it is necessary to know people with similar interests. Aside from economic implications, networking also enables dynamic creativity—especially in the field of art. Today, the romanticised notion of the isolated artist, working in a quiet little room, a stranger to the world, seems a bit dusty. On the other hand, many of the more recent trends throughout art and music history would hardly have been conceivable without public discourse, the lively exchange of ideas, and the formation of groups.
Friedrich Cerha’s relationship to networking cannot be described without acknowledging a sense of ambivalence. On the one hand, he is an individualist, someone who does not feel he belongs to any school or fashionable trend, someone who chooses his own sometimes daring paths. On the other hand, he is someone with a broad range of interests, someone with eyes wide open and with a broad view of world events and those who make them happen. Cerha, the networker, can be found somewhere within this range between personal independence and openness: 

Cerha, the—sometimes—self-isolator. Is this why he worked for years on Brecht’s Baal, discovering a kindred spirit in parts of him? That, too, is only true to a certain degree. It was the topicality of Baal that excited Cerha so, the fact that an organised society can offer up reasonable living conditions that certain individuals neither can nor want to accept. The alternative is to escape, an internal migration, ultimately a path leading to self-destruction. Cerha is realist enough, in spite of his own defensive measures of putting up a shield, to not go down that path, or even want to. Curiosity led him forward.

Lothar Knessl

“Versuch, sich Friedrich Cerha zu nähern”, in: Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 14 f.

In the end, it was curiosity that led Cerha back to the high culture of urbanity after his self-imposed isolation in the Tyrolean Alps shortly after the Second World War, which allowed him to experience true isolation for the first time.See also Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 48 For him, returning to Vienna meant meeting people who, like him, were searching—in the very centre of a vibrant world.


Early Infrastructures

Concert invitation, Figaro Chamber Hall, Vienna, 25 February 1947, AdZ, KRIT0007/2



When Cerha returned to the Austrian capital in 1946, he was first and foremost excited about his studies. After only one semester at Vienna University and then the sudden interruption of the war, his core task was getting acquainted with music, culture, institutions, and people. He made contact with other young composers in Alfred Uhl’s composition class, the most important of whom were Anestis Logothetis and Gerhard Lampersberg. They “soon became close friends”,Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 27 and he also actively supported their music by playing as a violinist or conducting their works. The generally conservative, sometimes even old-fashioned teaching of the academy could not, however, satisfy these young artists’ hunger for the new and fresh; they needed additional input. One source for this was Cerha’s violin teacher, the renowned Gottfried Feist, who had performed pieces by his friend Arnold Schönberg with his string quartet shortly after the First World War. His circle of friends also included Alban Berg and Josef Marx.Elisabeth Th. Hilscher and Christian Fastl, “Feist, Gottfried”, in: Oesterreichisches Musiklexikon online The latter was considered an authority on the Vienna musical scene of the post-war period. Cerha’s meetings with Marx began with an introduction by Feist, who also introduced him to Josef Polnauer. While this former pupil of Schönberg and Berg never held an official position as, for example, a teacher of composing at the academy, his immense competence made him a sort of “pilgrimage station for those in the know”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 49—and a very important person for Cerha in particular. Polnauer’s view of music was focussed primarily on the organic structure of each piece, on internal relationships and texture, and less so on the purely technical and abstract issues that had piqued the interest of the international avant-garde in the 1950s. Thanks to him, Cerha was able to soak up “first-hand”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 30 detailed information about the Viennese School, including advice on performing. This later enabled him to interpret the works of Schönberg, Berg, and Webern with great authenticity.
In the early 1950s, Polnauer helped open another door for Cerha: to the International Society for Contemporary Music—the Gesellschaft für Neue Musik, or IGNM for short—a descendant of the “Society for Private Musical Performances” founded by Schönberg in 1922. In the post-war period, the Austrian section of the IGNM promoted all types of contemporary music. At the same time, it was deeply influenced by the “mentality of the Viennese School”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 45. Although neoclassical or minimalist styles of expression were not excluded from the programmes, they were regarded with some scepticism. Maintaining independence from the commercial cultural scene was highly important for the IGNM, a stance which caused a degree of isolation. Public visibility suffered as a consequence, and concerts were often moderately to poorly attended. The scene itself remained quite small, and efforts to grow it were limited, probably also in order to maintain the ability to fulfil the members’ needs.See Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 43 Early core members included composers Friedrich Wildgans and Hans Erich Apostel, singer Ilona Steingruber, and musicologist Erwin Ratz. Cerha became acquainted with them after being invited to IGNM concerts by Polnauer. His colleagues soon accepted him onto the society’s board, later electing him to position of vice president and, in 1968, president. The financially weak yet ambitious society was only able to put on large concerts “with the help of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation”.Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 51 For this reason, private concerts were held regularly, often at Friedrich Wildgans’s home on Waaggasse, not far from Belvedere Palace, usually for about 40 listeners. On 24 February 1951, this was the site of Cerha’s first musical portrait concert; as a young composer, he was presented alongside his friend Hans Kann.


