Friedrich Cerha

Friedrich Cerha biography

1926 – Born in Vienna on 17 February.

1933 – Violin instruction with Anton Pejhovsky.

1935 – First attempts at composition.

1936 – Attends the Realgymnasium in Vienna's 17th district.

1939 – Instruction in counterpoint and harmony.

1943 – Drafted as Luftwaffe support personnel and sent to Achau near Vienna.

1944 – Entrance into the German military; training at an officers' academy in Denmark.

1945 – Desertion during a transport to Germany; contact to the Danish and German resistance efforts; travel by foot to Tirol. Works there as cabin keeper and mountain guide. Return to Vienna in November.

1946 – Student at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in Vienna: Violin (with Gottfried Feist and Vasa Prihoda), composition (with Alfred Uhl), music education; at the same time at the University of Vienna: German studies, musicology, and philosophy. In the following years, contact with young composers (including Paul Kont), painters and poets, who later joined together to form the Art-Club and became part of the Austrian section of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM). Analysis of works of the Viennese School with Josef Polnauer. Extensive work as a concert violinist.

1950 – Awarded the degree of Dr. phil. Start of work as music educator at Vienna Mittelschulen. In the years 1960-65, work in developing and leading school orchestras. Further numerous concerts as violinist.

195658 Attends the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music. Also attends the courses of Rudolf Kolisch and Eduard
Steuermann as a violinist, two further experts on the musical ideals of the Schönberg school. First compositions after studying the ideas of serialism (including Formation et solution, premièred in Darmstadt in 1958, Relazioni fragili, premiéred in Vienna in 1960).

1957 – Rome stipend. Composition of Espressioni fondamentali for orchestra (premièred in Berlin in 1960).

1958 – Founding of the ensemble „die reihe" with Kurt Schwertsik to create a permanent forum for new music in Vienna; pioneering efforts in the presentation of new works, but also of the music of classical modernism, especially of the Viennese school. Performance of works of the Viennese school on violin at the World's Fair in Brussels.

1959 – First instruction post at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in Vienna. First concerts of "die reihe". Composition of Mouvements and Fasce.

1960 – Founding of the ensemble "Camerata Frescobaldiana" for Italian music of the 17th century, in the years following concerts using period instruments. Editions of early music. Composition of the Spiegel für großes Orchester und Tonband (1960/61) and draft of the related musical theatre concept (continues work on it until 1971).

1961 – First international success as composer and conductor with Relazioni fragili at the ISCM festival in Vienna. Start of increased activity as a conductor (ensemble, orchestra, opera) at leading institutions in the promotion of contemporary music, and at leading festivals and opera houses.

1962 – Starts study of the third act of Alban Berg's opera Lulu (continues work on it until 1978). First extensive tour with "die reihe" (including Relazioni fragili) throughout Germany and to Paris.

196267 – Composition of Exercises (première in Vienna in 1968).

1963 – Purchase of residence in Maria Langegg.
First Cerha Portrait at the Wiener Festwochen.

1967 – Extensive visual artwork in Maria Langegg (drawings, watercolors since the 1950s); later construction of a stone chapel and increased work on stone sculpture.

196875 – President of the Austrian section of the ISCM.

1969 – Named associate professor at the Conservatory of Music in Vienna.

1970 – Tour of the ensemble „die reihe" throughout Canada and the USA. Première of Langegger Nachtmusik I at the Berliner Festwochen.

1970/71 – Stipend from the DAAD in Berlin.

1971 – Funding prize of the National Ministry of Education and Art.

1972 – Première of the entire Spiegel cycle at the ISCM festival/steirische herbst festival - musikprotokoll in Graz.

1973 – Première of Curriculum (commission of the Koussevitzky Foundation) in New York.

1974 – Commission by the National Ministry of Education and Art for composition of the opera Baal. Composed 1974-1980.
Prize of the City of Vienna.

1976 – Named full professor at the Conservatory of Music in Vienna, leads a class for „composition, notation and interpretation of contemporary music" until 1988. Première of his Concerto for Violin in Vienna.

1978 – Establishment and direction of the concert series „Wege in unsere Zeit" at the Vienna Konzerthaus, to show important developments in the music of our century through ensemble and orchestral concerts (until 1983).

1979 – Première of the three-act version of Alban Berg's opera Lulu in Paris.
Performances of the entire Spiegel cycle at the Venice Biennale.

