One of the wonderful things about having a centuries-deep treasury of sacred music is that there’s always more to discover. I was listening to a classical radio station the other day when I was in the car with one of my sons, when a beautiful but unfamiliar composition was playing. “There’s a lot going on in this music,” my son observed (approvingly). I suggested that it sounded like it could be Mozart, or Haydn, but neither of us could identify it. When the piece finished, and the radio announcer (do we call them “disk jockeys” on classical radio stations?) attributed it to a composer named Vanhal, we assumed that he was probably a late 18th century imitator of Mozart and Haydn.
As it happens, the influence is as likely, or even more likely, to have gone the other way. Johann Baptist Wanhal (in recent years his name is sometimes given its Czech form, Jan Křtitel Vaňhal) was a slightly older contemporary of Mozart who lived from 1739-1813, whose work was greatly admired by Mozart and other Viennese composers of the time. He composed an impressive number of symphonies, masses, and other works. Curiously, in spite of the high regard of his contemporaries, Wanhal’s music was mostly forgotten after his death in 1813. According to the website of the Johann Baptist Wanhal Association:
Most of Wanhal’s church music (at least 250 works including 48 masses) remains unstudied and unpublished, and little is known about it other than the names of the churches and monasteries that appear on the title pages. However, after he examined two of Wanhal’s late masses, Rochlitz (a well-known German specialist of Bach, Haydn, and Mozart) endorsed their high quality.
Thanks to the work of the Wanhal Association and others, Wanhal’s beautiful work, both sacred and secular, is slowly making its way back into public view. The Aradia Ensemble recorded two of Wanhal’s masses twenty years ago, a Missa Pastoralis in G Major and a Missa Solemnis in C Major. I’m making some videos from this recording which I’ll post here and on Vimeo. Today’s selection is the beautiful “Kyrie” from the Missa Pastoralis.
Featured image top of page: “Haydn Playing with Mozart, Dittersdorf, and Wanhal”, c. 1790, attributed to Schmid