“Invitation to a home concert”, IGNM Austria, 24 February 1951, AdZ, KRIT0007/12

The house on Waaggasse became a central venue for Neue Musik in Vienna. This withdrawal into the private sphere went hand in hand with the displacement of Modernism from public concert halls. For many years to come, Austrian cultural life was characterised by a tendency towards conservatism, a broadly applied law against “filth and trash”, and a great loss of diversity, much of which had been “imported” by the occupying powers after the end of the war. Thanks to the IGNM’s international network, its events nonetheless developed into a platform for many international personalities. This infrastructure also made it possible for Cerha to meet people with greatly varied backgrounds:

The acknowledgment of the IGNM was not limited to the regional scene, but was instead international. As a result, many representatives of Neue Musik found their way to Waaggasse when they came to concerts in Vienna. I am grateful to the IGNM for the countless meetings, some of which were very important to me, and include names still known today, for example Milhaud, Honegger, Dallapiccola, Peragallo, Messiaen, Rosbaud, Maderna, Adorno, Stuckenschmidt, even Stockhausen, Berio, and Boulez. It was often impossible to discern whether an event was part of the IGNM or purely private—and it made no difference to anyone anyway.

Friedrich Cerha

Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 44 f.

Networking Underground

The history of the IGNM during the post-war era illustrates the marginal position held by Neue Musik in Vienna’s public culture at the time. Not part of any established institution, the Art Club was established in hopes of creating a cross-disciplinary platform for modern art. The Club met in venues such as the studios of young sculptors and painters, or public places like Café Falstaff, Café Glory, and Café Raimund. However, it was a different place that would become extremely important for Cerha’s integration into the progressive art scene. Right below the Loos Bar, which still exists today, on Kärntner Durchgang, the Strohkoffer opened in the early 1950s, a space that several “young painters had lined with Neusiedler straw”.Cerha, comments on Strohkoffer, AdZ, 000T0082/2 It was the perfect place for “modern” artists, whether painters, sculptors, writers, or musicians. Introduced by his good friend and composer colleague Paul Kont, Cerha quickly found ties in the Strohkoffer. With his Strohkoffer friends Gerhard Rühm, Paul Kont, Hans Kann, and others he played “at poetry readings in the ‘scene’ behind the Volkstheater, at exhibition openings in the Secession” and “at other unconventional venues”.Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 50 The rustic vaulted basement became a centre of ongoing exploration. The musicians initially focussed on classical Modernism, but very soon also began presenting their own works. Kont even dedicated a piece to the bar. The Strohkoffer suite was first performed by Cerha on the violin and Kann on the piano at one of the many concerts in the area. Kont used his friend’s initials in the third movement, “Cerha’s Lullaby”. A few decades later, in 1979, Cerha orchestrated the movement for a concert with “die reihe”, paying a tongue-in-cheek homage to his friend.


Cerha, Strohkoffer, instrumentation and arrangement of a piece for violin and piano by Paul Kont, “Cerha’s Lullaby”, AdZ, 00000082/16

Cerha, Strohkoffer, instrumentation and arrangement of a piece for violin and piano by Paul Kont,title page, 1979, AdZ, 00000082/31