1981 – Première of the musical theatre piece Netzwerk at the Wiener Festwochen; première of the opera Baal based on Bertold Brecht at the Salzburg Festspiele and later performances at the Vienna State Opera.

1982 – Première of the Baal Gesänge with Theo Adam at the North German Radio in Hamburg; performances of Baal at the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin.

1983 – Composition of the Requiem für Hollensteiner based on texts by Thomas Bernhard (première NDR Hamburg 1984). Première of the 1. Keintate on Viennese Pieces by Ernst Kein in Vienna.

1984 – Start of work on the opera Der Rattenfänger based on Carl Zuckmayer (commissioned by the steirische herbst festival).

1986 – Great Austrian State Prize (donated by Cerha for performances of works by young composers); Golden Medal of Honour of the State of Steiermark, City of Vienna Medal of Honour in Gold. Exhibit at the Austrian National Library: the childhood of a composer in Vienna.

1987 – Première of Der Rattenfänger at the steirische herbst festival at the Graz Opera and the Vienna State Opera.

1988 – Honorary member of the Society of the Vienna Konzerthaus. After leaving the conservatory, increased activity as composer and conductor. Composition of the Monumentum for Karl Prantl (première at the Salzburger Festspiele 1989).

1989 – Featured composer at the festival "Wien modern". Composition and première of the Phantasiestück in C.s Manier for cello and orchestra, composition of the First String Quartet (commissioned by the Mozarteum Foundation Salzburg).

1990 – Composition of the Second String Quartet (commission of the Concours international de quatuor à cordes d'Evian).

1991 – Première of the First String Quartet at the Mozart Week in Salzburg. Première of the Second String Quartet in Evian. Composition of Langegger Nachtmusik III for orchestra, with première in Berlin.

1992 – First prize at the ICONS competition in Torino for the First String Quartet. Composition of Impulse for orchestra (1992/93), commissioned by the Vienna Philharmonic. Member of the European Academy of Sciences.

1993 – Composition of the Viola Concerto (première in Vienna in 1995) and of For K for ensemble. Start of work on interpretations of the Viennese School with the Klangforum Wien.

1994 – Cerha Days in Linz. Composition of the Concertino for violin, accordion, and ensemble (première in Vienna in 1996). Composition of the Introitus, Kyrie, and Libera me of the Requiem of Reconciliation (commissioned by the Bachakademie Stuttgart). President of the Klangforum Wien.

1995 – Première of the Requiem of Reconciliation in Stuttgart. Honorary member of the ISCM Austria. Composition of the Saxophone Quartet (première in Vienna in 1996). Composition of Eight Movements on Hölderlin Fragments for string sextet (commissioned by the Philharmonie Cologne, premièred in Cologne in 1996).

1996 – Première of Impulse for orchestra (Vienna Philharmonic under André Prévin). Composition of Jahrlang ins Ungewisse hinab (Hölderlin) for ensemble (commission of the Austrian Academy of Sciences). Numerous concerts on the occasion of his 70th birthday in Austria and beyond.
Composer-in-residence at the Mozarteum Salzburg.

1997 – Première of Jahrlang ins Ungewisse hinab in Vienna. Composition of the Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra (commissioned by the Berliner Festspiele).
Commissioned by the Vienna State Opera to compose the opera Der Riese vom Steinfeld (Libretto: Peter Turrini).

1998 – Première of the Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra at the Berliner Festwochen.

1999 – Composition of the cycle Im Namen der Liebe (Texts by Peter Turrini) for baritone and orchestra (commissioned by the Festival de Música de Canarias).

2000 – Commission of the Konzerthaus Berlin for the composition of the orchestral piece Hymnus

2001 – Première of Five Pieces for Clarinet, Violoncello and Piano for the 50th Birthday of Heinrich Schiff.
Composition of the Rhapsodie pour violon et piano, commissioned by the Jacques Thibaud competition, Paris.
Start of work on the Requiem for Soli, Choir, and Orchestra as commissioned by the Konzerthaus Vienna.

2002 – Première of the opera Der Riese vom Steinfeld at the Vienna State Opera.

