Streicher’s Written Material as an Artistic Bequest
This past June, contrabassist Ludwig Streicher would have turned 100. His birthday was observed by the odd radio segment, and there were also plans for a memorial concert at the Vienna Musikverein (now postponed until next year due to the COVID-19 crisis). Thorough attention has been paid to Streicher’s biography, from his beginnings as a solo bassist and solo cellist in Kraków to his international career as a soloist with all the attendant anecdotes, and all of the various assessments of Streicher’s personality have—with good reason—been very much in agreement regarding his exceptional status as a musician, as a pioneer of solo performance on the contrabass, and as an eminent and influential pedagogue. But despite all this, I do still feel a need to make my own statement—both as his successor at the mdw and as someone who was a member of his (still rather small) class here in the 1970s. My concern is for nothing less than his musical legacy.
Alongside his orchestral playing and teaching, Ludwig Streicher was also exceptionally active as a soloist. But beyond this fantastic musician’s powerful stage presence and his widely noted talent for showmanship, he was above all a meticulous worker. And as such, he was constantly working to refine his interpretations both musically and technically. In the process, he would alter minor details and sometimes even produce entirely new versions of his repertoire. It’s with admirable industriousness that Streicher would rewrite his solo parts again and again, periodically sending one of his students to the library—the home of that era’s only photocopier (“here are ten schillings, go over to Herr Jünger…”)—in order to duplicate the new edition. As far as he was concerned, his newest version would then be the only one that was valid: Streicher would insist quite relentlessly in his notoriously authoritarian style that it be followed down to the very last detail. And if you then had the misfortune of showing up to your lesson with an outdated version of a piece, his fury was certain.
As a result of this practice of constant renewal, ever-new versions of his entire teaching repertoire—both solo pieces and orchestral passages—entered circulation, and these were repeatedly copied and handed down over many decades. It’s thus the case today that many of Streicher’s students (covering multiple generations and scattered across the world) have copies of his handwritten solo parts from the pieces in our repertoire—from the most varied periods, of course. And unfortunately, it’s also the case that many of them view whatever versions they happen to have as sacrosanct, set in stone, as if they feared bringing down upon them the posthumous ire of their master. Only few have had the courage to make changes despite such fears.
The independent search for one’s own interpretation, for technical solutions that might work better for one’s own self, is something that often gets neglected. And if one considers the way in which Streicher himself worked, which was characterised by constant efforts toward both musical and technical improvement, one will necessarily come to the conclusion that a rigid attitude simply doesn’t do justice to Streicher’s musical ideals and technical approach. So if one desires not to “worship the ashes”, but instead “preserve the fire”, one simply can’t go on eternally replicating a coincidental snapshot from the long career of an individual musician. Treating Ludwig Streicher’s legacy with dignity and upholding his musical ideals can only entail always continuing to work on the repertoire, continuing to refine one’s own interpretations, and continuing to search for and try out new technical solutions—just like Streicher himself did his entire life long.