The Art Club’s interdisciplinary approach was not necessarily ahead of its time, but it was unique and reacted to the general mood. People interested in current music had few opportunities to experience it in their city, and so they turned to other disciplines. Though literature and painting involved relatively few practical difficulties in accessing materials and reproducing them, performing live music was a different story. Musicians such as Cerha did not keep to themselves, but instead ran in “avant-garde circles”,[1] Werner Grünzweig, “Sprachkomposition und Komposition von Sprache. Anmerkungen zu ästhetischen und terminologischen Fragen in der Musik um 1960”, in: Herrmann Danuser and Tobias Plebusch (eds.): Musik als Text: Bericht über den Internationalen Kongreß der Gesellschaft für Musikforschung. Band 1: Hauptreferate, Symposien, Kolloquien. Bärenreiter: Kassel, 1993, pp. 405–408, here p. 408 whose participants didn’t necessarily have musical backgrounds, in search of the new. At the time, these independent groups created intersectionality. A collective of writers, the Wiener Gruppe, not only strove to deconstruct language, but also incorporated performative and visual aspects. Viennese Actionism, on the other hand, arose out of a need to transcend the narrow boundaries of the pictorial space and to merge it with the real world. Ties between the various disciplines emerged almost automatically from the cultural scene of the time. Opposition to the dictates of the commercial market also entailed banishment from state-sponsored institutions. This meant that the renewal taking place remained underground.


“Art Club chamber concert”, programme page, 4 November 1950, AdZ, KRIT0007/9

International Meetings

The cultural state of post-war Vienna can be described in a nutshell as “behind the times”. The Art Club movement can be seen as an attempt to make headway on this clear deficit in the area of modern art. The Art Club movement can be seen as an attempt to make headway on this clear deficit in the area of modern art—and not simply as related to the art of the times, but indeed going back to that of past decades. The massive disruption caused by National Socialism had robbed the Austrian art scenes of all visibility. Busy “catching up”, Austrian composers missed out on the most recent developments, which were fomenting primarily in Darmstadt. The International Summer Courses for Neue Musik, launched in 1946, quickly brought together the up-and-coming composers of Europe, which initially did not include a single Austrian. In 1952, Paul Kont became one of the first. Karl Schiske, an open-minded composition teacher at the Vienna Music Academy, was the first to enable a large number of composers, including Cerha, to attend the Darmstadt courses. Scholarships made it possible, starting in 1955 “for an annual wave of Austrians”Lothar Knessl, “Die österreichische Kolonie. Prägende Erinnerungen nach Hause getragen”, in: Rudolf Stephan et al., (ed.): Von Kranichstein zur Gegenwart. 50 Jahre Darmstädter Ferienkurse, Stuttgart 1996, pp. 281–287, here p. 282 to attend. Kurt Schwertsik and Anestis Logothetis were among the first summer course attendees, followed by Cerha in 1956. Once again, simply gaining awareness was the top priority: Cerha was familiar with next to none of the great works of the dawning age of serialism. Pierre Boulez’s song cycle Le Marteau sans maître, based upon writings by René Char, was one of the rare exceptions. Cerha’s years in Darmstadt allowed him to discover music and meet people, and he returned in 1958 and 1959, making this a time overflowing with impressions: “There was sense of setting sail for new musical worlds, a feverishly tense atmosphere in which new possibilities for structuring and organising music were discussed in heated debate from breakfast until late in the night, that was an exciting experience for everyone involved.”Friedrich Cerha, “Viele Anregungen vom Rande. Stimmung des Aufbruchs in neue Welten”, in: Rudolf Stephan et al., (ed.): Von Kranichstein zur Gegenwart. 50 Jahre Darmstädter Ferienkurse, Stuttgart 1996, pp. 188–191, here p. 188
Now liberated from Austria’s deep-seated isolation, in Darmstadt Cerha was able to enrich his personal network with a great many international acquaintances. In addition to Karlheinz Stockhausen from Germany and Pierre Boulez from France, Cerha also met Luigi Nono, Sylvano Bussotti, and Franco Donatoni from Italy, Krzysztof Penderecki and Tadeusz Baird from Poland,See Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 33 John Cage and Stefan Wolpe from the US, Alois Hába from the Czech Republic, and Mátyás Seiber from Hungary. Cerha kept in close contact with several of them, including Cage and Boulez, after the summer courses, thanks in part to his work with the “die reihe” ensemble.


