Friedrich Cerha, 1926-2023

Friedrich Cerha died on the morning of February 14, just a few days before his 97th birthday. We mourn the loss of a great artist, one of the most important composers of our time and an ever-attentive, critical contemporary.

We mourn the great Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha, who died yesterday, 14/02/2023, in his hometown Vienna, three days before his 97th birthday.

Cerha was creatively active until shortly before his death, primarily as a composer but also as a visual artist. He left behind an extensive oeuvre that includes large-scale music theatre works as well as orchestral, solo and chamber music compositions for highly diverse instrumentations – along with over 1000 paintings, which in most part have never been shown in public.

His most successful work was probably his first opera Baal, based on Brecht’s drama, commissioned by the Salzburg Festival and the Vienna State Opera. Following the premiere in 1981, Otto Schenk's production was shown at many German theatres. Since then, Cerha's urgent wish to experience it live again was not fulfilled.

By contrast, he celebrated a late, completely unexpected success with his utopian work Spiegel, composed in 1960. The full-length orchestral work for large orchestra was not premiered until 1979 and now enjoys cult status.

When the CD was released, Hans Zender summed up his view of his colleague's oeuvre as follows: "When today, looking back over 50 years, one encounters the Spiegel pieces by the young Cerha, one is uncertain just what one should admire more: the mastery in the handling of means that were new at the time, the appearance of a clearly recognizable individuality within a texture more prone to negating the individual, or the determination of the composer, later on, to depart from the – narrow – basis of the recognizable compositional brand that he had hit upon, and to do so just as soon as possible. To leave it for a stylistic opening to the full breadth and freedom of the many facets of the modern era, to a universal stance – which also quite naturally included dealing with historical styles – of a great musician whose individuality could not be expressed in terms of the then-current formulas of the compositional field. In the very diversity of his stylistic palette, Cerha’s oeuvre embodies in a unique way the spirit of a–not doctrinaire, but rather lively – modernism that selects and uses available means freely and in often-new ways."

Aside from being a great composer, Cerha has also decisively shaped the Austrian musical life of his time as a conductor, composition teacher and critical contemporary. In 1958, together with Kurt Schwertsik and his wife Gertraud, he founded the ensemble "die reihe". As one of the first international soloist ensembles, they built up a large audience at the Vienna Konzerthaus and performed throughout Europe as Austrian ambassadors of modernism.

During my time as General Secretary of the Wiener Konzerthaus in the first half of the 1990s, the memory of this concert series at the Mozartsaal was still very much alive. I had already come to know and appreciate Cerha during several projects with the Ensemble Modern. So, I was all the more pleased about the close collaboration that began shortly after the founding of our music management in Berlin in 2004. It was one of the most fruitful phases of Cerhas' life. During this time, he wrote a significant number of larger and smaller masterpieces for orchestra, most of which he put together in cycles with titles like Moments, Instants, Diary or Chamber Music for Orchestra. His percussion concerto, which also dates to this period, is already considered an important repertoire work.

Cerha leaves us a great treasure that will occupy us for the rest of our lives.

Karsten Witt

    © Photo Manu Theobald