Johann Baptist Vanhal

Johann Baptist Vanhal (Jan Křtitel Vaňhal) also spelled Wanhal, Waṅhall or Wanhall (May 12, 1739August 20, 1813) was an important classical music composer.


Born in Nechanice, Bohemia to a Czech peasant family, Vanhal received his early training from a local musician. From these humble beginnings he was able to earn a living as a village organist and choirmaster. The Countess Schaffgotsch, who heard him playing the violin, took him to Vienna in 1760 where she arranged lessons in composition with Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. Further patronage helped him to travel and gain further knowledge of music and by the age of 35, he was moving in exalted musical company: it is reported he played quartets with Haydn, Mozart and Dittersdorf. He wrote three operas: Il Demofoonte (1770), Il trionfo di Clelia (1770), and The Princess of Tarento.

He was reported to have suffered from an unspecified nervous disorder which eventually went away, but which gave rise to the opinion held by Burney and others that the quality of Vanhal's compositions deteriorated with the disappearance of his condition. Scholars such as Paul Bryan find that "the quality and quantity of the serious works he [Vanhal] composed after 1770, ... belie that assertion.


He had to be a prolific writer to meet the demands made upon him, and attributed to him are 100 quartets, at least 73 symphonies, 95 sacred works, and a large number of instrumental and vocal works. The symphonies, in particular, have been committed increasingly often to compact disc in recent times, and the best of them are comparable with many of Haydn's. Many of Vanhal's symphonies are in minor keys and are considered highly influential to the "Sturm und Drang" movement of his time. "Vanhal makes use of repeated semiquavers, pounding quavers in the bass line, wide skips in the themes, sudden pauses (fermatas), silences, exaggerated dynamic marks ... and all these features ... appear in Mozart's first large-scale Sturm und Drang symphony, no. 25 (K. 183) of 1773.

Such was his success that within a few years of his symphonies being written, they were being performed around the world, and as far distant as the United States. In later life, however, he rarely moved from Vienna where he was also an active teacher.


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