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Friedrich Cerha   1926-2023


Cerha in 1977

Today’s New York Times gives a half-page notice of the death on February 14th of Viennese composer Friedrich Cerha three days short of his 97th birthday. Noted for music for the stage and the concert hall, he was well associated with postwar Viennese modernism and avant-garde. He directed the new-music ensemble “Die Reihe,”after the short-lived, very German-oriented new-music periodical of the same name. When I met him at an Empfang (reception) in Vienna in 1986, I enjoyed hearing his nicely Viennesesounding Gschwandtner Tänze for chamber ensemble.

As the Times obit by David Allen says, “… at least outside of Austria, Mr. Cerha was known less for his own work than for his celebrated contribution to another composer’s masterpiece,” namely his completion of the orchestration of Alban Berg’s second opera, Lulu, which had been left unfinished at the time of Berg’s death in 1935. Lulu was performed as a two-act torso, with a third-act unsung fragment, in Switzerland in 1937, and this makeshift remained the rule for performance for the next 42 years. Berg’s widow Helene, for reasons of her own, decreed a permanent ban on all attempts to reconstitute Berg’s third act as he wrote it, and prohibited access to his manuscript materials even for study; these prohibitions were included in her own last will and testament as well as into the articles of incorporation of the Alban Berg Foundation, which went into effect upon her own death in 1976. Helene’s successors in the foundation, including the president, the composer Gottfried von Einem, adhered strictly to her testamentary wishes, and these were also supported by Berg’s self-chosen biographer, Willi Reich. Nevertheless, Berg’s publisher, Universal Edition, retained possession of the manuscripts, and having contracted with Berg for a complete three-act opera, did not feel bound by Helene’s prohibitions. In 1963, Universal engaged Friedrich Cerha to complete the score of the opera, but their agreement was kept secret so as to avoid provoking a legal dispute with Berg’s widow.

Meanwhile, the American composer George Perle, of Queens College of CUNY, began publishing a series of pathbreaking analytical studies of Lulu, which he had been able to quietly examine in manuscript at the Universal offices, and in 1966 the founding of the International Alban Berg Society was announced, under endorsements by Igor Stravinsky and several other composers, with the objective of bringing the manuscripts of Lulu and other unpublished works by Berg to the light of day. UE privately confided to Stravinsky that Cerha was working on the Lulu reconstitution, and several of us who were occupied with Berg studies in various ways at the time knew about this but kept the information sub rosa.

After Helene Berg’s death in 1976 it became apparent that Universal Edition would proceed with assembling a three-act Lulu, and within a year also came the sensational news about the hidden text and romantic circumstances behind Berg’s well-known and deeply admired string quartet, the Lyric Suite.  A premiere production of the complete three-act Lulu was announced for the Opéra in Paris in 1979, to be directed by Pierre Boulez, and the occasion itself, in February of that year, with Teresa Stratas in the title role, was considered one of the most important musical events of the decade worldwide, despite a highly controversial staging by Patrice Chéreau. Most importantly, Friedrich Cerha’s score was received with total respect and admiration; Cerha had been utterly judicious and painstaking through nearly twelve years of miscellaneous work. The next year, at an international symposium in Vienna, the Alban Berg Stiftung announced that a limited number of new productions of the three-act Lulu would be allowed each year, and that the two-act version, as required by Helene Berg’s testamentary terms, would remain in print and available. There have been many successful productions since, including at the Metropolitan Opera eight years ago with controversial décors by William Kentridge.

The Alban Berg Stiftung currently shows a tribute to Friedrich Cerha, along with a notice of other recent activities. The Stiftung recently sponsored a public reception at the Vienna Konzerthaus, where the British scholar Douglas Jarman gave an overview of his critical commentary for the new edition of Berg’s Violin Concerto, which is the latest volume in the Stiftung’s critical edition. There is an expectation that the already well advanced editions of the full orchestra scores of Wozzeck and Lulu are in the pipeline for publication, but that after these, no further scores or commentary volumes, showing individual differences in scores and manuscripts, will issue from the Alban Berg Sämtliche Werke, and this edition series will eventually be shut down.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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  1. One of the most impressive compositions of the 20th C. Belongs to Cerha “Gschwandtner Tänze” absolutely brilliant! Was fortunate enough to catch it in 1987 in NYC as a youth. Truly a loss for this great era.

    Comment by Markkus O'Shea — February 28, 2023 at 5:44 pm

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