A tribute to Friedrich Cerha, who has died at the age of 96
Tuesday, February 14, 2023
Liam Cagney reflects on Friedrich Cerha’s life, influences and work
The composer, conductor, teacher and musicologist Friedrich Cerha has died at the age of 96. Liam Cagney wrote the following overview of Cerha's life and music for Gramophone in February 2016, and it serves as a perfect introduction to Cerha's sound world...
You could say it reads like the plot of a novel. A young Austrian musician, unwillingly conscripted into the Wehrmacht, deserts; he is caught; later, having deserted for a second time, he makes his way to the Tyrol, where he sees out the war living in a hut and working as a mountain guide before eventually returning to Vienna. This is no fiction, though: it’s the wartime experience of Friedrich Cerha. In later years Cerha recalled the ‘limitless joy of freedom’ he had felt in the Tyrol, removed from the atrocities he had witnessed in combat. It was only much later, he says, that he saw how these traumatic experiences had found subconscious expression in Spiegel for orchestra, one of the 20th century’s masterpieces.
Cerha’s impact on music has been considerable. As well as composing, he has done important work as a conductor (of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw amongst others), teacher (his students include Georg Friedrich Haas), musicologist (creating a complete edition of Berg’s Lulu) and administrator (Founding Director, in 1958, of the new music ensemble, die reihe). Despite this, Cerha is a private man who, says Austrian critic Lothar Knessl, prefers the quiet of home to the bustle of society. That home is Maria-Langegg by the Danube, where, as well as composing, he grows cacti, mushrooms and various flora, and is a skilled stonemason (he designed and built a church there). Cerha remains, however, a Viennese composer through and through.
Born in Vienna in 1926, Cerha was inspired in adolescence by hearing Wagner’s Rienzi Overture and Strauss’s Salome, after which he studied violin and composition at the Vienna Academy. In the post-war years, despite the Second Viennese School being a recent memory, the new music scene in the city was non-existent and performances of Webern et al rare.
Having got a start with the Austrian branch of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), Cerha established himself with works such as the neo-serial Relazioni fragil (1957-58) for harpsichord and chamber orchestra (premiered with Cerha’s wife Traude as soloist), which Ligeti called ‘Austria’s most important contribution to the music of the 1950s’. But it was the works from the end of that decade that saw Cerha’s breakthrough: the three Mouvements (1959-60) for chamber orchestra and Fasce (1959-74) for orchestra, Cerha’s first sound-mass compositions. Having at Darmstadt become acquainted with John Cage’s graphic notation, Cerha used similar notation in Fasce to represent events occurring across the orchestra – slow glissandi, rippling noises and group trajectories, the compositional onus moving away from pitches towards groups of sounds.
This approach reached its apex in Spiegel (1959-61) for orchestra, a cycle of seven works. Motivic-developmental and neo-serial approaches are here abandoned in favour of sound states undergoing processes of slow transformation, interspersed with unexpected, ‘non-linear’ events. As Cerha notes, this is music without ‘melody, harmony and rhythm in the traditional sense’. A key influence, he says, was Norbert Wiener’s theory of cybernetics: ‘I began to regard a piece of music as just such a system with various elements influencing, hindering, disturbing and deactivating each other: processes for which the overarching system attempts to compensate in order to re-establish equilibrium.’ If this sounds formalistic, in reality it is highly dramatic, and in Spiegel’s exhilarating freedom of sound – at times terrifying but always engaging – there are hints of the Alpine Tyrol and of late-Romantic tone-poems. Of Spiegel III, for example – a drifting cluster of brass and winds – Cerha comments: ‘Without my nature experiences in the mountains, and also later on at sea, I would probably not have discovered it,’ adding that he regards it as a ‘Mediterranean “sea piece”’.
Comparisons with Ligeti’s orchestral music come readily. Yet Ligeti said that when he and Cerha showed each other their respective scores for Spiegel and Apparitions, each was surprised to discover that, unbeknown to the other, he had been composing in a similar style. The first part of Spiegel to be performed in Cerha’s native country was Spiegel IV in 1971 in Graz, 10 years after the cycle’s composition; this was followed by the full cycle in Graz the following year. Since then, its reputation has grown: Brian Ferneyhough, for example, calls it a ‘standard-setting piece of orchestral music’ and Helmut Lachenmann a ‘prophetic’ work – the latter hard to deny, given Spiegel’s similarities to the spectral music of Tristan Murail and his French colleagues.
After this Cerha drew back, developing his musical style and engaging in more self-effacing activity, such as focusing on his new-music ensemble. If in the 1950s new music was seldom heard in Austria, die reihe changed that. A key problem had been that performances of new music were sporadic; die reihe’s name (which Ligeti came up with, meaning ‘The Row’ or ‘The Series’) was accordingly meant to signify not Schoenberg’s 12-tone method but rather a regular presence by which the listening public would be able to become familiar with new music. The first concert by die reihe saw Webern programmed alongside Austrian premieres of Pousseur and Boulez. In the following decade the ensemble had its share of scandals – the Austrian premiere of Cage’s Piano Concerto, with David Tudor as soloist, caused uproar – and notable commissions, such as Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto (1969-70). Cerha continued with die reihe until the 1980s, and the ensemble, which still performs, set a template for the Austrian chamber orchestra Klangforum Wien.
In 1962, Universal Edition commissioned Cerha to create a performable version of the incomplete Third Act of Berg’s Lulu. The project took him more than a decade. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this period also saw Cerha shift towards both a more orthodox, Bergian post-tonal style (for instance, in the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, 1976) and the composition of operas and music theatre, including Baal, Netzwerk, Rattenfänger and Der Riese vom Steinfeld.
Always interested in drama, Cerha had initially wanted Spiegel to be a ‘world theatre’ featuring actors and scenography. This idea was subsequently realised in the Exercises cycle (1962-67) for baritone, speakers and chamber orchestra and in Netzwerk (1981) for singers, speakers, actors and orchestra. Cerha’s first opera Baal (1974-80) is more traditional. Based on the eponymous play by Bertold Brecht, which probes the tension between the individualism of the artist and the claims of society, critics naturally saw a kinship with Berg’s outsider protagonists; however, Baal deserves to be regarded on its own terms. Musically, it mostly abandons Cerha’s sound-mass style in favour of a more orthodox, post-tonal discourse; though closer listening shows a certain consistency with the process logic of Spiegel in the way Baal incorporates different styles via a ‘network’ form.
The 1981 premieres of Baal and Netzwerk saw Cerha’s ‘arrival’ in Austria’s cultural establishment, a status recognised with the award of the State Prize in 1986. In recent years, as well as the above-mentioned operas, Cerha has often composed in traditional genres: the Requiem für Hollensteiner (1983, with a text based on Thomas Bernhard’s Gehen), the String Quartets 1 (1989), 2 (1989-90) and 3 (1991-92, all recorded by the Arditti Quartet), concertos for violin (1993), cello (1989/97), saxophone (2003-4), and percussion (2007-8), and numerous chamber works.
Cerha still remains ill-served on CD, however, and several of his key works have never been widely released other than on an out-of-print 12-CD set released on the Austrian Radio’s Zeitton label. Cerha’s 90th birthday year should hopefully see this rectified, giving listeners the chance to fully appreciate this venerable Viennese composer’s musical achievements.