Johann Baptist Vaňhal


Symphony in D minor (Bryan d1)

1. Allegro
2. Arioso: Ma non lento
3. Menuetto – Trio
4. Presto

Symphony in G minor (Bryan g1)

1. Allegro moderato
2. Andante cantabile
3. Menuetta – Trio
4. Finale: Allegro

Symphony in C major “Sinfonia comista” (Bryan C11)

1. Allegro con brio (La speranza)
2. Andante cantabile (Il sospirare e languire)
3. Finale: Adagio più andante (La lamentazione) – Allegro (L'allegrezza)

Symphony in A minor (Bryan a2)

1. Allegro moderato
2. Andante cantabile
3. Menuetto – Trio
4. Allegro

Symphony in E minor (Bryan e1)

1. Allegro moderato
2. Andante
3. Menuetto – Trio
4. Finale: Allegro

Reliable sources of information about Johann Baptist Vanhal are few in number. There is no doubt that he was a Viennese composer, and that he was born in Bohemia on May 12, 1739 and died in Vienna on August 20, 1813. Some of his residences are known, including the place where he died; it still exists. We know that he was friendly and personally attractive and was a respected and upstanding, even beloved, citizen of Vienna. We also know from his autograph that he carefully signed his name: “Johann Wanhal”. None the less, his name has come down to us in a wide variety of different forms, by far the most widely accepted of which is Vanhal. But beyond such facts, most of which were reported by Johann Dlabacz, the only biographer who knew him, the accounts of his life and career have been pieced together from second-hand recitations of various kinds: an anonymous author, who probably did not know him and whose account is tinged with idle gossip, various reports of chance encounters (often reflecting the notions of the reporter), and circumstantial evidence. Many of the reports about him are, therefore, questionable.

In general, the basic outlines of his life and career can be traced. We know, for example, that Vanhal lived and composed his symphonies in Vienna throughout the height of the craze for such works in the 1760s and 70s, the period that witnessed the production of symphonies by many composers including Haydn, Dittersdorf, and Mozart. And, although a detailed account cannot be fashioned, there is evidence that, at that time, Vanhal’s symphonies were probably more popular than theirs.

There is no question that Vanhal composed a great deal of all the kinds of music typical of the time: instrumental music (for example, symphonies, concertos, chamber music, keyboard music of all types) and church music (masses, requiems, a big Stabat Mater, motets, and smaller works). But, as only a few works have survived in autograph copies, a question almost always remains about dating (and even authenticity). The question, who influenced whom is usually impossible to decide on rational bases, especially when individual works are being compared and neither of them is accurately dateable. One of the symphonies on this recording, g1, has been the focal point of discussions about influence from Haydn and influence upon Mozart.

At the present time Vanhal is best known to the musical public as a composer of symphonies in a style that has been labeled “Sturm und Drang”, a term that is gradually being discredited, but that implies a solemn minor mode and a driving intensity. This reputation probably descended from the opinion of Georges de Saint-Foix, a French specialist on Mozart, who cited another symphony on this recording, Vanhal’s d1, as a probable influence on the young Mozart’s Symphony in G minor K. 183. Performance material for two other Vanhal symphonies, a2 and g1, has long been available (since 1947 and 1965 respectively), this fostering the general impression that Vanhal’s symphonies are typically in the minor mode and that they begin quietly with a “singing allegro” melody. That impression will be reinforced by the present recording, which presents three similarly designed yet diverse symphonies. It will be countered by Saint-Foix’ favorite, d1, and a later symphony, C11, that opens in a brighter and completely different style, but that in the course of its musical events nevertheless showcases Vanhal’s romantic musical nature.

Curiously enough, the symphony that Saint-Foix was talking about is not the four-movement original version of d1 composed by Vanhal and performed here. The one he knew was published by Johann Julius Hummel, who had changed Vanhal’s original by omitting the minuet and trio movement and also substituting a different second movement. Furthermore, Hummel had completely changed the sound of the orchestra by calling for flutes instead of oboes and omitting two of the four horns of the original. In fact, Vanhal’s original wind choir was composed of two oboes and four horns (as used in all the four minor-mode symphonies on this recording). The somber and minor “mood” of the timbre produced by their mixture would have strengthened Saint-Foix’ impression, especially when the lower horns (in B flat in g1, and in C in a2), are played basso as they should be. It will be noticed that, in e1, the horns never play simultaneously, bur that they are present throughout. Vanhal may have originally intended that the primary function of the horns was to fill out the harmony by being available in both key areas of the first and last movements as well as the minuet and trio – and simultaneously to provide rhythmic impetus by antiphonally dialoguing in pairs. In the other symphonies, as can be heard on this recording, they often play together, adding to the harmonic fullness, rhythmic impulse and serious tone.