America, France, Italy: Three letters to Cerha from Boulez, Cage, and Nono, AdZ, BRIEF004

Cerha also met old friends again in Darmstadt, such as Italian composer and conductor Bruno Maderna, with whom he had “a friendship to the very end”.Friedrich Cerha, “Viele Anregungen vom Rande. Stimmung des Aufbruchs in neue Welten”, in: Rudolf Stephan et al., (ed.): Von Kranichstein zur Gegenwart. 50 Jahre Darmstädter Ferienkurse, Stuttgart 1996, pp. 188–191, here p. 190


I met him in 1954 and continued to meet in various places throughout Europe until his death, most often in Vienna, of course. Our times together were always very enlightening, and he had a sense of humour that made things quite amusing. We told each other about remarkable young composers and interesting pieces, exchanged our experiences with percussive techniques, critiqued organisational methods and notational madness, discussed archaeological issues (a topic we were both very interested in and which he had extensive knowledge of), or simply indulged in malicious gossip accompanied by copious amounts of wine.

Friedrich Cerha

Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 33 f.

Friedrich and Gertraud Cerha with Bruno Maderna, 1958, AdZ, FOTO0003/4

Finally, another person from his own nation showed up in Darmstadt: Ernst Krenek. He belonged to the older generation “of the Viennese School scene”,Lothar Knessl, “Die österreichische Kolonie. Prägende Erinnerungen nach Hause getragen”, in: Rudolf Stephan et al., (ed.): Von Kranichstein zur Gegenwart. 50 Jahre Darmstädter Ferienkurse, Stuttgart 1996, pp. 281–287, here p. 282 and he brought the music of Schönberg, Berg, and Webern to Darmstadt. Other individuals from the Austrian IGNM section, including Friedrich Wildgans, Hanns Jelinek, and Rudolf Kolisch, likewise adopted this goal of spreading awareness. For Cerha, Krenek “held a special position”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 34. Although he had already met him in Vienna in the early 1950s, the personal connection deepened in Darmstadt. Krenek was not just an outside observer, he participated in the discourse about the latest music—serialism. “Often very tough” discussions and Krenek’s “sharp intellect and rhetorical talent”Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Vienna 2001, p. 35 shaped Cerha’s time in Darmstadt:


We sat for ages over the scores for his works Kette, Kreis und Spiegel, Sestina, and Hexaeder, with him trying to convince me of the logic of his approach, which he really wanted to stick with. Of course, he was fundamentally aware that history doesn’t stand still, and he began to suspect that general developments would at some point also move away from serialism.

Friedrich Cerha

Schriften: ein Netzwerk, Wien 2001, S. 35

Beyond the summer courses, Cerha stayed in contact with Krenek until his death in 1991. Both strove to create opportunities for their works to be performed: As early as 1960, Krenek conducted the world premiere of Cerha’s Espressioni fondamentali, a central piece from his serial phase. And he supported his young colleague in other ways, evidenced, for example, by a general letter of recommendation dated January 1959.

Ernst Krenek, letter of recommendation for Friedrich Cerha, 14 January 1959, AdZ, BRIEF004/84

Another name must be mentioned among the ranks of colleagues who were also Cerha’s friends: György Ligeti, whom he also encountered regularly in Darmstadt. Ligeti had experienced a similarly repressive, but politically much tougher cultural policy in his home country. The communist Party of the Hungarian Worker, which ruled after the war, banned progressive art of any kind. It had all painting of this type removed from museums, removed books from libraries, and banned modern music from public life. Ligeti only found out about the existence of modern movements by tuning into static-filled Western radio broadcasts, listening in secret. In order to escape this oppression, Ligeti fled to Vienna after the 1956 Hungarian uprising, meeting Cerha for the first time at the Gmoa-Keller behind the Wiener Konzerthaus.Cerha, “Meine Beziehung zu György Ligeti”, 27 September 2006, AdZ, SCHR0031/33 Ligeti then moved on to Cologne. The excellent infrastructure available there was beneficial to his development, and he soon became a leading international figure. A community comparable to that in Cologne had to be established and then built up in Austria. The first movement towards this began in 1958: Cerha and Schwertsik implemented their plan to found an ensemble for contemporary music, with Ligeti christening it “die reihe”. The friendship between the two composers flourished for decades, based upon shared compositional interests and fruitful musical undertakings. While the ways that Cerha and Ligeti thought and created music were very similar during the early 1960s, their compositional paths later developed in different directions, only to intersect once again—for example, in a shared exploration of non-European musical cultures. Lively communication accompanied each development, and a cherished friendship emerged in which human and artistic closeness were always in harmony—a strong thread in the network of Cerha’s connections.


Cerha and Ligeti: Writings, each for the 70th birthday of the other