Friedrich Cerha

Friedrich and Gertraud Cerha in conversation with Ernst Löschner

On February 17, 2006, Dr. Friedrich Cerha celebrated his 80th birthday, his wife Gertraud will also turn 80 in two years. They have been married since 1952. Cerha is known to a large international audience as composer and conductor and co-founder of the ensemble die reihe for New Music. He achieved world fame through his "construction" of a playable version of the 3rd act of Alban Berg's opera Lulu, and also through his own music-theatre works. In this development, Gertraud Cerha was and is not only the companion. She has been involved in a major way in the history of die reihe, has taught - like her husband - at the Vienna Music Academy (Musikhochschule) and has world-premiered, as harpsichord-soloist, performances of several of his works (among them the relazioni fragili which have been dedicated to her). Beyond that she is known to an interested audience and to concert goers through her lectures and work introductions to the music of the 20th century; each of her lectures on Arnold Schönberg, Anton Webern, Charles Ives, Pierre Boulez or György Ligeti and many others, were of incomparable brilliance in contents and rhetorics.

The world premiere performance of Cerha's clarinet quintet was the occasion for a series of conversations, especially in the summer residence of the Cerha's in Maria Langegg (in the Danube valley near Melk) during the period June - September 2005, later on (most recently in March 2006) in Vienna. These Langegg impressions offered also an opportunity to explore the cross relations between Cerha's music to the natural sciences, to the arts, literature and architecture, and also to his own biography.

Ernst Löschner: Professor Cerha: The overwhelming majority of your works, among them such important compositions as Spiegel, Netzwerk or the opera Baal, have been created in the over 50 years of your marriage. Apart from yourself, there is hardly anyone who knows your oeuvre better than your wife. Was she your dialogue partner also during the genesis period of these works? Has she had influence on your compositions?

Gertraud Cerha: No, I have had absolutely no influence! He went his path as composer, generally and totally, in his own way where no one could have influenced him.

Friedrich Cerha: The source of all music is inspiration and with my music this is of course also the case. I have basic thoughts and ideas which keep moving me - they even chase me - and they can also be found in my music, again and again, in very different styles and expressions. There are tensions which emerge during the actual composing - each of them emanate from an unsolved situation in which one searches for a satisfying solution. Composing is often also a very exciting activity, from the basic problem positioning all the way to the determination of each detail. In the end there are the exclusively own answers to one's own questions. The conversations with my wife have, however, enriched me in some situations in a way which has become clear to me only later - e.g. prior to the last phase of the composition of Baal ...

GC: Is this really true? I just realise now that I hear this for the first time since over 30 years.

Even when you say, Mr. Cerha, that your music produces "exclusively own" answers, there were for you big musical role models and influences from the arts and sciences, as this has been documented in the Profil Friedrich Cerha at the occasion of the Salzburg Festival 1996.

FC: Of course; I would naturally not wish to deny these influences, or the fascination which has emanated from composers like Satie, Varèse or Webern. It is quite the contrary, for example, my double concerto for violin, cello and orchestra (1975/76) contains e.g. the dedication "to Erik Satie on the 50th anniversary of his death and to me on my 50th birthday".

GC: This is a piece in which you have tried, after you have left the puristic soundworld of Spiegel and a part of your Exercises, to connect two language idioms which were extremely far apart from each other: one comes from Satie, the other could be derived from the Vienna School; and there is still another one from an Asian "Third World"-country in the second movement where the blending of differences becomes noticeable audible.

FC: Schönberg and Alban Berg were of course, apart from Webern, also of great significance for me; more generally also the contact with the „survivers" from the Vienna School: with Ernst Krenek, Hans Erich Apostel, Hanns Jelinek, Josef Polnauer. Especially Polnauer - he was a pupil of Schönberg and "master of studies" in the Society for Private Musical Performances - for he has given me valuable analytical and interpretational advice. I am also indebted to the collaboration with my colleagues Paul Kont, Gerhard Rühm and Hans Kann. Together we searched for an access to the new literature and the arts: They could deal much earlier than we as musicians with the art extremes prior to WWII, and with the ideas of an international avantgarde. Performances of compositions for large orchestra were rare, and so were records and music scores. We have played at poetry readings and eventually also in the famous Strohkoffer, the meeting place of the "Art-Club" beneath the Loos-Bar. An original feature which we had developed then in music was a sort of minimalism: a reduction to a few basic prerequisites. A comparison to the international minimal art-movements - which were unknown to us - is however only possible in their basic tendency. It was a reaction to the academism in all prevailing styles, the neo-classic one and also the one of the Schönberg-school.

