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ClassicsOnline Home » VANHAL: Flute Quartets, Op. 7, Nos. 2, 3, 6
Composed around 1771, Vanhal’s Flute Quartets, Op. 7 Nos. 2, 3 and 6 are beautifully proportioned works, unfailingly elegant in their structural detail and above all masterly examples of this most urbane of genres. Their contemporary popularity rested less on their technical accomplishment than on their melodic freshness and air of quiet sophistication. Written shortly after their composer had committed himself irrevocably to living as a freelance musician, these quartets illustrate most eloquently the reasons why he enjoyed such lasting success.
By David Denton
Johann Baptist Vaňhal (1739-1813)
Flute Quartets, Op. 7, Nos. 2, 3 and 6
Vaňhal's decision in 1770 to decline the offer of a prestigious and lucrative Kapellmeister's position in favour of working as a freelance musician was both risky and personally courageous. His reasons for doing so are still not entirely clear but it has been plausibly suggested by Paul Bryan that the prime motivation for doing so may be traced to his birth as a bonded servant. Having succeeded in literally purchasing his freedom in the mid-1760s he had no desire to find himself subject to the whims of another master, irrespective of that person's generosity and good will. This decision undoubtedly puzzled many of his contemporaries and possibly contributed to an apparently unfounded reputation for mental instability which is still accepted uncritically in some modern writings about the composer.
Vaňhal enjoyed a long and successful career as a freelance composer and in some respects his professional activities followed similar patterns to those of Mozart. More importantly, his pioneering example demonstrated the viability of such a career choice not only to Mozart but also to the most spectacularly successful musical entrepreneur of the period, Ignaz Pleyel. Part of the key to Vaňhal's success was his receptiveness to the changing musical climate. During the 1770s his output of symphonies began to slow as the economy in Vienna contracted and after 1778 he abandoned the genre entirely. His attention turned instead to the composition of chamber music and from the 1780s to a growing emphasis on music for keyboard, either in the form of sonatas, sonatinas, variations and similar works or for ensembles based around the keyboard. These works were conceived primarily for publication and many had a strong didactic element. Vaňhal frequently dedicated published sets of works to aristocratic patrons and pupils although beyond the title pages and dedications little is known about the origins of these compositions. The diversity and scale of his output in all genres is eloquent testimony to his creative energy, enduring popularity and sound business sense.
In his thematic catalogue of Vaňhal's works Alexander Weinmann lists seventeen works under the rubric Vb: Flöten-Quartette; in all but one or two instances the works survive. Unusually for the period, but not in Vaňhal's case, the majority are preserved in contemporary prints. The fact that the works were issued in many instances by more than one publisher attests to their wide popularity in important musical centres such as Paris, London and Amsterdam. In addition to the flute quartets Vaňhal wrote trios and duos for the instrument, many of which also appeared in print during his lifetime, and almost a dozen concertos. His contribution to the flute repertoire is thus on a par with that of Leopold Hofmann, his most important Viennese rival in the field, and considerably more important than Dittersdorf's output.
In keeping with the common convention of the period the flute quartets were conceived to be played with a variety of possible instruments on the top part. The London publisher Welcker, for example, issued the Op. 7 set with the title page Six Quartettes for a / Hautboy or German Flute, whereas Sieber styled them Six Quartetto Concertante / Pour une Flute au Hautbois. Copies of several works from the set are preserved in manuscript as string quartets and at least one work survives as a clarinet quartet.
There is good reason to believe that the Six Flute Quartets, Op. 7, were composed as a set and probably with a view to immediate publication. They first appeared under Huberty's imprint in 1771 (as Op. 8) but whether Vaňhal sent the works direct to Huberty is by no means certain. It is interesting to note, however, that Sieber issued the same works in a new edition the following year – it was announced on 28 January 1772 – and it was this edition which seems to have served as the basis for the later (undated) Welcker edition published in London and many of the extant manuscript copies. Sieber's edition was also advertised in Supplement VII (1772) of the Breitkopf Catalogue as VI Quattri di Vanhall, a Flauto, Viol., V. & B. Op.VII. Parigi. The most obvious clue for establishing a common source for the various editions and MS copies is the numbering of the individual quartets. Sieber, Welcker and many of the extant MSS present the works in the following order: F, B flat, G, E flat, A and C. Huberty, on the other hand, published the works in the order F, B flat, A, G, E flat and C. In spite of Huberty's earlier publication date the editions used in this recording have been based on the Sieber print on the grounds that it appears to have been the more influential. The Welcker edition differs in a number of minor details but cannot be considered trustworthy in a broader sense from a textual perspective.
The flute writing in Vaňhal's quartets is a good deal less virtuosic than the solo writing found in Hofmann's quartets. The principal reason for this lies in the greater integration of part-writing and in this respect his quartets are more modern and technically advanced than those of Hofmann. Another aspect of Vaňhal's modernity can be seen in his adoption of the modern alla breve notation in first movements in preference to the fussy eight-in-a-bar favoured by the majority of his generation. There is a greater emphasis on the development of thematic material in his flute quartets than is the norm with many works of their kind although nowhere near to the same extent or intensity that one encounters in the composer's symphonies. The works are beautifully proportioned, unfailingly elegant in their structural detail and above all reveal a profound understanding of the medium. Their contemporary popularity rested less on their technical accomplishment than on their melodic freshness and unfailing air of quiet sophistication. These wonderful quartets, written shortly after their composer had committed himself irrevocably to living as a freelance musician, illustrate the reasons why he enjoyed such lasting success.
Allan Badley and Uwe Grodd
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VANHAL: Flute Quartets, Op. 7, Nos. 2, 3, 6