Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813)
Vanhal was born in Nechanice, Bohemia, northeast of Prague into
the rude reality of peasant servitude. He showed a strong aptitude for
music early on and was able to get sent off for instruction in both
music and German (the latter necessary to gain any job footholds in the
Austrian Empire). He managed to acquire the post of organist in one
town, then choirmaster in another, all while perfecting his skill as a
violinist. The composition of several concertos and solos for violin
attracted enough attention that he was sent to Vienna in 1761 to study
with Mathias Schloger, the Hofklaviermeister there, as well as with Carl
Ditters (later Dittersdorf), a composer and an excellent violinist.
He took instruction from both of these men, acquired a post in the
Burgtheater orchestra and continued to compose. He was looked on with
enough regard to be able to give lessons in keyboard, singing and violin
to people of station, and that, coupled with the income from his
compositions, enabled him to purchase his freedom from bondage and so
become his own man.
Vanhal continued improving success enabled him (with financial support
from patrons) to travel to Italy to study music (opera, mostly) and
Italian, both necessary to advance any musical career at that time. He
apparently met Gluck there and took lessons from him as well. This trip
lasted about two years. It produced at least two operas (a Demofoonte
and lt trionfo di Clelia; neither performed anywhere that can be found)
and having also met in Rome Florian Gassmann (the Vienna Court opera
composer), with whom he apparently studied with and, as well,
collaborated on an opera. In any event, when Gassman was recalled to
Vienna in 1770, Vanhal went with him with the promise of greater things
However, barely having returned to Vienna, Vanhal was afflicted with
some sort of mental disorder (type unknown) and his entire life changed.
Joseph II had held out the offer of a posting, but Vanhal, in his
current state, could not accept. Patrons then succeeded in acquiring for
him the Kapellmeistership at Dresden, but he refused that, claiming that
he could not do it justice either. There is a counter theory that Vanhal
instead did not want to gain an official post. His illness was really
made-up by him in order to not offend either the Emperor or the Dresden
court. Proof of this is lacking, in that as well his composition output
fell off greatly at this time. Since he was making a living in a large
part by composition, he would have to have suffered a good amount
financially in order to take this course.
Vanhal went off to the estate of Count Erdödy to recuperate and ended up
staying there about 10 years, returning to Vienna in 1780. In the end,
he recovered to a degree and resumed composing (mostly religious works
from this point on), teaching and giving voice lessons in Vienna,
apparently for the rest of his life. He thus held no official posts from
1770 onwards and made his way through his own efforts. Which would make
him a free-lance composer in the mold of Mozart, except that he
commenced that path before Wolfgang trod it. Mozart was more successful
and famous, but he wasn’t the first, not even in Vienna. Vanhal lived in
the less well-off quarters of Vienna once he returned, and slowly
disappeared from the musical view.
Mozart must have thought well of him, as we know that he performed
Vanhal's Violin Concerto in B flat in Augsburg in 1777. As well, he
often treated the viola with special distinction, giving it more
sustained lines, as did Mozart, which may have as well brought him to
Wolfgang's attention. Of course, it is in connection with the "Haydn"
set of string quartets where Vanhal is most directly linked with Mozart.
At the playing of one of these quartets, Haydn and Dittersdorf played
the violins, Mozart the viola, and Vanhal on cello. The recorder of this
event, the composer Michael Kelly, stated that they played well but not
outstanding together, but the image of four of the great composers of
the time all joined in common music making is still one of the classic
images of the Classical era.
His musical efforts run to at least 76 symphonies (the last issued in
1781-2), 60+ masses, six sets of string quartets and various concertos
for violin, viola and double bass. His work pre-1770 was regarded for
their "...fire and liveliness, combined with beautiful singing
melodies." His work after 1770 is contrasted as having "...a certain
coldness and common tone..." This analysis may not be the case today, as
several post 1770 symphonies of his were claimed for many years to be
Joseph Haydn's. His work at its best combines Italian, German and Czech
elements, infused with melodic charm and rhythmic control, with a fine
feeling for thematic contrast.
As a final note, his symphonic output runs from about 1761 to say 1782,
or say 21 years. This averages just under 3.5 works per year, an amazing
output, even for the times. As a comparison, Mozart would have had to
produce about 85 or so symphonies to be on the same pace as Vanhal. It
again shows that the pre-copyright composers needed to produce a large
amount of work in order to secure a living from their creative efforts.