MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Overwhelmed by Cerha

Recently, I had one of my most remarkable experiences in the concert hall ever. In the middle of this summer’s Lucerne Festival, this was a performance that I was initially only “curious” to hear, bringing no real expectations with me. The program consisted of the complete Spiegel by Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha, being given its belated Swiss premiere as a full 90-minute cycle, performed by the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra with Matthias Pintscher on the podium.

As my friend visiting that day remarked, “This music is so human. Despite everything going on, it’s incredible that we can still do things like this.” The Spiegel Cycle, understandably a rarity to encounter live — and that’s the only real way to encounter it, especially in such a committed performance from these enormously talented young musicians — is a landmark of 20th-century “originality,” often tagged as an instance of the Klangflächenkomposition movement, in which the actual sonorities produced by an orchestra provide the center of interest (think Ligeti and Xenakis).

But unlike, say, Ligeti, who can sound more “otherworldly” in comparison, Cerha’s unprecedented experiments in this direction seem to implicitly evoke more “accessible” dramatic impulses without losing anything of their audacity and originality.

In a talk beforehand, the 91-yer-old Cerha, who still composes, spoke of a twofold connotation in his choice of the title Spiegel. One is architectural: the overall design is an arch form, with movements mirroring one another around the central Spiegel IV: III and V share certain characteristics, as do II and VI and I and VII, a summarizing movement that also mirrors what has gone before. And there are internal cross-references within the individual movements.

The second connotation Cerha mentioned is autobiographical, though he says he didn’t come to realize this until the 1980s, long after he began the project in 1960 and assumed what he was writing was so outrageous it would never actually be performed. Spiegel can be seen as a reflection of and coming to terms with his traumatizing experiences in the Second World War, when he was drafted as a teenager and deserted. But like any great work of art, the ultimate reflection will be of the experience the listener brings to it.

The concept of composing without motifs, themes, counterpoint, rhythmic phrases — all the traditional “thinking” processes of Western music — is incredibly liberating, but also frightening. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of Baroque Affekt in terms of the mood that dominates a movement. But the emotional complexity elicited is of a high order.

Cerha even foregoes the instinct to use the orchestra in terms of its choirs. All of the voices of his enormous orchestral apparatus are autonomous, though they do gather and unite to thrilling effect.  Pintscher conducted with his hands and inspired the young players to new heights. Each Spiegel called for a separate score, which he ritually put to the side when done, pulling out the next one. His control of the massive crescendos that gradually detonate was remarkable, Pintscher practically flying with wing-like arms).

The climax to end all climaxes that arrives in Spiegel VII brings with it something beyond catharsis: a power of expression that sees hope beyond the devastation in the very fact that it can be articulated by such art.

Filed under: Friedrich Cerha, Lucerne Festival, Lucerne Festival Academy

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