For a long time he didn’t talk about it. Only when he was asked. But I never asked him.
Friedrich Cerha deserted. Twice. The first time in 1943 in Denmark – still retaining his uniform, he joined the resistance and travelled with marching orders, made out in blank, through Germany, filling them in as needed. After being posted with to an “emergency unit” in 1944, he found himself some civilian clothing and went underground in Thuringia – waiting for the end of the war. Starving, freezing, constantly afraid of being caught and executed.
The summer of 1945, after the war had ended, he spent as mountain guide and innkeeper at an alpine hut in Tyrol. This was probably where he regained the strength to go on living after these traumatic experiences. Much later, in the opera Baal, he would celebrate the energies of the forces of nature in song. No – he never wrote any romantic alpine symphonies, nor any music about groves and meadows. But I recall, even today, how mysterious the scenes in Baal seemed to me at its world premiere in 1981. Here it became palpable that there was someone speaking who had not consumed nature as a tourist, but who had felt and suffered it as his only means of survival.
The brute power of expression of Spiegel reflects the horrors that he experienced. The language of this music was radically new when he composed the piece. This new material, however, did not emerge from an academic wish experimentally to explore hitherto unchartered sound-materials. What is new here – like anything of importance in the history of music – is the result of an unbridled expressionism.
As with all great music, it is not necessary whilst listening to Spiegel to know something about their biographical background. The emotional pull of these sound-masses that are piling up and keep shifting, speaks directly to those who have an attentive ear. There is nothing in the composition which would be primarily vindicated by the recounted history. Everything is grounded in musical regularities which can be directly understood emotionally.
Cerha was never content to settle comfortably in the space provided by any of the newly discovered musical materials. His life’s principle – to do the right thing at every moment, whatever the cost – gave rise to an oeuvre which is vast in its diverse riches.
In his opera Netzwerk he transferred the musical principle of non-semantic communication to the vocal parts. The action on stage is clear, the processes between the actors can be discerned unequivocally – everything is formulated in abstract vocalises that resemble language. By giving up language, Cerha has thought the term “music theatre” systematically through to the end. Here he has opened up doors that lead into spaces which are still widely unexplored. The questions: “What remains of an opera when the text is eliminated? How easily can vocalises be understood which make do without concepts? How can action be made clear just through sound, speech melody and scene?” offer completely new possibilities.
I will always remember the world premiere of his Keintate. In contrast to Netzwerk, the spoken, intelligible language forms the basis of this work. Seen from the point of view of compositional technique, this piece is largely guided by the vocal possibilities of the singer interpreting the vocal part, Heinz Karl Gruber. And it doesn’t shy away from concrete musical references – in fact it downright bubbles over with musical wit. When it was performed for the first time, the audience was almost shocked: no-one had expected something as concretely comprehensible from Cerha. But the amiable humour, at least initially, captured everyone’s imagination and soon the atmosphere was quite exuberant with roaring laughter. But the humour became more and more bitter, more evil – a perfidy reminiscent of Herr Karl started to come to the surface. By degrees the laughter died down. It got increasingly silent, in the end the only laughter came from a single woman who was almost hysterical before she succeeded, with the energetic support of her partner, to control herself and also fell silent. An oppressive atmosphere had spread in the hall – finally Gruber sang of death that appears each time in a different guise and that always smells differently.
Something like a two-layered counterpoint had been created – on the one hand the highly differentiated and expressively wrought music with its many allusions and mock-quotations, and on the other the linearity of the audience’s reaction – from funfair to cemetery.
„Wån i a Banfleischess...“ [„When I’m eating my roast…”]
Even today I can still hear this particular passage of the Keintate when I’m eating a roast rib-steak, which almost inevitably happens every time I visit Vienna. The queer sadness of this melody becomes part of the structure and the taste of the meat – this is the reason why eating it always makes me a bit melancholy.
(How can anyone dare to perform Alban Berg’s Lulu in its two-act version after the opera’s completion by Cerha? The lascivious end of act 2 and a refusal to employ dual roles which would explain everything – Dr. Schön has to return in act 3 as Jack the Ripper! – THAT is an intervention in Berg’s work. Even if not every note of the completed version was written by Berg himself – the three-act version is far closer to his intentions than the confinement to the two acts finished by Berg himself, often arrayed as “faithfulness towards the original”.)
Today new music is integrated in cultural life as a matter of course. What was once regarded as avant-garde is now taught at music universities, and a new generation of composers is trained to use so-called “avant-garde” techniques in their works as naturally as their conservative colleagues during the 1950s, 60s and 70s wrote in “free tonality”. Today it is difficult to think back to those pioneering times, when the new was still provocative and public performances would incur massive resistance from parts of the audience and the press. Today there exist musicians who can interpret music on the highest artistic level which is technically and conceptually very demanding – in contrast to the time from the 50s until the 80s, when new music was often played by reluctant musicians who were badly prepared and acted destructively.
The fact that Cerha succeeded in starting a tradition with his ensemble „die reihe”, which resulted in the existence, today, of professional ensembles specialising in contemporary music, cannot be esteemed highly enough.
But someone who mustered the courage at age 17 to desert from the German Wehrmacht and to join a country’s resistance movement whose language he did not speak, surely cannot be daunted by such a laughable trifle as Vienna’s conservative post-war cultural politics.
And Cerha was a teacher.
He is amongst the very few of whom I can say: I would have become another than I am, had I not met this man.