GC: The occupation with the music of Josef Matthias Hauer which you and Rühm had engaged in at that time, in particular his Wandlungen ("Metamorphosis") in a reduced form, had also played a role. Several songs from Ein Buch von der Minne which you have dedicated to me show however, that "development" has always played a role with you - also in the context of very concise, clear basic conditions - and that it could never be totally excluded.

FC: Yes, this is apparently one of the basic traits in my music which had always been there, already at the time before I really knew the works of the Vienna School. It is also visible in the Spiegel in which I have reached a sound world which is totally free of all traditional formulations.

GC: This idea of sound-development differentiates the Spiegel also from more static compositions which have originated at the same time, like the Atmosphères by Ligeti.

In that, there was an interesting parallel development between Friedrich Cerha in Vienna and György Ligeti in Cologne: both of you have made original contributions to the so-called Klangflächenkomposition, the composition of sound in planes, where the colour of sound has also played an important role. There is a piece by Schönberg (op. 16, no. 3) in which he has addressed directly the theme "colour" in music. Which roles are being played by colour, space and sound in your compositions?

FC: Colour, sound and space play a special role precisely in pieces like Mouvements, Fasce and Spiegel (1959-1961). I have, however, never introduced colour solely because of the sound attraction. I have rather traced in these pieces the basic phenomena of musical shaping and have thereby come closer, unconsciously, to several ideas of Varèse in the 1920ies, e.g. his ideas regarding the movement of sound-masses in space. The Austrian architect Bernhard Leitner who had lived in New York at that time was very interested in this music; conversely, I have studied his sound-space-concept. Above all I have been greatly impressed by the works of my friend, the sculptor Karl Prantl, whose starting point are almost archaic simple basic forms which are eventually transformed in wonderfully rich tensions at the surface. When I built our chapel in Maria Langegg I went with him to buy the tools before I planed the altar stone, and asked for his technical advice. (Footnote by Ernst Löschner: Prof. Cerha has built with his own hands, stone by stone, inspired by the stone structures in the mountains of Crete, a remarkable building which renders witness, in the same way as his artistic oeuvre, to the diversity and spirituality of his personality.) With my Monumentum I have, in 1988, created for him a "monument" in my own way.

Both of you have mentioned the Spiegel before which were composed in 1960/61. Mr. Cerha, you have dealt with the natural science studies of Norbert Wiener already in the 1950ies, with his thinking in systems. He speaks of systems and subsystems in which "irritations" occur ...

FC: Yes, with Fasce I have started to regard a music peace as such a system with different layers of elements. They influence, oppose, irritate or extinguish each other: these are processes which the controlling system tries to harmonize in order to create a balance again. This thinking provides for development: the interaction of different processes in a parallel, joint, or opposing fashion; they have different durations and can impact on the whole system. This has provoked my fantasy and - as I hope - has brought about a new form of complexity, and new richness regarding tools and content. They have reached a maximum for me in the seven Spiegel.

GC: It can be shown that my husband has tried in the end, again and again, to create a multilayer net of relations in his compositions. Another of his most important works, namely Netzwerk (network) carries - characteristically - this title. The path towards this goal has intensified increasingly and has certainly become one of the most essential traits in his composition work.

FC: A multitude of relations has indeed, since 1960, become increasingly important to me. Complexity does not exist in a variety of material. In Exercises (1962-67) - they were the basis of Netzwerk - I have however consciously left the puristic sound world of the first movement of this work which was still connected to the Spiegel; I have started to include heterogenic elements in my system thinking. At that time an observation from the field of botany has also played a role for me: genetically-related plants develop very different forms, depending on their environment, whereas structurally strongly different plants move closer to each other in their appearance under the same ecological conditions.

Which sociological relevance could we derive from that? You have once said, Mr. Cerha, that "breakage and alienation of the familiar are one of the important character traits of the art in the 1920's". Would you say, much like Shiva in Hinduism, that destruction is necessary in order to establish a new and better order?

