Between Easy and Hard Listening

The Musical Legacy of Burt Bacharach and Friedrich Cerha

by Florian Boberski (17.02.2023)

Despite the disparate music styles of Cerha and Bacharach, both composers were avant-garde in their own way. Their work demonstrates the wide range of musical expression. A plea for diversity and against the categorization of music.

It was during the 'Grammy week', on February 8th, that the world lost an icon of pop music and songwriting: Burt Bacharach, renowned for his classics like „Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head“.

A few days later, on Valentine's Day, the Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha, who was considered one of the most important contemporary composers and who made music history with other operas and orchestral works in addition to completing Alban Berg's opera “Lulu“, passed away.

Burt Bacharach, the American

"I have no rules apart from one: Don't make it difficult for the listener."

Burt Bacharach was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1928, the son of a journalist and a music teacher. Bacharach himself cited „Daphnis et Chloé“ by Maurice Ravel as a formative influence and had no fear of exploring different musical styles. In addition to a passion for jazz and bossa nova, he studied classical composition. His studies took him to Montreal, New York, and Montecito, California.

Among his teachers were the American Henry Cowell, the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů, and the French-born Darius Milhaud, whom Bacharach referred to as his greatest mentor. Many of Milhaud's other students composed in the style of the then-current, dissonant twelve-tone music, so Bacharach almost felt ashamed of the melodic component in his compositions. Milhaud then said to him: "Never be ashamed to write something melodic that people can remember and whistle."

He took this advice to heart. Bacharach's hits, and there were many with 73 US Top-40 hits, are definitely earworms and were sung by notable performers such as Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Marlene Dietrich, Elvis Costello, Neil Diamond, Tom Jones, and many other stars. From the diverse stylistic influences, classics such as „I Say A Little Prayer“, „Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head“, and his personal favorite composition, „Alfie“, were born.

His softly sounding love songs were sometimes placed by critics in the unpopular category of "easy listening" among composers. But Bacharach's art consisted precisely in making elaborately composed songs sound light and catchy, for which he was awarded six Grammys and two Oscars.

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Rehearsal for "I Say A Little Prayer" with lyricist Hal David and Bacharach's longtime muse Dionne Warwick

The Austrian Friedrich Cerha

"If music could be described, it would be unnecessary."

On the other hand, Friedrich Cerha fully embraced the avant-garde Zeitgeist and embarked on the completion of Alban Berg's opera "Lulu", one of the most significant twelve-tone compositions. Born in Vienna in 1926, Cerha also played an important role in the field of new music. His works are characterized by a complex structure, unusual instrumentation, and a preference for experimental techniques.

He viewed technical means such as "serial, twelve-tone, or magic squares" only as tools to realize his own individual sound concepts, as demonstrated in the 1960s with the seven-part orchestral work „Spiegel“ or „Mouvements“ for chamber orchestra. Later, he achieved success with his opera "Baal" based on Bertolt Brecht's drama of the same name. He also proved that composers of contemporary classical music have a sense of humor with the „21 impertinent notes“, short compositions for piano with humorous headings, and the comical opera "Uncle President," premiered only in 2013.

In addition, he taught composition, notation, and interpretation of new music for almost 30 years at the University of Music in Vienna. Cerha composed until a high age and remained interested in current musical events. He became known to a younger audience in 2009 through the premiere of the Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, which he wrote for the then 26-year-old Austrian percussionist Martin Grubinger. In 2012, he received the prestigious Ernst von Siemens Prize for his life's work.

Those who want to learn more about Friedrich Cerha's extensive work can find a superbly designed platform at

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The Concert for Percussion and Orchestra with Martin Grubinger

Easy vs. Hard Listening?

"Music is the perfect type of art: it can never reveal its ultimate secret." (Oscar Wilde)

If Burt Bacharach's music is referred to as 'Easy Listening', would Friedrich Cerha's compositions be considered 'Hard Listening'? One chose to focus on catchy melodies that excite and invite people to dance and sing along, while the other delved deeper into experiments that aimed to take classical music beyond twelve-tone music to new dimensions.

While Bacharach's music, which can be played in the background, is likely to put most people in a relaxed and joyful mood, Cerha's music, which is more rewarding when listened to with concentration, may even cause headaches and discomfort to 'untrained' listeners.

In the 20th century, pop music was often contemptuously referred to as 'Easy Listening' and devalued as worthless, while contemporary classical music was considered challenging and serious. However, even this music is viewed critically by some, even in the classical world.

Not all classical music composers identify with the trends of while contemporary classical music, but base their composition style on proven tonal starting points, like the young composer Alma Deutscher, a fervent proponent of melodic, traditional classical music. She has incorporated her clear standpoint on this issue into her latest opera: "In [my] opera, there is a lighthearted satire on the tuneless world orld of modernist atonal classical music. This pretentious world of music that only clever people can understand, and to the rest of us just sounds like noise.." (source)

The Difficulty of Categorizing Music

But is it even important to rank one type of music over another? Shouldn't we be grateful for the diversity of musical expressions? The main problem seems to be the attempt to evaluate, classify, and label entire music genres, which evoke certain associations. Even within the same style, there is an enormous range and variety.

Perhaps we should take the approach of the stylistically versatile composer Kurt Weill: "There is no difference between 'U' and 'E', between entertainment and serious [the term 'serious music' is used in Germany for 'art music'], only between good and bad music." But even what constitutes "good" or "bad" music still depends on the individual taste of the listener.

Moritz Eggert, current president of the German Composers Association and thus the top representative of composers in all fields, puts it this way:

"The term 'serious music' [used in Germany for 'art music'] is a (poor) catchphrase to describe certain types of music. Of course, there is entertaining 'serious' music and even 'serious' 'entertaining' music. The music for a horror movie, for example, certainly doesn't want to be 'entertaining,' but rather convey a sense of threat, and Mozart or Haydn would have been very surprised if their music had been described as 'not entertaining' – they would have been offended. So, it's obvious that 'serious' music can also 'entertain'."

One thing is certain: Friedrich Cerha and Burt Bacharach were two outstanding composers who left a lasting impression on the world of music and will inspire and influence generations of musicians and music lovers beyond their deaths. Their compositions demonstrate how diverse music and the experience of music can be.

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