Jan Krtitel Vanhal


By Alena Skodova

Today we'll go some 250 years back in time, as I'm going to acquaint you with one of the "Old Czech Masters" - that's 18th century Czech composers, the predecessors and contemporaries of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Their music is extremely popular with the Czech audience even now, but their fame back then did not go far beyond the borders of the Czech Kingdom and the Austrian empire, where they spent substantial parts of their lives. One of these composers was Jan Krtitel Vanhal.

If you opened an old music encyclopaedia, you might find Vanhal referred to as a Dutch composer, due to a period distortion of his name into the Dutch form of van Hall. But Jan Krtitel Vanhal was born in the Czech Lands, in the East Bohemian village of Nechanice near Hradec Kralove in May 1739. Very ealy on, the local teacher recognized the young boy's outstanding talent for music and taught him to play the organ. And so Vanhal, as soon as he reached the age of 18, became the principal organ player in the nearby town of Opocno. Besides this, he devoted himself to playing violin, flute and viola d'amour - originally a French instrument with 14 strings - and wrote many short compositions for them. His works soon became popular with the local nobility, and in 1760 Countess Coloredo sent Vanhal at her own expense to Vienna to obtain a higher education in music. There, says American musicologist Paul Bryan from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, he soon made a good name for himself:

In Vienna, Vanhal became close to Mozart - he used to play cello in the same string quartet as Wolfgang Amadeus, and not only that:

During a stay in Italy, where he had been sent by a Viennese nobleman, Baron Reisch he made friends with Gluck and Gassman, two popular composers of that time, whom he helped a lot by providing them with his experiences on how to compose. Another of his famous contemporaries was Joseph Haydn, and there have been several controversies over the two men's work. But how did Vanhal's contemporaries see him? Dr. Bryan again:

Vanhal must have been a pleasant man ,because noble people in Vienna seemed to enjoy both his music and his company:

Although there are many blank spots in Vanhal's private life - we know only that in 1780 he married and lived a decent, modest life on the outskirts of Vienna - some sources say he suffered from a mental disease in his last years, due to which he destroyed many of his own scores at the end of his life. But what we know for sure is that he was a very fertile composer. But was he above and beyond the quantity or quality of other composers of the period? I put this question to Paul Bryan:

Vanhal wrote two operas, over a hundred of symphonies, nearly a hundred string quartets, hundreds of various chamber pieces, in particular for piano and harpsichord, two requiems and countless sonatas. But in the last years of his life the mental disease - caused by the constantly increasing stress he had to endure - made him turn away from ecclesiastic music, and Vanhal started writing music only for the church. He died - reportedly in a state of complete madness - in August 1813. Vanhal's music was popular already during his life and we can hear it on radio and in concerts quite frequently, but how often is it played outside the Czech Republic?

That was Paul Bryan from the Duke university in North Carolina, and we'll leave you now with Vanhal's.......