On June 18, 2013, Alfred Planyavsky died after 7 months of serious illness in Vienna. With him we lose the man, who more than any other, documented the history of the double bass. Planyavsky possessed a dual perspective in the consideration of his instrument: on one hand he experienced it from a performer’s perspective as an orchestral musician and soloist, on the other hand, he researched and analyzed the history of the double bass from an academic perspective. His books are still among the most valuable sources on the double bass and its history, replete with knowledge that has been thoroughly researched. His Geschichte des Kontrabasses (History of the Double Bass), first published in 1970 and revised in 1984, is often referred to as ‘The Bible of the Double Bass’ and is the pivotal work in the study of the instrument. Zubin Mehta said, “Finally we have authentic information about the double bass. As a former player of this instrument, I think I speak on behalf of many when I thank Professor Planyavsky and utter admiration for the effort and the knowledge with which he filled a noticeable gap in the musicological literature.” From the Austrian Music Magazine in 1972, “This book is a model: for how the history of the double bass has been written, every other instrument should have the same treatment – only then will we possess a real cultural history of Western music making.”
Alfred Planyavsky was born January 22, 1924 in Vienna. His membership in the Vienna Boys Choir in 1940 followed his position as a singer and tenor soloist at the Vienna Radio Station. From 1941-1946 he was a soldier and prisoner of war in the United States and was the conductor and tenor soloist of a church choir composed of prisoners of war. From 1946 he studied the double bass and singing at the Academy of Music in Vienna and was tenor soloist in the Academy Chamber Choir and a member of the Choir of the Friends of Music Society. From 1950-52 he sang tenor solos in the early recordings of the great masses of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert (Vox Productions). In 1952 he began his long career as Principal Double Bass of the Chamber Orchestra of the Concert Hall Society in Vienna.
After his university studies, he worked on the organization of chamber music evenings and wrote the program notes. From 1954-1955 Planyavsky was a member of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, during which time he performed the Austrian premier of the Sonata for Double Bass and Piano by Paul Hindemith. In 1955 he became a member of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. In the following years he performed world premiers of a number of solo works for the double bass: among other works by Paul Angerer, Gloriatio for double bass and chamber orchestra; Fritz Skorzeny dedicated his 1. Suite for violin, viola and double bass solo and Two Sonatinas for double bass and piano to Planyavsky.
Around 1956 he performed Mozart’s concert aria Per questa bella mano in recitals with such famous singers as George London and Walter Berry. In 1957 he became a member of the Vienna Philharmonic and instructor of double bass at the College of the Vienna Boys Choir (among his students was Heinz Karl Gruber).
Outside of his work as an instrumentalist, Planyavsky was the author of many cultural programs for the ORF (Austrian Public Radio) and in 1967 he was the first lecturer for the Springvale (Maine) Summer School in Vienna: “The Musical Tradition of Vienna.” He lectured on the history of the royal court music groups and the history of the double bass at many international symposiums. He wrote numerous articles on important topics of the Viennese musical tradition, program launches, liner notes, reviews in major music magazines in Austria and Germany.
In 1970, his Geschichte des Kontrabasses was published by Schneider Publishing in Tutzing (the Japanese edition was published in 1979).
Beginning in 1978 he was repeatedly invited as jury member in many international double bass competitions: Geneva, ARD Competition in Munich, Parma, Sperger Society.
In 1984, the second edition of his Geschichte des Kontrabasses was published (co-editor Herbert Seifert). The Baroque Double Bass Violone was published in 1989 with a second edition in 1998, and his article Double Bass was published in the MGG in 1996. Alfred Planyavsky has been honorary chairman of the International Johann Matthias Sperger Society since its founding and has been the principal author of its journal Sperger-FORUM.
One of his most important projects for the following generations has most likely been the founding of the Vienna Double Bass Archive for the Austrian National Library in 1974. The main tasks of the archive are the research, analysis and performance of primarily chamber music compositions for the double bass. Planyavsky’s research reveals an unexpected wealth of chamber music for and with the double bass: as of 2010, there are 881 duets, 842 trios, 570 quartets, 901 quintets, 503 sextets, 343 septets, 390 octets and 311 nonets.
Planyavsky provokes the double bassist to resurrect these works from the depths of the archives: “The Vienna Double Bass Archive is a call to reflect on the historical role of the double bass, a memorial of missed activities, a fountain for professional peak performance.”
The list of accolades received by Alfred Planyavsky is long:
1975 Austrian Cross of Honoor for Science and Art
1981 Gold Medal of the Province of Salzburg
1982 Honorary Ring of the Vienna Philharmonic
1984 Bronze Medal of Honor from the City of Vienna
1986 National Gold Medal of the Choir Societies for Vienna and Lower Austria
1990 Special Recognition Award from the International Society of Bassists
1990 Honorary Chairman of the International Johann Mattias Sperger Society
1991 Silver Medal for Outstanding Contributions to the Vienna Court Orchestra
1992 Franz Schalk Medal of the Vienna Philharmonic
1992 Gold Medal for Services to the Republic of Austria
2001 Gold Medal for Service to the City of Vienna
Alfred Planyavsky dedicated his life to the double bass. With his work, enthusiasm, love and humility he has shown us the greatness of the double bass.
Always standing with him was his wonderful wife, who I would like to thank. She supported him throughout his life’s work so that the following generations may benefit with a thorough, centuries-long developmental history of the greatest of all stringed instruments, the double bass.
Alfred, We’ll miss you! June 18, 2013 is a day of mourning for the bass family!
Translation by Vincent Osborn