FC: No. In the late 1960ies I have, more or less, pursued a contrary way to the emphasis of „breakage and alienation". I have purposely searched for breakage lines and have registered them in the true sense of the word; it was then my intent, however, to realign them in a complex order which appears organic in the end. For me this is indeed relevant also for our society.

GC: In 20th century art the pointing to breakage, also to „non-healing"- incidentally in many different forms - has occurred massively. This is not surprising considering the world where it comes from. And ours has, in global terms, not become any simpler or for that matter, any better. On the one hand, one speaks of a „clash of cultures" and sees the dramatic encounter of the Islamic-Arabic and the Western world also at the political arena. And one sees, on the other hand, efforts to solve global problems jointly; but there is at the same time the will to uncover the de-facto-basis of these endeavours and to determine which dangers they cannot solve or, rather, which they even facilitate. Hence, critical determination and the wish to overcome conflicts confront each other from extreme positions. The philosopher Odo Marquard has called it a "Wacht am Nein" ("Alertness to the No"), when certain intellectual circles demand to this day that art should insist puritanically on criticism of the status quo. There are, of course, still all good reasons to remain alert and to react accordingly. But I really do not understand that the strict negation of artistic means to promote identification and to register the recognisable diversity in our world should be more relevant than the attempts to really recognise them and to overcome them in a convincing manner.

How important is harmony to you both?

FC: It should not be "make belief harmony", neither in the personal sphere nor in art. In my music I have seriously dealt with individual linguistic idioms - traditionally European ones and from outside Europe. Only afterwards I have tested their mutual reaction and have attempted to put them into a consensual context.

GC: The so called "world-music" does not do that.

FC: As a human being and as an artist I have ideas and desires which somehow relate to each other. But I have no illusions and certainly none for all of mankind. Nevertheless, social structures have occupied me especially in my music theatre works. The Spiegel-cycle - in which I have also developed a scenic concept - "mirrors" for me behaviouristic modes of the mass "human being" as seen from a big distance. Netzwerk is a sort of world theatre in which the perspectives change between general and individual behaviour, enlarged like under a microscope, and influence each other. In Baal there is an extremely vital individual who stands provokingly in the centre of everything that happens, seeking his fortunes without regard to society - and perishes. This looks very much like planning and a concept, but it has simply grown like that. My wife has rightly seen in Baal also "an image with anachronistic characteristics of the desperate self assertion of the individual in a generally menacing world".

GC: Also in literature one spoke increasingly, since the 60ies, of "Ich- und Sprachfindung" (self and speech finding). It was felt that the language of a Peter Handke or a Thomas Bernhard - despite all individuality - was more similar to traditional speech forms than the breaking-up and new-order-experiments of Dada and, via "concrete poetry", also those of our friends, e.g. Gerhard Rühm in Vienna.

FC: Handke or Bernhard, however, have never moved into this direction; also with me - not even in my serial period - there has never really been a total splitting up of the material. I have, incidentally, taken the texts for my Requiem für Hollensteiner (1983) from Thomas Bernhard's Gehen and, from his novel Holzfällen, for Bevor es zu spät ist (1988/97). A parallel development in our contacts and friendships continued of course with Rühm, Achleitner, Jandl and Kein.

Your Keintate I and II, based on Viennese texts by Ernst Kein, have only been composed in the 80ies. "Country music" - both indigenous and foreign - plays clearly a role in your oeuvre at that time. In this context you are being credited with an "ironic distance" concerning the Austrian folk music. Ligeti has called you, in connection with the Keintate, even a sort of "Strawinsky from Hernals or Ottakring", not without emphasizing your absolute individuality immediately thereafter.

FC: The "Distanz"-remark is appropriate regarding the Austrian folk music. I have in fact accepted models for the Keintaten and also for Eine Art Chansons; thereafter I have twisted and turned them, hence "foreignising" them. I have thus arrived frequently at an ironic distance which radiates behind the models. A totally different preoccupation has incidentally lead to my concrete dealings with Austrian folk music which I carry inside me since my childhood days: Since the late 1970's I have been extensively preoccupied with folklore from outside Europe - with music from Africa, New Guinea and Marocco. The first string quartet (1989) carries accordingly the title maqam which points to a specific Arabian form of a continuous model variation. Impulses from the music of the Papuas in New Guinea have on the other hand been introduced into the second string quartet, and characteristics from outside Europe can also be traced in the Langegger Nachtmusik III (1991).