2003/04 – Composition of the Concerto for Soprano, Saxophone and Orchestra

2004 – Composing the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (with Doblinger Music Publishers) and Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet (Commission from BNP Paribas)
World première of Requiem for solo voices, chorus and orchestra

2006 – Awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement (leone doro alla carriera) of the Biennale di Venezia World Première of Momente for solo voices, chorus and large orchestra orchestra (commissioned by Musica Viva Munich)
World Première of Momente for solo voices, chorus and large orchestra orchestra (commissioned by Musica Viva Munich)

2008 – Awarded the Goldene Ehrenzeichen für Verdienste um das Land Wien

2009 – World première of Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra

2010 – 13 Feb: World première of Like a Tragicomedy for large orchestra (commissioned by BBC Manchester)

2010 – 23 Apr: world première of Bruchstück, geträumt

2010 – 27 Jun: world première of 9 Bagatellen

2010 – 17 Oct: world première of Wiener Kaleidoskop

2011 – 13 Mar: Awarded the Musikpreis Salzburg 2011 – Internationaler Kompositionspreis des Landes Salzburg

2011 – 11 Jun: world première of 4 Paraphrasen for oboe, violoncello and piano

2011 – 29 Sep: world première of Baal – reduced version

2011 – 06 Oct: world première of Paraphrase über den Anfang der 9. Symphonie von Beethoven for orchestra

2011 – 29 Oct: world première of Für Marino (gestörte Meditation) for piano

2012 – 22 Jun: awarded the 2012 international Ernst von Siemens Music Prize

2013 – “carte blanche” at the Orquesta Nacional de España between 2 and 12 April
3 Aug: world première of Étoile for 6 percussionists at the Salzburg Festival
Cerha’s Schlagzeugkonzert wins a Coups de Coeur Musique Contemporaine

2014 – 7 Feb: world première of Tagebuch for orchestra (hr-Sinfonieorchester, cond. Andrés Orozco-Estrada)

2016 – 9 Apr: 3 Sätze for orchestra premièred by Cornelius Meister and the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien

2016 – 11 Aug: world première of Eine blassblaue Vision at the Salzburg Festival

Cerha has been the recipient of commissions from numerous orchestras, festivals and agencies, including the Southwest Radio Baden-Baden, North German Radio Hamburg, Radio Bremen, South German Radio Stuttgart, Radio Orchestra Vienna, Styrian Autumn Graz, Austrian Federal Ministry for Education and Art, Festival Royan, and the Koussevitzky Foundation New York. He has been awarded a number of compositions prizes, e.g. the Prize of the City of Vienna (1974) and the Great Austrian State prize (1986) which he donated for performances of works by young composers.


Friedrich Cerha, born in Vienna in 1926, is a composer, conductor, professor and writer on music. He is also a national institution in Austria. For over half a century, his name has been synonymous in his native country with contemporary music. It has also been synonymous with the endeavour to keep tradition alive while striving for the renewal of the art of composition. As an Austrian, Friedrich Cerha is also a representative of those of his compatriots who – in a tragic phase of history – took the only honest path by actively fighting against fascism.

Mr Cerha is a quiet, reserved man (with a wonderful sense of humour and a remarkable talent as a public speaker, if the occasion arises) who turns into a fighter when he feels he has to stand up for new music. With comrades such as the composer Kurt Schwertsik (and later also H.K. Gruber) as well as his wife Gertraud, he founded the ensemble die reihe in 1958 to create a forum for contemporary music. He did not have an easy job of it in the late 50s but never lost his determination and courage, allying himself with other international figures – like György Ligeti and Pierre Boulez – who owe numerous performances of their works to the conductor Friedrich Cerha.

As director of die reihe, Cerha never pushed his own compositions into the foreground, but he was, from the very beginning, a hard worker at his desk and produced pieces which have acquired a music historical significance. In fact, some of them count as milestones in the history of music after World War II. For instance, his cycle of seven orchestral compositions, Spiegel (“Mirror”) which was only premièred ten years after the double bar-line had been drawn (composed in 1960/61, the first performance took place in 1972) is such a milestone. It is however in no way just a historic document: recent performances of the complete cycle in Berlin, Dresden, Vienna and Bregenz have demonstrated how alive this music continues to be today, with a tremendous impact (even a physical one) on listeners.

His oeuvre encompasses all genres in a variety of styles. His music theatre works, such as Der Rattenfänger (The Pied Piper), Baal, Der Riese von Steinberg (The Giant of Steinberg) provide cogent proof that contemporary opera can convey an important message with regard to society and human nature.

