Jan Krtitel Vanhal is known on Czech concert podia for his symphonies and above all four concertos--for double bass, flute, violin and organ. In fact he wrote a huge number of concertante and symphonic pieces, a series of string quartets, dozens of piano sonatas, organ fugues and various liturgical pieces. History presents him as an influential Vienna teacher and as a ready and versatile composer of tasteful, successful, more or less fashionable and uncomplicated music for everyday needs. Vanhal, who was born before the mid-18th century, prefigured the age of Romanticism in being one of the first artists not to depend upon patronage.
From serfdom to the best Vienna circles
In view of his origin we give the composer's full name in its Czech form of Jan Krtitel Vanhal, and in view of his long-term career in Vienna also in its German form of Johann Baptist (sometimes Jan Ignatius) Wanhal or Vanhal. Although there is indirect evidence that his surname Van Hall came from Holland, his family on both sides had lived for generations in Bohemia. Vanhal came from the family of a serf of Count Schaffgotsch settled in Nechanice between Hradec Kralove and Novy Bydzov. We know very little of the composer's childhood and youth. In his native community Vanhal learned to sing and play on strings and wind instruments, and devoted himself to the organ under his favourite teacher Anton Erban. At the age of eighteen he became organist in Opocno, and later worked as choir director in nearby Hnevceves near Jicin, where a certain Martin Novak taught him to play the violin and write concertos. Vanhal's skill on the viola deamore so enchanted the Countess Schaffgotsch that she sent him to Vienna to obtain further education here. He moved to the capital of the monarchy at the very beginning of the 1760s and thereafter visited Bohemia only once--when one of his parents died. In the city on the Danube he soon found an entree to high social circles as a music teacher (for example as the teacher of Ignaz Pleyel, one generation his junior, who later became a cappelmeister and music publisher). He also earned himself a good enough income to purchase his own freedom. In 1762 or 1763 he was helped in some way by Carl Ditters, a violinist in the imperial theatre orchestra, a contemporary of Vanhal's (he had also been born in 1739). Ditters later wrote of Vanhal in his autobiography as a pupil, whom he had helped launch on the music scene as a violinist. In 1762, when he was already one of the leading composers in Vienna, Vanhal met the young Mozart. Later he developed contacts with the Paris publisher Huberty, who published his six symphonies, op. 1 (1769).
Return from his travels to Vienna
At the end of the sixties he was given the opportunity to travel to Italy, thanks to the Baron Riesch. Venice, Bologna, Florence and Rome were among his destinations. In Rome he composed two operas on libretti by Pietro Metastasio, II Demofoonte and II trionfo di Clelia, and had them staged. Alas, both have been lost. After his return in 1771 Riesch offered him the position of cappelmeister in Dresden, but evidently as a result of psychological illness Vanhal refused. During further travels in the 1770s, which took him to the Hungarian Lands and Croatia, Vanhal made several visits to the estates of Count Erdody, a famous patron of the arts.
Around 1780 he settled down in Vienna again and developed friendly relations with leading figures in musical life. For example, he played the cello in a quartet with Joseph Haydn, Carl Ditters and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. By this time Vienna publishers had already published three hundred or so of his works, which proved very popular and quickly found a wide public. Vanhal's interest as a composer was at this point more focused on popular forms (variations, programmatic pieces), but gradually he wrote more and more church music as well. His liturgical pieces were not for the most part published, however, and have not become the object of significant research interest. …