How do you transform such impulses in your composing?

FC: First I concentrate my path into the newly discovered direction, whereby these pieces are of course grounded also on the basis of my previous experience. Later on this context expands further on in other works such as Quellen, the Phantasiestück in C.‘s Manier or in Langegger Nachtmusik.

Some of your works have been produced over a longer period. Are you a perfectionist who discards again and again the composition drafts before the final version has been reached?

FC: You have told me about Gustav Klimt that he loved to work in the mornings. Morning hours are also for me the most productive time. Ideas originate often in a certain way before the real awakening; then order moves into the ideas. "Composing" does not necessarily mean, in this context, that they have to be put down on paper immediately. Most of the time my images and ideas have become so concrete that I can write them down also later on, or even the next day without any loss; there is in fact no loss in substance, quite the contrary: they develop themselves further.

GC: When you skim through his manuscripts you will find sketches but hardly corrections in the final transcript of the scores.

FC: This does not mean though that there are no revisions. Spiegel IV is, however, the only work which I have totally redesigned after its premiere performance. Generally I do not belong to those artists who tinker again and again with their pieces in order to "improve" them. I rather prefer to introduce into a new work the possibilities which I have become conscious of in my previous work.

Now to your own biography: You were drafted into the „Wehrmacht" as a 17 year old and have later on deserted twice. In 1945 you worked as guardian of a mountain hut in the Karwendel and as mountain guide in the Oetztaler Alps. You have experienced with your own body the extremes of war/destruction and nature/beauty. Which reflections have these extremes found in the music of Friedrich Cerha?

FC: Already as a child I was in opposition to the controlling system, the Nazi-regime. I bit the hand of a SA-officer when he removed my Jewish friend from school. At 17 I was then helper in the Air Force. With my anti-Nazi-friends we purposely engaged in sabotage work. We positioned the directional devices in such a way that the Nazis taking aim with these devices could not hit the foreign aircraft so that they could not gun them down. We wanted to help shorten the war, not to contribute to its prolongation, which was a very difficult decision for a 17 year old because the bombs have indeed hit our home town and could have hit our relatives. The Gräuel (atrocities) of the war have followed me for many years after its end and I think of dreams which connect me to the ideas towards the Spiegel and especially to the original version of Exercises. On the other hand there is, especially in the Spiegel, for instance in No. 3, a music of a freely flowing beauty. Without my nature experiences in the mountains, and also later on at sea, I would probably not have discovered it.

What is actually the origin of your family?

FC: From my father's side probably from Turkey. There is in Istanbul still today a school of the Koran, a mosque and a hospital, all of which carry my name, and in the Austrian Turkish history I have found a vizier in the 16th century who did not succeed to conquer Ofen (today a part of Budapest). He was however not decapitated over it! The name is certainly not Czech (for this reason I wish that it is pronounced with a TS and not with a TSH); a Czech line called itself Crha. As a fact, my family tree can be traced back to the southern boarder of Siebenbürgen (Romania). Thereafter the Cerha's migrated via Budapest and Györ to Gänserndorf in Lower Austria. I am the first one who was born in Vienna.

You are cosmopolitan, but with a special enthusiasm you have told me about Turkey. Does this explain your great interest for the Turkish architect Sinan?

FC: My interest for architecture, among the other arts, is particularly strong. For me, Mimar Sinan belongs in this field to the greatest masters who have ever lived. I admire the clarity of his forms, and I have in his rooms also thought of possible repercussions of sound and space. A special favourite of mine is the Mihrimah-Mosque in Istanbul.

In conclusion I would like to ask you both: which is the position of contemporary music in Austria today? In the early 60ies (after die reihe had already booked its first successes) a senior official in the relevant Ministry had made the legendary comment, when he was approached for support for further performances: "Each hot dog stand could come with a similar request." A few years later, when even he became aware of the fact that you were no "hot dog stand", he then added: "But Cerha, YOU are talented, - why don't you go to another country?"
Since the "Ferienkurse in Darmstadt", starting in the mid 50ies, there was an internationalisation of the serial style in New Music. What were the lasting developments since then in musical life and what is Austria's position by international comparison?