Cerha has also written racy Viennese music with a genuinely individual sense of humour (such as the two Keintaten, settings of words by Ernst Kein.). He is fully at home in the world of Viennese tunes and he is perhaps the first one to have paved their way to the concert hall.

The realm flanked by the operas and the Keintaten is occupied by an impressive body of orchestral, ensemble and chamber works, they, too, in a wide variety of styles, from the avant-garde to concert music that speaks directly to an uninitiated audience. The genres cover straight orchestral pieces, concertos, works for solo voice and orchestra, chamber music for different combinations of instruments, such as four string quartets, a string sextet and a piano trio.

Friedrich Cerha’s music historical significance is also ensured by his completion of the third act of Alban Berg’s Lulu. Since the first performance in Paris in 1979 (conducted by Pierre Boulez, directed by Patrice Chéreau, with sets Richard Peduzzi and Teresa Stratas in the title role), the three-act version has been seen in innumerable productions – a sine qua non for any composition to become an integral part of the repertoire. Cerha has written a detailed report on his approach to the material Berg left unfinished, published by Universal Edition.

The composer’s readiness to express himself in words is an important aid for his publisher, with authentic programme notes on each work. In addition, Cerha’s collected essays are available in print.

One of the chapters is devoted to music education, through the eyes of the composition professor Friedrich Cerha, whose pupils include not only Heinz Fischer, the President of the Republic of Austria (he attended Cerha’s classes at secondary school) but also Georg Friedrich Haas, one of the major Austrian composers of the middle generation.

The Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation honoured Friedrich Cerha with the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize on 22 June 2012. He celebrated his 87th birthday on 17 February 2013, several concerts were performed in his honour. Cerha had “carte blanche” at the Orquesta Nacional de España between 2 and 12 April 2013 – an event that was well received.

Works by Friedrich Cerha in the UE

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About the music

Read an extensive interview with Friedrich Cerha.

Video language: German (with English subtitles)

His Works

After the end of World War 2, Cerha focused on concertizing and teaching the then dominant neo-classicism (his Divertimento of 1948 represents homage to Stravinsky). Later, he took as starting points the works of Anton Webern, and from 1956 serial techniques of the avantgarde, developing his own style with such pieces as Relazioni fragili, Espressioni fondamentali, Intersecazioni. With works such as Mouvements, Fasce and hisSpiegel cycle (1960-61) he created his own language of sound free from traditional schemata. Despite apparent similarities with works written at the same time by Ligeti or Penderecki, it differs in so far as clearly recognizable processes of development play a major role, and in combination with non-linear processes major formal relationships are created, providing the work with a coherent system, a sort of cosmos. In the project “Welttheater”, which has not as yet been staged, the patterns of behaviour of humans in the mass are mirrored, so to speak, at a distance in space and time, by mass structures in the musical processes.

In the stage pieceNetzwerk, which derived from the basis of the deliberately heterogeneous material ofExercises (1962-67), the perspectives switch between mass reactions and individual areas surveyed as if under a microscope. Regressive stylistic and structural elements break into a purist world of sound, and create complex relationships of disturbance and order in an organism corresponding to ‘the world as a network’. After a series of instrumental works in which he extended his material by referring directly to historical idioms (Curriculum, Sinfonie), the opera Baal seamlessly knits together all the previous structural forms. The individual now appears provocatively as the centre of interest, but the range reaches from “Spiegel“-like fields of sound, standing for the most basic principles, to clearly articulated melodic and harmonic forms in which the differentiated involvement of the individual is reflected.

In the opera Der Rattenfänger (The Pied Piper) (1984-86) it is above all polyrhythmic patterns with the significance of leitmotifs which provide integration but at the same time tension. Cerha took a fresh look at various forms of folklore, already evident in his early works, in such minor works as the Keintaten (after Ernst Kein) and Chansons (settings of texts of the Vienna Group), stylising and alienating the Viennese idiom. On the other hand, his string quartets, some of which use microtones, show the influence of non-European music, with a tendency to polyrhythmic and metrical forms also to be found in other works such as the Langegger Nachtmusik III and Quellen. His latest works again confirm that Cerha’s interest – dating from 1962 – is still to deal with a multiplicity of experience in complex musical organisms.

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