Gustav Laska

Gustav Láska is part of a long line of Czech player-composers who studied at the Prague Conservatoire and exported the Czech tradition and heritage to almost every corner of the globe. He was born in Prague on 23 August 1847 and died in Schwerin (Germany) on 16 October 1928, aged 81 and after a long and successful career. He studied at the Prague Conservatoire from 1861-7 with Josef Hrabě (double bass), Jan B. Kittl (music theory) and Josef Krejci (composition) and after graduation gave solo performances in Austria and subsequently became a member of the orchestra in Kassel, Germany. He travelled extensively in Europe and America, both as a soloist and orchestral player, and was Principal Double Bass at the Bayreuth Festival for many years.

Throughout his life Láska also taught, conducted and composed, alongside his solo and orchestral performances, and Franz Tischer-Zeitz who edited the Dittersdorf Concerto in the 1930s, was one of his students. In 1904 his Method for Double Bass Op.50 was published in Leipzig but is practically forgotten today – the fate of many similar double bass tutors. From 1878 until his death in 1928 he was a member of the Court Opera Orchestra of
Mecklenburg-Schwerin and was also choirmaster of the Schwerin Singakademie and church choir.

Láska was a prolific composer, writing in many genres, including three operas (Der Kaisersoldat, Sunde and Abu Seid), two orchestral overtures, two symphonies, sacred choral works, piano music, and many of works for double bass. The first recording of a work by Láska was probably his Wiegenlied Op.28, No.5 (Lullaby) by Serge Koussevitsky (double bass) and Pierre Luboshutz on 26 September 1929. Koussevitsky must have thought well enough of the piece to record it alongside some of his own miniatures and transcriptions of music by Eccles and Beethoven and it was probably a work he had performed during his years as a virtuoso double bassist.

The double bass music of Gustav Láska is well written for the instrument, featuring many technical challenges alongside lyrical and cantabile melodies, but much of it has fallen from the repertoire since his death almost 90 years ago. The smaller works are probably best described as salon or characteristic music, but of a high quality, and many are still worthy of performance today. His music often fuses the technical skills of the Czech School with the lyricism and virtuosity of Bottesini, although still with one foot very firmly in the Czech camp. The salon style is a little out of step with today’s music making and sensibilities but fashions do change and there is a wealth of great music awaiting rediscovery by the curious and adventurous bassists.

Gustav Láska’s Konzertstück Op.54 is a very rare work indeed for unaccompanied double bass and is probably one of the few examples from the late 19th-century. It was published in Leipzig by C.F.Kahnt Nachfolger but there are no indications in the printed edition of when it was written or published and it has probably been out of print for over one hundred years.
The front cover is a beautiful example of design at its ‘fin-de-siecle’ best, but otherwise the piece has been all but forgotten.

Lasting almost 12 minutes, this is a ‘tour de force’ for the double bassist, exploiting all the techniques that were available to the 19th-century bassist. Scale passages, arpeggios, double stops, lyrical melodies, pizzicato and glissandi all make their appearance and Láska uses the entire range of the double bass to create a piece of great contrasts and energy.
The key of D major certainly helps with harmonics, open strings and double stops, but there are numerous technical challenges which cannot be faked and give an indication of how far standards had developed throughout the century.

Láska suggests playing in solo tuning to create clarity and projection in all registers and if you are looking for something to challenge your technique – particularly the fast chromatic double stops in thumb position – then this may just the piece for you. Láska was obviously a fine player and knew the possibilities and limitations of the instrument well. He was ‘heir to Simandl’ rather than Bottesini, as the technical aspects can be traced back through the Czech heritage to the music of Hrabě, Simandl and Gregora, but with just a hint of Bottesini’s magic thrown in for good measure.

Gustav Láska’s Konzertstück is worth the occasional performance today and deserves to be remembered for its rather unique place in the double bass history. The music is well written and idiomatic for the instrument and offers much to a bassist who is able to employ both musical and technical skills in equal measure. I hope that this short article may help to introduce the piece to a wider audience and to keep Láska’s music alive today.

David Heyes [23 March 2015]

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