Ana Valeria Poles studied in Vienna under Professor Streicher from 1982 to 1988. Here, she provides mdw Magazine with insights into Streicher’s life and work and attempts to help us grasp his understanding of music, which he was fond of referring to simply as Musizieren [making music].
Ludwig Streicher travelled the entire world with his bass in tow. The ingenious musician and showman Streicher was a virtuoso on his instrument and frequently provided the “serious” world of classical music with a welcome jolt of humour and wit. Streicher, the prominent TV show guest; Streicher, who demanded a kiss from the beautiful princess of Monaco as payment… probably everyone who knew him can tell an anecdote or two from his impressive life. But Ludwig Streicher was one thing above all: a musician and a dedicated teacher who was serious about his work. Streicher established the double bass as a solo instrument, built up an internationally renowned double bass class at the Vienna Academy of Music (today’s mdw), and also authored a pioneering instructional work.
Making music was something that Ludwig Streicher had grown up with almost from day one. The inn run by his parents in Ziersdorf, Lower Austria hosted rehearsals of the local brass band, which was led by his composing father. From Bohemian polkas to Verdi operas, his father arranged everything that could be realised with the forces available to him at any given time. It was from him that young Ludwig received his first violin lessons. Then came lessons on the cello, and at age 14, Ludwig switched to double bass. In Vienna, he studied with Professors Schreinzer and Krump; both of them were former students of the well-known soloist Franz Simandl, who had published a notable double bass treatise in 1873. Following completion of his studies in the war year of 1940, the city theatre in Krakow hired Streicher as its first bassist. While there, he also expanded his knowledge of the cello thanks to a former Casals student and eventually ended up alternating as principle cellist—certainly a rather exceptional state of affairs. Streicher’s employment in Krakow ended abruptly when he was conscripted by the German Wehrmacht. Following imprisonment by the Russians and a perilous escape, Streicher returned by foot to his home village of Ziersdorf in the spring of 1945.
Only with help from a Russian officer who drove him over the damaged roads to Vienna in his tank did Streicher manage to arrive on time at his audition for the Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, which was a success. He became a member of the Vienna Philharmonic soon thereafter, and the years that followed saw him learn to play the great operatic and concert repertoire at the highest level. Streicher chafed considerably at the then-low status of the double bass as a solo instrument; hardly anyone thought an evening-filling double bass concert to be possible. He did eventually receive encouragement to perform as a soloist, however—from pianist Max Valicek. It was in April of 1966 that Streicher, with Valicek accompanying, ultimately dared to give his first solo concert. It took place in the Upper Austrian town of Wels—and was a sensational success. “Out of Wels and into the world!” he would later be fond of saying with a smile. The concert tours that followed took him all over Europe and to the Middle East, America, Africa, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. He was invited to teach master classes and also made radio and television appearances. Streicher made his first record as a soloist, Musical Rarities for Contrabass, in 1967, and it represented pioneering work in terms of research and the repertoire. There followed further recordings, of which the most outstanding is probably Ludwig Streicher Plays Bottesini, on which multiple works by the “Paganini of the Double Bass” were brought together for the first time on a single record. In later years, Astrid Spitznagel—who still works at the mdw today—became his regular piano accompanist.
The Streicher Style
The way Streicher played arose from a long-running Austrian tradition. Via Franz Simandl, it went back in a direct line to Wenzel Hause (1764–1847) in Prague, who had propagated the presentday position of the left hand even back then. Streicher’s variant of the “German bow hold” was likewise already used by Simandl (nicely visible, by the way, in Max Oppenheimer’s painting The Orchestra at the Belvedere – Austrian National Gallery, in which Gustav Mahler conducts the Vienna Philharmonic). And it is certain that Streicher’s well-founded approach to bowing made a major contribution to his success. It ensures an organic and controlled sequence of motions from the shoulder to the fingertips, facilitating clear articulation in the lower registers as well as a soft, full-bodied legato.
From 1966 to 1990, Streicher left his mark on double bass instruction at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts Vienna (today’s mdw), and from 1992 to 2001, he held a visiting professorship at the Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofia in Madrid. He also—in 1978, approximately one hundred years after Simandl— published his own double bass method: Mein Musizieren auf dem Kontrabass (English: My Way of Playing Double Bass). The musical basis of this five-volume work is comprised of folk songs, orchestral passages, and excerpts from the solo repertoire. Its systematic progression enables the position-by-position development of learners’ abilities using little musical exercises. From the very beginning, emphasis is placed on rhythm, articulation, and dynamics. The point is to resolve technical problems with musical sensitivity and understanding. “Music has to go first through the heart, then through the brain, and finally through the body, in that precise order,” is how Streicher summed up his understanding of music. To this day, Mein Musizieren auf dem Kontrabass remains the standard work for professional training on the double bass. His teaching itself was a matter of consistent work. “Scales, etudes, orchestral passages, solo pieces—that’s our programme,” Streicher always said. His small attic studio at Seilerstätte 26 was populated by all manner of instrumentalists, many of whom had travelled from quite far away. They had come to experience this charismatic human being who, together with his students, passionately wrestled for every note, working uncompromisingly on the musical essence of every phrase while frequently injecting titbits of his broad instrumental knowledge in an anecdotal fashion. People laughed and also sometimes cried—but ultimately, Streicher’s students would play at a high level. Today, orchestral posts and professorships all over the world are occupied by his students, and at the mdw, it was Josef Niederhammer who assumed his professorship in 1991. Ludwig Streicher passed away in Vienna on 11 March 2003. Modern double bass playing would be unthinkable without him. 2020 will mark his hundredth birthday—so how about we celebrate that?
- More information on Ludwig Streicher can be found at www.ludwig-streicher.at