GC: The Wiener Konzerthaus started immediately after the war to present music of the 20th century. It has restricted itself in essence to the Neoclassic and was financially disadvantaged in comparison to the more traditional institutions (Musikverein and Staatsoper). The "avant-garde" of interested artists - painters, poets, but especially musicians - was restricted to small scale performances which in effect took place in the "underground". die reihe succeeded in 1959, with the assistance of Jeunesse Musicale, the IGNM and of the Konzerthaus, to create a permanent forum for high quality performances of New Music...

FC: ... whereby we have from the beginning aimed at a meaningful combination between modern classics and the avant-garde developments. To this day I consider this an important decision. In the former centres of New Music like Cologne, Hamburg or Stuttgart there has been a widening gap between those interested in the totally new and the general public which is continuously glued totally to tradition. By contrast, it has been possible in Vienna to forge connections, i.e. to broaden the general interest in new developments. The new ensembles which have been formed (e.g. Kontrapunkte, Ensemble des 20. Jahrhunderts and Klangforum) have always attempted initially to promote the slightly unfocused.

GC: Our cycle Wege in unsere Zeit (Paths into our Time, 1978-1983) with Hans Landesmann in the Konzerthaus has provided for a further important impulse, and then of course the festival Wien modern which has been initiated in 1988 by Claudio Abbado. The organisers have attempted in general to include newer works in all their subscription programs. In 1968 the then General Secretary of the Konzerthaus had still claimed publicly, despite our already good international reputation, that there are in Vienna neither important composers nor musicians who could play New Music. This had caused Ligeti, Cerha, Schwertsik and die reihe to turn away from this institution temporarily. Today, however, almost all producers are cooperating in a positive direction. Boulez has then emphasised repeatedly, also in the media, that Vienna has become one of the best places for the performance of modern music.

FC: At present we have, however, renewed our call to provide more space to modern classics in programs in order to call again attention to the connections between tradition and new music.

Regarding the premiere performance of your clarinet quintet, Mr. Cerha: I have noticed two aspects in particular in relation to the genesis history of the famous clarinet quintets by Mozart and Brahms. First: Mozart and Brahms and you also have written these quintets in the late phase of their lives, thus at the time of maturity - which has ended so abruptly and early with Mozart. Second: Mozart (for Anton Stadler) and Brahms (for Richard Mühlfeld) have written their quintets for inspired clarinettists of their time. You have written your quintet for Paul Meyer.

FC: Let me begin with your second observation: I have met Paul Meyer at the occasion of the premiere performance of my Five Pieces for Clarinet, Violoncello and Piano (2000) at the Vienna Konzerthaus and was exceptionally impressed by his artistry. When you had made the proposal on behalf of BNP Paribas in the summer of 2004 that I compose a quartet for the Quatuor Ysaÿe - which I highly value - I reminded myself of the wonderful Paul Meyer and have therefore made to you the counterproposal of a clarinet quintet.

And I was, naturally, trilled since this has additionally reinforced our idea of a cultural bridge between Austria and France.

FC: After the success of the Five Pieces, which incidentally have become my most frequently performed composition, I already had the idea for some time to compose a further piece in which the clarinet is juxtaposed by a small ensemble. As with Mozart (KV 581) or Brahms (op. 115) this impulse came very late in my life. This is connected, on the one hand, with my current general interest regarding the confrontation of a particular instrumental colour with a homogenous sound body; on the other hand, it has something to do with the fact that I, like Mozart, have a special liking for the clarinet. One has often attributed lyric qualities to my music which are a characteristic feature of this instrument. Perhaps there is a stronger approach or a stronger longing for this with a maturing human being.


Ernst Löschner is Head of Territory, Austria, of BNP Paribas S.A. and member of the Wiener Konzerthaus.

The German text of this dialogue was part of the Programme Notes for Prof. Cerha's "80th Birthday Concert" at the Konzerthaus on February 17, 2006. The concert featured Cerha's Eine Art Chansons and the Keintate I with Karl Heinz Gruber as solist, accompanied by die reihe with Friedrich Cerha conducting.

Translation by Ernst Löschner, reviewed by Gregorio Lubroth