Johann Baptist Wanhal (born May 12, 1739, Nechanice, Bohemia, today’s Czech Republic – died August 20, 1813, Vienna, Austria), also spelled Waṅhal (the spelling the composer himself and at least one of his publishers used), Wanhall, Vanhal and Van Hall (the modern Czech form Jan Křtitel Vaňhal was introduced in the 20th century), was an important Czech classical music composer. Wanhal enjoyed a long and successful career in Vienna as a freelance composer. His symphonies are among the most important works of their time and were admired by Haydn, who is known to have directed performances of them. He also composed prolifically in a wide range of other genres, including church music. A highly respected figure in the Viennese musical world, Wanhal is known to have played string quartets with Haydn, Mozart and Dittersdorf.
Johann Baptist Wanhal was born in bondage to the family Schaffgotsch in the town of Nechanice, in the Hradec Kralové area of Bohemia, today’s Czech Republic.
Wanhal excelled at the violin and organ from an early age, received his first musical training from his family and local musicians. Anton Erban was Wanhal’s favorite teacher who taught him to play the organ. From these humble beginnings he was able to earn a living as a village organist in Opoczno at the age of 13. He later became choir director in Hniewczowes (Hněvčeves) in the province of Jičin. Here he met Mathias Nowak, an outstanding violinist who trained him to be a virtuoso violinist and to write concertos.
With the help of the Countess Schaffgotsch Wanhal moved to Vienna in 1760-1761. A brilliant young man was quick to make a name for himself as a violinist and a composer, and in the process earned enough to buy his own freedom, and in less than ten years he composed at least 34 symphonies and quickly established himself as one of Vienna’s leading composers, acquired a post with the Burgtheater orchestra and gave music lessons to distinguished students, including Ignaz Pleyel.
Under the patronage of Baron Riesch of Dresden, Wanhal embarked on a two-year journey to Italy in 1769. There he met Christoph Willibald Gluck and composed at least two operas to libretti by Pietro Metastasio; regrettably, these works have not survived the ravages of time. While in Rome, he also met the Viennese Court Opera composer Florian Leopold Gassmann, who was recalled to Vienna in late 1770. Sensing an employment opportunity, Wanhal cut his Italian excursion short and returned to Vienna with Gassman. His instincts seem to have been correct, because Joseph II offered him a posting. For one reason or another – some scholars suggest that Wanhal suffered a severe mental breakdown – the composer declined. He was also offered the Kapellmeistership in Dresden, but instead decided to take up the offer of a new patron, Count Ladislaus Erdödy of Varazdin.
Around 1780, Wanhal stopped writing symphonies and string quartets, focusing instead on music for piano and small-scale chamber ensembles, masses and other church music. The former, written for a growing middle class, supplied him with the means to live a modest, economically independent life; for the last 30 years of his life he did not work under any patron, probably being the first Viennese composer to do so. During these years, more than 270 of his works were published by Viennese printers.
In the 1780s he was still an active participant in Viennese musical life. In 1782, he met Mozart, who admired Wanhal’s Symphonies. He enjoyed playing music with Mozart and some of his friends who were composers. Wanhal was a contemporary of Haydn and Mozart, and had an noticeable influence on the Sturm und Drang (German: “Storm and Stress”) movement. In or around 1784, Haydn, Dittersdorf, Mozart and Wanhal played string quartets together; Haydn and Dittersdorf played the violins, Mozart the viola, and Wanhal cello. After 1787 or so, however, he seems to have ceased performing in public, but he nevertheless was economically secure, living in good quarters near St. Stephen’s Cathedral.
He never married and had no heirs when he died at the age of 74, having lived not uncomfortably.
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