Saturday, 7 January 2017


“Vienna is the gate to Eastern Europe.” - Niki Lauda

Johann Baptist Wanhal (May 12, 1739 – August 20, 1813), also spelled Waṅhal (the spelling the composer himself and at least one of his publishers used), Wanhall, Vanhal and Van Hall (the modern Czech form Jan Křtitel Vaňhal was introduced in the 20th century), was an important Czech classical music composer. He was born in Nechanice, Bohemia, and died in Vienna.

Wanhal was born in Nechanice, Bohemia, into serfdom in a Czech peasant family. He received his first musical training from his family and local musicians, excelling at the violin and organ from an early age. From these humble beginnings he was able to earn a living as a village organist and choirmaster. He was also taught German from an early age, as this was required for someone wishing to make a career in music within the Habsburg empire.

In 1760, at the age of 21 Wanhal must have been well under way to become a skilled performer and composer, as his patron, the Countess Schaffgotsch, took him to Vienna as part of her personal train. There he quickly established himself as a teacher of singing, violin and piano to the high nobility, and he was invited to conduct his symphonies for illustrious patrons such as the Erdődy families and Baron Isaac von Riesch of Dresden. During the years 1762-63, he is supposed to have been the student of Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, even though they were born the same year. Baron Riesch sponsored a trip to Italy in 1769, so that Wanhal could learn the Italian style of composition, which was very much in fashion. To return the favour, Wanhal was supposed to become Riesch’s Kapellmeister.

The details of Wanhal’s journey to Italy (1769–1771) are scant, but it is known that he met his fellow Bohemians Gluck and Florian Gassmann in Venice and Rome respectively. The Italian journeys present the only knowledge we have of Wanhal writing operas: He is supposed either to have written operas over the Metastasian operas Il Trionfo di Clelia and Demofonte, either by himself, or as a cooperation with Gassmann, where Wanhal supplied some or all of the arias; these works have been lost. In additions to his documented travels in northern and central Italy, Wanhal was supposed to travel to Naples – arguably the most important centre of music in Italy at the time – but never seems to have gotten there.

After his journey to Italy, Wanhal returned to Vienna in 1771 rather than to go to Riesch in Dresden. Claims have been made that Wanhal became heavily depressed or even insane, but these claims are likely to have been overstated. During this period he is supposed to occasionally have worked as a de facto Kapellmeister for Count Erdődy in Varaždin, although the small number of compositions by him remaining there suggests that this was not the full-time employment that would have been expected from Riesch, which may have been why he preferred it. There is no evidence of visits after 1779.

Around 1780, Wanhal stopped writing symphonies and string quartets, focusing instead on music for piano and small-scale chamber ensembles, and Masses and other church music. The former, written for a growing middle class, supplied him with the means to live a modest, economically independent life; for the last 30 years of his life he did not work under any patron, probably being the first Viennese composer to do so. During these years, more than 270 of his works were published. In the beginning of the period he was still an active participant in Viennese musical life, as is witnessed in Michael Kelly’s legendary account of the string quartet Wanhal played in together with Haydn, Mozart and Dittersdorf in 1784. After 1787 or so, however, he seems to have ceased performing in public, but he nevertheless was economically secure, living in good quarters near St. Stephen’s Cathedral. He died in 1813, an elderly composer whose music was still recognized by the Viennese public.

Wanhal had to be a prolific writer to meet the demands made upon him, and attributed to him are 100 quartets, at least 73 symphonies, 95 sacred works, and a large number of instrumental and vocal works. The symphonies, in particular, have been committed increasingly often to compact disc in recent times, and the best of them are comparable with many of Haydn’s. Many of Wanhals symphonies are in minor keys and are considered highly influential to the “Sturm und Drang” movement of his time.

Around 1780 Wanhal seems to have stopped writing large-scale instrumental music, and rather contented himself with writing piano music for the growing middle class, and church music. In the former category his programmatic pieces, often related to recent events such as “The Battle of Würzburg”, “The Battle of Abukir”, and “The Return of Francis II in 1809”. Judging from the number of extant manuscripts available, these works must have been highly popular. Wanhal was also the most prolific writer of Masses and other Catholic church music of his generation in Vienna. Despite this, it appears that he was never in the employ of any religious institution. This means that his late Masses are both testaments to a genuine personal faith, and evidence of how lucrative his focus on incidental piano music must have been.

Here is his Sinfonia in G minor, played by Camerata Bern with Thomas Füri, conductor and violin solo. Recorded in September of 1982 in Radio Studio DRS, Bern
I. Allegro moderato 00:00
II. Andante Cantabile 04:42
III. Menuetto 10:12
IV. Finale. Allegro 14:09

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