The man who finished off Lulu has died

The man who finished off Lulu has died


norman lebrecht

February 14, 2023

The death has been announced, aged 96, of Fredrich Cerha, an Austrian composer who  was chose to complete Alban Berg’s opera Lulu once the widow had gone to her grave.

Pierre Boulez conducted the 1979 world premiere in Paris and the consensus was the Cerha had done a pretty good job on Act 3. But the opera was already overlong and there have never been many takers for a revival of Cerha’s extension.

Cerha was a lifelong activist in contemporary music circles, founding the ensemble “die reihe” with Kurt Schwertsik and generally agitating for more plinks, plonks and atonality.

Here’s a tribute by his publisher:
Born in Vienna in 1926, Friedrich Cerha is considered one of the most formative figures in Austrian musical life since the second half of the 20th century.
At a young age he composed his first works for violin and smaller ensembles. His musical career was interrupted by the Second World War which represented a caesura for him, after which his sound worlds were to change forever. Even before graduating from high school, Cerha was drafted into the Wehrmacht, deserted and finally experienced the end of the war in Tyrol.

From 1946 he studied violin, composition, and music education at the Vienna Academy of Music as well as musicology, German studies and philosophy at the University of Vienna, where he received his doctorate in philosophy in 1950.
Cerha initially worked as a violinist and music teacher. He was in early contact with the avant-garde underground scene of young painters and literary figures around the Art Club and the Schönberg Circle of the International Society for New Music.

1958, he founded the ensemble “die reihe” in with Kurt Schwertsik and his wife Gertraud Cerha. He was engaged as a conductor by renowned ensembles and orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the Staatskapelle Berlin. Between 1960 and 1997 he appeared as a conductor at international festivals (e.g. Salzburg Festival, Vienna Festival Weeks, Venice Biennale, Berlin Festival Weeks, Musik der Zeit Cologne and Nutida Musik Stockholm, etc.) as well as at opera houses such as the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin State Opera or the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. He has received commissions from institutions such as the Koussevitzky Foundation in New York, the Westdeutscher Rundfunk, the Festival Internacional de Música de Canarias, the Wiener Konzerthaus and the Musikverein Wien, and from orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic.

From 1959, Cerha taught at the Vienna University of Music, where he held a professorship for composition, notation, and interpretation of new music from 1976 to 1988. From 1994 he also worked with Klangforum Wien and served as its president until 1999.
Within his oeuvre, the orchestral cycle Spiegel I-VII, whose individual parts were written over several years and which were first performed as a complete work in Graz in 1972, occupies a special place. Another milestone in the composer’s career was the creation of a playable version of the third act of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, which was premiered in Paris in 1979 under Pierre Boulez. His own first opera Baal was premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 1981.

Numerous awards, prizes and honours recognised his pioneering role in the field of contemporary music – as a composer as well as a performer, teacher and intermediary. Cerha received, among others, the Austrian Decoration of Honour for Science and Art, the Order “Officier des Arts et des Lettres”, the “Golden Lion” for his life’s work at the Venice Biennale, the Salzburg Music Prize, the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize and, on the occasion of his 95th birthday, the Alban Berg Ring.

Friedrich Cerha died on February 14th 2023 at the age of 96 in Vienna. With the passing of Friedrich Cerha, Universal Edition has lost one of its most influential contemporary composers. The company enjoyed a close association with his work for over six decades. Our sincere condolences go to his widow Gertraud and his daughters Ruth and Irina.


  • Larry L. Lash says:

    Cerha was most certainly a gifted composer in his own right. I attended the world premiere of his opera „Der Riese vom Steinfeld“ and saw also „Der Rattenfänger“ and heard his works in concert.

    I also find the two-act „Lulu“ senseless without his third act.

  • DPM says:

    “But the opera was already overlong and there have never been many takers for a revival of Cerha’s extension.”

    On the contrary, the Cerha completion has been the default choice for productions since its premiere in 1979.

  • bgn says:

    “But the opera was already overlong and there have never been many takers for a revival of Cerha’s extension.”