The Symphony d1, which is hereby introduced to the musical world, actually differs from the other minor-mode works on this CD since it begins with a driving angular theme at the f level – the feature that probably caught Saint-Foix’ attention. The others begin in a style I classify as p-cantabile because of the songful nature of the extended theme that opens the first movements and sets the style and mood for each work. The theme which opens d1 is also long and partially cantabile. But the soft singing style of the quiet openings of e1, g1, and a2 is already looking over the shoulder of the “Sturm und Drang” toward the style of Mozart and Schubert.

The earliest of Vanhal’s symphonies included in this recording is e1. Both the manner of its composition and its use of the horns show that it predates d1 and g1, which were both probably produced a year or so later. The compositional characteristics of a2, in turn, are clearly more advanced than those the other three. Close examination of all four minor-key symphonies reveals their similar basic construction as well as progressive changes. As an example, notice that, even though all four of the first movements are cast in sonata form, the expositions of e1 and d1 do not include a second theme, as they do in g1 and a2. Even though the opening and closing movements of all four symphonies are dominated by their minor mode, their second movements are varied and complement both the first movement which they follow as well as the entire composition. The utter simplicity of the little A major second movement of a2, a fine example, is a perfect complement in mood and style to the big minor-mode movement that precedes it. The minuet movements all return to the minor mode of the symphony and are provided with melodies, especially in d1 and e1, more appropriate to the symphony than to the dance. The “Sturm und Drang” atmosphere returns in the driving angular melodies of the last movements of e1, d1, and g1. But the melodic material and the construction of a2 looks toward the future, especially with the bright ending created by the major mode of the entire recapitulation. Given sufficient space, the content, form, and symphonic construction of a2 could be demonstrated; here it must suffice to say that it represents a clear advance on the other three minor-mode symphonies. It is a remarkable work, especially for the time it was composed.

C11, one of Vanhal’s later symphonies, differs in many ways from the other symphonies on this recording, indeed from all of Vanhal’s other symphonies, in the size of the orchestra and in its underlying concept. The basic instrumentation, for example, requires two bassoons in addition to the trumpets. The first bassoon is frequently assigned to the melody at the same time that the second reinforces the bass line. The complement of strings also differs in the slow movement, which calls for divided violas to play in thirds and at the same time in unison with the bassoons. Vanhal rarely had an orchestra as large as this at his disposal.

The work represents a different lineage from the p-cantabile symphonies in Vanhal’s symphonic œuvre. The f-vigorous style of the opening melodic material dominates, the first movement and helps to determine the style of the entire composition – completely different from Vanhal’s other minor-mode symphonies. But it also differs from its usual C and D major counterparts as foretold by its rather enigmatic title: “Sinfonia comista/con per la Sorta diversa” and the titles applied to each movement. It is, therefore, a symphony with a program, a purpose. The descriptive titles: “La speranza” (hope) on the first movement, “Il sospiare e languire" (Iongingly, sighingly, languidly) on the second, and Finale “La lamentazione” (lamentation) followed by “L’allegrezza” (gaiety, cheerfulness) provide clues for the mood to be created by each musical event. Vanhal’s success in establishing the appropriate frame of mind must be evaluated by each listener. There is no minuet and trio, which was not unusual at the time, but the rather long introduction in C minor with its melancholy low scoring that sets the tone for bouncy happiness in the “L’allegrezza” is quite unusual; its unusual placement in the symphony would have effectively drawn attention to the melodious and uplifting allegro that follows.

The novel aspects of this work suggest that it was a commission. For whom and for what occasion? Whatever the answer, it is a most enjoyable work, and it helps to illustrate that Vanhal was a very imaginative composer, innovative, and musically influential in his time and thereafter. Together with the other symphonies on this recording, it provides evidence to support Alfred Einstein’s statement to me in a letter of many years ago that one “would certainly find traces of his [Vanhal’s] symphonic work on the next generation”.

Paul R. Bryan