Friedrich Cerha was born in Vienna in 1926. He began violin lessons in 1933, and from 1936 onward he received instruction in music theory and compositon. In 1943, Cerha engaged in active resitance while conscripted to serve in an anti-aircraft defence crew; he then deserted twice from the German Wehrmacht in 1944/45, after which he waited out the Second World War’s conclusion as a hutkeeper and alpine guide in Tirol. From 1946 to 1950 he studied violin, composition and music education at the Vienna Academy of Music as well as musicology, philosophy and German language and literature at the University of Vienna. He had contact with avant-garde painters and literary figures associated with the Art-Club and with Schönberg’s circle in the ISCM.
From 1956 to 1958 he attented the International Summer Courses in Darmstadt and in 1958 he joined Kurt Schwertsik in founding the ensemble die reihe, which was Austria’s first permanent forum for avantgarde music. From 1959, he taught at the Academy of Music in Vienna, where from 1976 to 1988 he was to hold a professorship for the composition, notation and interpretation of new music. 1961 saw the beginning of his extensive international career as an orchestral conductor with renowned institutions and festivals of new music (e.g. Salzburg Festival, Berliner Festwochen, Vienna Festival, Venice Biennale, Warsaw Autumn, Festival d'Automne à Paris, Jyväskylä Arts Festival, Musica Viva, Nutida Music Stockholm, Neues Werk Hamburg, Musik der Zeit Cologne), as well as at opera houses (e.g. Berlin State Opera, Vienna State Opera, Bavarian State Opera, Teatro Colón Buenos Aires).
In 1961 he began to work on creating a performable version of the third act of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, which premiered in Paris in 1979. This finally gave the musical world a way in which to experience the work in its entirety. His own opera Baal premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 1981, followed by Der Rattenfänger at the steirischer herbst festival in 1987, Riese vom Steinfeld at the Vienna State Opera in 2002 and Onkel Präsident at the Prinzregententheater Munich.
Cerha is a member of several international academic and artistic institutions; he has received numerous commissions to write ensemble, choral and orchestral works (e.g. Koussevitzky Music Foundation New York, BNP Paribas Paris, Southwest Broadcasting, West German Broadcasting Cologne, Musica Viva Munich, Konzerthaus Berlin, steirischer herbst Graz, Festival de música de Canarias, Konzerthaus and Musikverein Vienna, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra) and just as many awards and honours, most recently the Austrian Badge of Honour for Science and Art in 2006, Officier of the French Order of Arts and Letters, the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement of the Venice Music Biennale, the 2011 Salzburg Music Prize and the 2012 Ernst von Siemens Music Prize.