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ClassicsOnline Home » VANHAL: Symphonies, Vol. 1
Vaňhal (Wanhal) (1739 -1813)
Johann Baptist Vaňhal was one of the most popular Viennese
composers during his lifetime. History has, however, been unkind to his
reputation, the result of irresponsible statements that were made by
imaginative authors who were not acquainted with him or his circumstances. The
general impression is that he was melancholy and depressed when, in truth, he
appears to have been basically happy and personable. Wild claims have also been
made that early in his career he was so overcome by madness caused by religious
fervour that he burned some of his music. After that, the story goes, the
quality of compositions deteriorated so much that he never realised the promise
of his early works. The lie to this assertion is given by the splendid
symphonies included on this CD. It contains the Sinfonia in C major, C3,
one of his earliest works, along with three of his later ones, including
the Sinfonia in D major, D17, which I believe to be one of his last.
His vitality and inventiveness are evident in all of them.
One part of Vaňhal's reputation is, however, true. He was the first
major composer of the time who was strong enough to renounce the offer of a
'good' – and terribly demanding position – and to live comfortably until he
died in Vienna at the age of seventy-four. His success was possible because of
his other personal characteristics. He was humble and deeply religious – not
ambitious for fame, high position, or fortune. He was also shrewd, hard-working
and sensitive to changing economic and social conditions. As a result he
decided to cease composing symphonies and chamber music when the market in
Vienna was drying up in about 1780, and began to explore other possibilities.
The results were spectacular. He composed, for example, more than 247 works
(mostly unpublished), large and small, for the church. He also wrote a huge
number of pieces all of which centred around the keyboard. His compositions
included serious works, such as the keyboard Capriccios, and songs and
cantatas for voice with keyboard accompaniment. He also published many pieces
for instruction and entertainment which became very popular, including
imaginative pieces with descriptive titles such as The Battle of Trafalgar. In
all he produced more than 1300 compositions in a wide variety of genres. To the
present, only the symphonies and string quartets have been sufficiently studied
to ascertain his complete contribution.
The four symphonies
included here provide a good introduction to Vaňhal's symphonic style and
illustrate why he was considered such an important exponent of the genre.
The Sinfonia in
A major, A9, was probably composed ca 1775-78, at about the same time as
the Sinfonia in C major, C11. That it was written by Vaňhal
is not confirmed by any of the usual eighteenth-century catalogues or references;
however, there are no contra-attributions. Its claim for legitimacy is
confirmed by its stylistic factors, especially by similarities with other
accepted works of the same period. The clearly established authenticity of the Sinfonia,
C11, which in some respects it resembles, therefore serves as a
touchstone for the A major work, especially in view of Vaňhal's
long-demonstrated creativity, innovative ability and interest in experimenting
with approaches to composing symphonies.
The most striking
feature of the Sinfonia is its overall construction as a multi-tempo
one-movement symphony. The outer movements, brilliantly scored with oboes and
clarini (in D), enclose a captivating central 'movement' in which
I believe that the Sinfonia in C major, C3 was one of the
earliest of Vaňhal's symphonies and that it was probably composed in
1760-62. The "No.1" inscribed on the title-page of the copy from the
Doksy collection, now preserved in the Narodní Museum in Prague, helps to
confirm that it is one of Vaňhal's earliest symphonies and that he might
even have written it before he came to Vienna. The Sinfonia is in
three-movement Overture style with segue indicated between the movements
in several versions. The basic instrumentation probably called for strings with
a wind choir of two oboes, two horns, two trumpets (clarini) and timpani.
However, some versions call only for clarini and others for horns only; some
call for both and omit the timpani, as is the case in this recording.
Regardless, it is a brilliant and exciting symphony which must have caught the
attention of soirée audiences during Vaňhal's first years in Vienna. The Finale
(Presto) opens with a 'stomping' rhythm which permeates the entire
movement; one wonders if the movement was ever danced to.
The Sinfonia in D major, D17 is one of three symphonies published
in 1780 as Op.10 by J.J. Hummel in Berlin. They were the last of Vaňhal's
symphonies to be newly published and I estimate that they were composed ca 1779.
All the evidence suggests that these symphonies were commissioned by Hummel and
that the extant manuscript sets of parts in various archives were copied direct
from Op.10 rather than from an earlier source. The Sinfonia is a fine
work; I believe that it is one of Vaňhal's best. From the haunting D minor
introduction scored for strings (with muted violins) to the dashing and
brilliantly composed finale, the work is uniformly strong and quite the equal
of any of Haydn's symphonies of the period. At first glance it appears to be in
three movements, but the Andante molto opening has a life of its own –
much the same as the Adagio openings to Mozart's 'Linz' Symphony No.
36 in C major, K. 425, composed in 1783 and to Symphony No. 38 in D, K. 504,
composed in 1786. Mozart's prominent use of the chromatic rising figure in the
introductions to both symphonies is similar to that found in bars 33-35 of
Vaňhal's introductory movement. Further, his use of Vaňhal's opening
motif from the introductory movement as the basic ingredient for the Poco
Adagio second movement of K. 425 suggests that Mozart may have been
impressed with Vaňhal's Sinfonia at some point before he composed
K. 425. Certainly the critic C.F. Cramer was impressed. Writing in the Magazin
der Musik in Hamburg in 1783 he said: "may Herr Vaňhal not be
prevented ... from giving us more such symphonies".
One of Vaňhal's late symphonies, the Sinfonia in C major,
C11, was most likely composed during the period 1775-78. One contemporary copy
of the work is styled Sinfonia comista / con per la sorte diversa on the
title-page. The headings for the individual movements are marked, I. Sinfonia
la Speranza / Allegro con Brio, II. Andante cantabile / il sospirare e
Languire, and III. at the beginning: Finale: la Lamentazione / Adagio
piu Andante and after 17 bars L'Allegrezza / Allegro. The symphony
is, therefore, a programmatic work, whose individual movements are supposed to
portray varied moods: I. 'Hope', II. 'Sighingly and Languidly' and III.
'Lamentation', followed by 'Gaiety, Cheerfully and Festive'. It must
have been composed for an imaginative patron who would have appreciated being
informed by the titles and intent of each movement. The upbeat mood (hope)
established by the busy and active opening movement in C major sets up
expectations that the happy tone will continue. The expectation is, however,
dashed by the lengthy slow movement in C minor and the dark mood created by its
scoring with parts for divided violas, horns in E-flat and, in some sources,
two bassoons. The solo introduction (also in C minor) to the Finale movement
would also have surprised contemporary listeners and the musically astute among
them would have been pleased to recognise that the Adagio introduction
contains a figure that foreshadows both of the main motifs from which the
following Allegro is constructed. The final outcome caused by the
triumphant C major finale must surely have delighted audiences of the time.
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VANHAL: Symphonies, Vol. 1