    On the contrary–these days when Lulu is performed it is generally done with Cerha’s third act. At least that’s been my experience at the Met.

    • DanP says:

      Agreed, absolutely. I don’t know of any place that does only 2/3 of the opera. First of all, as anyone familiar with the situation knows, pretty much ALL of Act 3 was laid out. Cerha did just what needed to be done to put it into playable shape. And, at the end of Act 2, the story is far from over and tacking on a few bars from the Lulu Symphony at the end doesn’t really do at this point. Act 3 is crucial.

  • DanP says:

    Overlong? By what estimation is that?

  • Dominic Stafford says:

    I have the recording. I like it. It is very long, but then so is Cosi.

  • J Barcelo says:

    He’s lucky to have been the one to finish Lulu; it’s that work which will keep his name alive. His own music is well-worth hearing but it’s tough listening…at least for most people. And boy, is it hard to play. I like Momente and the string quartets as well as Nacht. It’s time for a nice Cerha box collecting all his music that’s been recorded. Cerha’s life story is sure fascinating, too. And can we have an English-language biography sometime? RIP, a life really well lived.

    • Hermann Lederer says:

      This is nonsense! Because YOU don’t know his works doesn’t mean he was a composer without significance! on the contrary! I am sure his works will be rediscovered very soon and he will be regarded ass one of the great composers in Europe after 1945. Spiegel and his opera Baal are masterpieces.

  • Herr Doktor says:

    Wouldn’t that make a great name for a concerto from one of these atonal “composers”: “Plinks & Plonks”

  • Has-been says:

    NL is correct. Cerha finished off the incomplete Lulu and in doing so ‘killed it dramatically’. The third act of the Cerha version is a mess musically and dramatically. I heard the premier in Paris, the subsequent performances of the ‘complete’ version at the Met several times and in Salzburg. The incomplete version much championed by Dohnanyi and Silja which after the second act jumps to the Jack the Ripper scene and finale is much more compelling.

    • La plus belle voix says:

      He’s dead already. How about something respectful, or better still, no comment? Cerha was an immensely kind man, with a surprisingly dry sense of humor. RIP.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Has-been: despite the downvoting you are receiving for your comment, you are completely right.
      Absolutely no knock on Cerha as a composer in his own right (unfortunately for me, I am not familiar with Cerha’s music), but the incomplete version of Lulu championed by Dohnanyi and Silja – the stunning recording of which I own on Decca LPs – is brilliant and overwhelming, something which the Cerha completion (despite the fully committed recording made by Stratas/Boulez) truly is not.

    • Gareth Morrell says:

      It’s interesting that Dohnanyi had championed an incomplete version (one that I agree has merits) omitting the bulk of Cerha’s work, since the two were evidently friends. Dohnanyi even invited Cerha to conduct The Cleveland Orchestra

    • Joel Kemelhor says:

      I agree that the full three-act LULU, as completed by Cerha, becomes dramatically tedious. Berg’s opera masterpiece is WOZZECK.

  • Bulgakov says:

    Cerha‘s violin concerto is a beautiful work. Ernst Kovacic made a fine recording of it with RSO Wien and Bertrand de Billy.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    . . . “Cerha had done a pretty good job on Act 3. But the opera was already overlong and there have never been many takers for a revival of Cerha’s extension.” . . . What!?! I don’t think fans of Berg’s “Lulu”, myself included, think of it as being excessively long. James Levine had a strong track recording with “Lulu”. It was performed with great success in San Francisco in the latter 1980’s (featuring Bob Mackie gowns), and again in 1991. Perhaps with today’s shorter attention spans . . .

    • Gareth Morrell says:

      Though Maestro Levine did conduct the 3-act version, he also expressed more than once to me that he much preferred the 2-act version, and didn’t think much of Cerha’s completion. He made an exception for the Jack The Ripper Scene, which recycles music from earlier in the opera, and sounds much more authentically “Berg-ian”

  • M Kaznowski says:

    ===agitating for more plinks, plonks and atonality.

    It’s comments like this which make Slipped Disc look a trivial rag.

  • Norabide Guziak says:

    Shame. So no fourth act of Lulu, then?